Peter Holslin still hasn’t tried camel meat.
Here I am in Cairo. Ramadan in the summertime. Days are hot. Cannot think. Don’t want write. My head aches. I’ve lost track of my responsibilities. I spend most of my time indoors, studying Arabic, watching Arabic movies, reading books and listening to music. Every time I go for a walk outside I regret it. Temperatures can run up into the 100s. The metal ceiling fan in my room spins so fast it looks like it could chop off my head, but it keeps me cool and beats back the mosquitoes at night.
Somehow amid the heat I managed to make this playlist. It’s a compendium of Arabic music I’ve been listening to lately. Shaabi, dabke, choubi, trip-hop, synthesizers, synth-saxophones, great singers, and rhythms that can go on forever.
The first track is a gem from Ahmad Adaweya, a legendary Egyptian singer and pioneer of shaabi music—AKA “sha3bi,” or “popular,” or of the people. While older-generation Egyptian singers like Oum Kolthoum aimed for ecstatic formalism, Adaweya appealed to the street, singing in local Arabic about daily life and common problems. On “Am Ya Sahib El Gamal,” he takes a Biz Markie-ian approach and spends the entire first verse giving a shout out to all his friends: “Ibrahim ya! We Layla ya! We Salim ya! We Ahmad ya! We Fatima ya!…”
The second track on the playlist, “Fi Kul El ‘Aelm (In All the World),” is by Iraqi singer Ja‘afar Hassan. Astute readers might recognize the name from his appearances on the Sublime Frequencies compilation Choubi! Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds From Iraq. Other than that not much of his music has been released, but I miraculously found a handful of CDs by him on sale at a restaurant while on a recent trip to Lebanon. Known for his political anthems, Hassan reportedly left Iraq after Saddam took power in 1978 and spent the next two decades living in South Yemen when it was still its own socialist state.
The final track I’ve included comes off a disc I found several years ago at a cellphone store—formerly a music store—in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The clerk told me the group is Palestinian, and when I get better at Arabic I’ll give the singer a close listen to look for more details about who they are. For me the most extraordinary thing is the keyboard. The synth is mimicking the sound of an arghul, a double-pipe reed instrument common in Palestinian dabke, only with extra distortion and volume to achieve new heights of stomp-kicking celebration.
Ahmad Adaweya – “‘Am Ya Sahib El Gamal”
Jaafar Hassan – “Kul El ‘Aelm”
Amr Diab – “Malhash Hal”
Soapkills – “Tango”
Mohamed Mounir – “Layla”
The Fallujah Seven – Unknown
Fairuz – “‘Aebeli ya Qamar”
Ahmad Adaweya – “Kulu ‘Ala Kulu”
Unknown – Palestinian dabke jam