Peter Holslin is cooking his meat medium from now on.
I come to you today with a new mix culled from months of studying music and language in Egypt. I’ve been living in Cairo for a year and a half now, trying to learn as much as possible about Arab music. Collecting albums, surfing YouTube, working with my Arabic teacher to translate song lyrics, and getting better at haggling with the industrious CD-R salesmen that populate certain parts of Mohandiseen.
These have been my goals lately, and now, lying on a hostel bed on a trip to Beirut, waylaid by a stomach bug I got from an upmarket steakhouse in Cairo four days ago, I’m thinking to myself—god dammit why did I eat a rare steak two days before coming to Lebanon? But also I am thinking, hmm, I’ve come a ways, haven’t I? I don’t know if there’ll ever be an end to all this, but the process itself is worthwhile.
A quick rundown of some of the highlights off this mix: “Laa” by Egyptian duo El Sawareekh (The Rockets) has been popping off in a huge way across the Arab world in recent months. Produced by the record label 100Copies, the song is mellower compared to most mahraganat tunes, but still contains some nice surprises with whirling keyboards and festive drum fills.
Even more notable is the delivery of MCs Dok Dok and Funky—instead of the usual, high-intensity Auto-Tuned sing-song raps, they sound like they’ve just smoked a fat joint as they mumble their way through disses and jokes about a girlfriend who clearly wants nothing to do with them. Each line is punctuated with a now-iconic hook, useful for all occasions: “Yinfa’ kida? … Laa. It works like this? Nope.”
I can’t tell if shaabi singer Abou El Leef was serious when he wrote “King Kong,” a swooning power ballad from 2010. The song is all pomp and drama as the nasally-voiced crooner—whose bushy beard and comic-book persona stand in marked contrast to the suave look of hit-makers Amr Diab and Tamer Hosny—unleashes a torrent of male anxieties over the rising popularity of Facebook. “Do you love me? I doubt it / Who are all these [friends] on your Facebook?” he sings, ordering a loved one to unfriend all the boys she’s connected with and turn over her password so he can snoop on her account.
My Arabic teacher Rehab tells me that this sort of behavior is unfortunately not uncommon among young men in Egypt—though she herself would send a guy who dared to make such demands right out the door. El Leef seems to wink at the absurdity of it all with a hyper-dramatic, macho-man chorus full of kooky wordplay: “I’m not khurung [a wuss] / No, no, no, I’m King Kong! / While my hands are tied I play ping-pong!”
One gem I’ve been digging lately is “Youyou” by Egyptian singer/songwriter Maryam Saleh and Lebanese producer/musician Zeid Hamdan, which comes off their 2015 album Halawella. Adapting lyrics from a song by the songwriter Sheikh Imam and his longtime collaborator, pugilistic street poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, “Youyou” is a perfect electro-pop jawbreaker, similar in my mind to bands like Le Tigre or The Blow. Musically it’s all candy-colored sweetness, with bright guitars and a plugging drum machine beat. Standing in contrast is Saleh’s free and unvarnished voice and the sarcastic lyrics, in which she utilizes an array of innovative put-downs and food metaphors to deliver a take down of a spineless flunky.
Last year when I attended the Le Guess Who? Festival in Amsterdam, I was blown away by Nadah El Shazly’s performance of “Ana ‘Ishiqt,” a bitter lament originally written by pioneering Egyptian classical composer Sayyed Darwish, with lyrics by Younes Al Qadhi. In her version—which appears on her long-awaited debut album Ahwar, released on Nawa Recordings last November—she delivers a bold, avant-garde update, crossing subdued atmospheres and eerie builds with the heart-rending punch of the poetry.
She’s accompanied by members of the Montreal avant-garde ensemble Land of Kush, who create a lullaby-like atmosphere through wandering contrabass and plucks of harp before drawing to a brutal climax with the help of an ear-piercing synthesizer. In a show of her vocal powers, El Shazly sings at an aching pace, sliding between deep lows and defiant highs, bringing emotional impact to every word: “You betrayed my yearning / Without warning / So don’t be jealous / When you see me with another.” It’s a stunning performance, and a poignant union of form and content.
Download the mix here.
- Mohamed Fouad – Arrab Ta’el
- El Sawareekh – Laa
- Abou El Leef – King Kong
- Maryam Saleh & Zeid Hamdan – Youyou
- Unknown – El Nar
- Ahmed Nafa’ and Hoda Gm’a – Dala’ Takatik
- Safinaz’s Dance on TV series Abou Banat
- Mohamed Hamaki – Nesmet Shouq
- Nadah El Shazly – Ana ‘Ishiqt
- Mohamed Mounir – Ya ‘Arooset El Nile