Monday, October 22, 2007

Ali Hassan Kuban, "Min ayn al-samra al-hilwa di" (feat. Mano Negra)

Ali Hassan Kuban was a giant in modern Nubian music. Here are excerpts from a review of Kuban's last album that I wrote for the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin (39, 1), 2005:

Ali Hassan Kuban feat. Salwa Abou Greisha & Shahin Allam. Real Nubian: Cairo Wedding Classics. 2001. Piranha. One compact disc, 13 tracks (48:10). $19.98. ASIN B00005RGK8.

Real Nubian came out shortly after ‘Ali Hassan Kuban’s death in June 2001, the last recording of his long and illustrious career. Kuban was a leading figure in the modernization and urbanization of Nubian music. Traditional Nubian music, as played in Old Nubia before the Aswan High Dam caused its inundation and destruction, consisted of vocals backed by the polyrhythms of hand claps and the tar (frame drum). Kuban, who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s and mastered the clarinet and bagpipes, formed his first Nubian musical group in the mid-fifties. Performing mainly at Nubian weddings, his ensemble did both traditional songs and modern compositions, accompanied by tar-s and new instruments like the ‘ud, accordion, violin and tabla. As Cairo’s Nubian community Cairo grew and developed, so too did Kuban’s band. By the late seventies it had added instruments like the sax, electric guitar, trumpet, electronic keyboards, and Western-style drums. In 1979, ‘Ali Kuban began to record for Cairo’s booming cassette market, producing several cross-over hits in the Egyptian mainstream. In 1990 the German label Piranha released Kuban’s From Nubia to Cairo, marking his entry into the world music scene. During the nineties Kuban ceased playing the local wedding circuit, instead performing almost exclusively abroad. He also quit producing cassettes for the local market, because piracy meant there was no more profit in it, he told me in 1999. Instead he recorded for Piranha, which put out three more Kuban albums. But he still dominated the lucrative Nubian wedding circuit, for the ‘Ali Kuban group--now a stable of leading Nubian instrumentalists and singers--remained the most popular and prestigious ensemble for hire. And Kuban’s “club”--an apartment suite in ‘Abdin, downtown Cairo--remained a central gathering place for Nubian artists.

In his last years Kuban continued to record and tour, but he was increasingly frail, displaying the symptoms of tremors. The vocals on Real Nubian, recorded in the late nineties, are marked by Kuban’s age and ailments. His voice was known in any case for its soulful roughness rather than its beauty, and his best songs are spirited, catchy anthems, sometimes chanted or even shouted. By contrast, Kuban’s vocals here are weak, and at moments embarassingly flat, as on “Gammal,” the opening track.

But despite the infirmities of Kuban’s voice, this remains a worthy effort...

To hear Ali Kuban in better voice, I recommend the earlier Piranha recordings. Each has its particular charms. From Nubia to Cairo highlights the hits that made Kuban so popular in the eighties’ Cairo cassette market; Walk Like A Nubian is funkier, thanks to Bibi Hammond’s bass work; Nubian Magic ranges from the traditional to the highly experimental, including two dance “jungle” remixes of “Maria-Maria.” For a best-of collection, there is The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban. Real Nubian nonetheless is an honorable bookend to the career of this giant of contemporary Nubian music. Its high moment is “Hela Houb,” where Kuban--in his strongest and most energetic vocalizing of the entire session--calls on Nubians to unite and return to the banks of Lake Nasser to rebuild Nubia. ‘Ali Hassan Kuban may not have made the return himself, but he played a crucial role in keeping the dream, and the reality, of Nubia and its culture alive, in Egypt, and the world.

I also wrote a short review of Real Nubian release for PopMatters, which you can read here and I have authored an article entitled "Nubian Music in Cairo," in Virginia Danielson and Dwight Reynolds, eds., Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East.

This is from a bootleg cassette I picked up in the early '90s in Cairo, featuring Kuban in concert, in Europe no doubt, that features the great Clash-gone-Med band Mano Negra, helmed by Manu Chao. The cassette is called Al-walidi.

Click here to download.