In 1990, Mango released Yalla - Hitlist Egypt, an essential collection of Egyptian pop music with top-notch selections from artists working in both the sha’abi (working class) and jeel (middle class) musical traditions. Unfortunately this Egyptian pop gem seems not to have made much of an impact, as none of the great artists represented, including Hassan al-Asmar, Umr Diab, and Muhammad Mounir, ever saw further exposure on the World Music scene. Since then, it has been hard to get Egyptian pop, unless you traveled to Cairo or frequented Rashid’s Records in Brooklyn. But finally, Mondo Melodia is starting to fill the gap, with the release of Hakim’s Yaho.
First bursting onto the scene in 1991, Hakim over the last decade has become one of Egypt’s top sha’abi performers, selling millions of cassettes and commanding high prices for playing at Cairo’s five-star weddings. (Egyptian musicians make their real money playing the wedding circuit, since cassettes are sold at cheap prices and are pirated on a massive scale.) Yaho was Hakim’s sixth cassette recording to be released in Egypt; the original recording of eight-song was supplemented with six additional numbers for the Mondo Melodia release, and includes four remixed by Transglobal Underground.
Hakim’s brand of music is often referred to as “pop” or “modern” sha’abi. It is rooted in the sha’abi (literally, “popular”) music that emerged out of Egypt’s working class and popular districts in the sixties and seventies. Sha’abi is firmly grounded in Egypt’s folk traditions, but the rhythms are sped-up, the vocals are powerful and raucous, and the lyrics deal with everyday urban concerns and are loaded with street slang. Sha’abi is the prototypical music blaring from Cairo’s minibuses, the vehicles that transport the city’s millions of working-class commuters. Hakim’s sha’abi is “pop” by virtue of the fact that it has crossed over and been sweetened with romantic sentiment. But although Hakim’s success means he has abandoned the minibus for the pleasures of driving his own BMW, his songs still retain the sha’abi street flavor.
On Yaho the sha’abi sensibility is perhaps best illustrated on the title song, “Yaho”. It features the driving beat of the derbuka, raw and powerful vocals, catchy chorus, basic but very effective instrumentation, distinctive accordion riffs. The opening song, “El Wala Wala” is even more powerful, and shows how well a Transglobal Underground remix can supplement Hakim’s sha’abi, particularly by adding a booming bass underpinning. “Ululu” is another example of steaming sha’abi, with simple instrumentation, fast, hot and infectious rhythms. Not all the material is equally strong, and sometimes, as on “El Bi Hebeni El”, Hakim resorts to well-worn formulas that have worked in the past. But even though Hakim sometimes just recycles, Yaho is an excellent introduction to the pleasures of Egyptian sha’abi.
I’m a little surprised, however, that Mondo Melodia didn’t opt to put out Hakim’s 1998 recording, Shakl Tani/Remix instead. Hakim’s fourth cassette release, Shakl Tani is an amazing collection of his greatest hits from 1991-96, remixed by the Transglobal Underground. The Transglobal crew do a terrific job of inflecting the best of Hakim’s sha’abi with an international dance beat, doing no violence to the originals but instead, expanding their possibilities. (And overall, the earlier hits are better than anything on Yaho.) Although this release was something of a flop in Egypt, it would probably have fared better in Western world music markets. Track it down if you can.
And be aware that Hakim’s Yaho may be the first in a new wave of Egyptian releases to go global. The corporate giant Sony has been actively signing major Egyptian record producers over the last year, so we can expect more Egyptian product to land up on our shores, product that is more heavily promoted than a modest label like Mondo Melodia can afford. Let’s hope that if and when that happens, future Egyptian World Music releases will not be over-produced or diluted, and stay as rooted in the sounds of the street as Hakim’s Yaho.