Friday, July 20, 2007

More on Bob Azzam & "Mustapha"

"Mustapha" was still a popular song, four years after it hit the charts, when I moved to Beirut, at the age of 14, in January 1964. Probably one of the few songs in Arabic (or at least, partly in Arabic) that American kids living in Lebanon ever knew and enjoyed. It's been re-recorded (and is better known as "Ya Mustapha") dozens and dozens of times; only recently, during a visit to New York in March, I heard it played by a Arab/Jewish/Greek band at a Greek nightclub.

I really love this Time magazine article about it, from the pun in the title right through to the end:

Most Happy Fellah
Time, Monday, May 30, 1960

"It has a wiggly-hipped, exotic beat that sounds part Latino, part Arab. When the song is played at Geneva's tonier-than-thou Chez Maxim's, aging bankers and their young girl friends go into curious convulsions on the dance floor; at least one U.N. functionary has been known to snatch up a tablecloth, wrap it around his waist and do a belly dance. In Paris the tune tumbles endlessly from Left Bank students' rooms; chefs abandon soufflés to hear it. From Stockholm to Sorrento, Bandleader Bob Azzam's Mustapha has spread like a rampaging fungus, is the biggest European juke and nightclub tune since Volare.

Tomato Sauce. Like 37-year-old Azzam himself—who was born in Cairo, lives in Geneva, drives a Chevrolet station wagon and speaks five languages—the song is a hybrid, Eurafrican polyglot. Written in French, Italian and Arabic, its lyrics may have been found in a Babel café:

Chérie, je t'aime, Chérie, je t'adore,
Como la salsa del pommodore.
Ya Mustapha, ya Mustapha
Ya baheback, ya Mustapha.
Sabaa senine fel Attarine,
Delwati guina Chez Maxim's . . .

All this is, more or less, the story of a fellah who once lived in the Cairo slum of Attarine [sic: Attarine is in Alexandria, not Cairo, and is more middle class than slum] , is now at Chez Maxim's (where Bandleader Azzam himself hit the big time), and adores his girl "like tomato sauce" (salsa del pommodore in Azzam's pidgin Italian). But the words do not matter. They merely complement the international melody, which tinkles like goat bells near the White Nile and clicks like the heels of an Andalusian gypsy. Scored by Azzam for bongos, flute, tambourine, echo chamber and his own voice, Mustapha is adapted from an Egyptian student song, but owes much of its popularity to electricity. When he plays the song at nightclub engagements or recording sessions, onetime Electrician Azzam surrounds himself on the bandstand with an impressive bank of hi-fi equipment, places a microphone before each member of his five-man combo, whirls dials feverishly to doctor their output as it blends in the echo chamber, before a final electric impulse sends it shivering through the audience.

Fox-Oriental. Bob Azzam learned his electronics in the British Royal Navy, set up his own business after World War II, may have been discouraged by the outcome of his biggest contract, the complete wiring job for a pair of 200-room palaces belonging to Saudi Arabia's Premier Feisal. Azzam worked for a year, putting in everything from air conditioning to electric-eye doors, but had trouble collecting bills and ended up without a profit. Turning to music, he organized a combo and began picking up engagements around the Levant, hit it biggest in Lebanon with his "slow rocks," "fox rocks" and boleros.

The band caught the last ship when the Lebanese civil war broke in 1958. In less than two years, Azzam & Co. had driven the Continent wild on Mustapha's "fox-oriental" mixture. From then on, every thing was pure tomato sauce."

Here's another useful source on the song. Just a few things to highlight here: Bob Azzam was an Egyptian Jew, and the polyglot nature of the song is entirely characteristic of Arab Jewish culture. [Update: Bob was born in Cairo, to a Christian Lebanese family. Sorry!] (A more modern example is Dana International's song, "Dana International," which I analyze in an article published in Walter Armbrust's Mass Mediations.) Note that the song reportedly hit number 23 on the British charts!

One more thing to notice: the fact that song modulates back and forth between Western and "Eastern" modes--like Khaled's big hit of 1992, "Didi." This makes it easier for Western audiences to appreciate it (and to sing along, at least when the Western scale is in force.)

There's more to say about Bob Azzam, who had quite a career (he passed away in 2002), including some Brazilian recordings. Perhaps I'll get back to him later.


Anonymous said...

I believe "El Attarine" is a popular (mostly a non European - Muslims and Middle eastern Jews)suburb of Alexandria not Cairo. In those days it was not "a slum" actually a middle class suburb where one of the "Haret el yehud" (Jewish enclave)was. Bob Azzam was born in 1925 and died in Monaco in 2004.

Mats Werner said...

Found your blogg-posts on Bob via Wikipedia as I suddenly got a comment on my own post from 2008 ( ) and started checking on some facts.
Bob was a good friend and I still have occasional contact with his wife Miny.

Mats Werner said...

Should add that you can get my blog-post "translated" by Google Translator.
But on the other hand, your name has a Swedish touch to it.

Anonymous said...

Good article on a unique man whose music certainly reflected the cosmopolitan flavor of the Middle East in the 50's and 60's. It was not uncommon for European singers to make it big in the Levant (Tino Rossi, Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Becaud, and of course Dalida were popular and appealed to the "polyglot nature" of many listeners). However, one correction regarding Bob Azzam: He was a Christian born in Egypt of Lebanese origin, not a Jew; my parents are good friends with his sister.

Michael Loh ( said...

Dear Sir, I grew up listening to the English version with seemingly similar instrumention and the words are

On a desert island I wish I could be
crying out my misery coz youre so mean to me!
From damascus to sudaran (??)
Like a camel I have run (x2)

do you know where I can get that version and the lyrics?


Austin Swanson said...

I am his great nephew (my grandmother is his sister Mary Azzam), and you have some things wrong:

1. He was not Christian Lebanese, he was Christian Palestinian. I have no clue who above said that he was Lebanese, he isn’t.

2. They didn’t live in Attarine, they grew up in Zamalek. It was very upper class, my grandmother says that is where the embassy’s were.

I know this is old and it will get buried but I just had to set things straight since I was talking with my grandmother right now and found this.