My Introduction to Shaabi
by Amina Goodyear
posted May 17, 2009
Literal origin of the word Shaabi (Sha’bi) in Egyptian Arabic: Of the common people.
In the early 1970s, I took a workshop with the Egyptian dancer Faten Salama from the Egyptian National Folklore Troupe. She taught a series of choreographies and one stuck in my head. It was choreography to a song called “Salametha Om Hassan” sung by Ahmed Adaweya. Immediately after the workshop I ran (not walked) to Samiramis, my local Arab music source, and bought Ahmed Adaweya’s cassette that featured this song. This was the beginning of my love affair with Adaweya’s music and singing.
At the workshop, Faten gave us a loose translation of “Salametha." Later, I got a better (and more complete) translation from Nicole Ibrahim my Egyptian Arabic and singing teacher. Based on these translations and Faten’s choreography, I re-choreographed and changed the dance to suit my needs (a very Egyptian technique). This became a dance vignette for my dance group, The Aswan Dancers. The choreography evolved, took on many shapes and even made it into the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival as a Zar dance.
Shaabi in recent Arab news- Al Ahram Entertainment section. New film on Shaabi and Adaweya-
"Tuning up to Shaabi"
“Salametha Om Hassan” is about Salametha, mother of Hassan who was stricken by the Evil Eye and became sick. She wanted to keep to her old ways and hold a Zar to heal herself but her son wanted her to be treated by more modern ways. Adaweya was the first singer I knew to use lyrics as a metaphor for a political or social reason. (At the time, I was unaware of the translations of Sayed Darwish (see below for an example of Darwish lyrics) and others who made veiled inferences about other social and political problems dating back to the early early 1900s.) Before Adaweya’s time, popular Egyptian songs were mostly about love (or so I thought).
Adaweya’s songs could be about both love or about social issues.
“Salametha” was a social commentary on the state of the Egyptian nation. Ahmed Adaweya admits that “Salametha Om Hassan” referred to Egypt’s 1967 disastrous defeat by the Israelis and the general depressed mood of the nation. He wished Om Hassan (Egypt) a speedy recovery and hoped that the affliction from the Evil Eye that had struck Hassan (a.k.a. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian soldier) would be cured.
Could Adaweya, a plumber by trade, know that this song with political undertones would help his popularity cross over from the common people’s Shaabi music to the popular establishment and the more socially elite? Did he really care? Whether he cared at the time or not—what I realize now is that this cassette, my first cassette in the genre that I called “City Beledy”, is what anthropologists today label “Shaabi”.
Adaweya’s music became a main staple in my music collection. Physically, I wore out the Salametha cassette by excessive use in class and performances. I bought every Adaweya cassette as soon as they became available. I was studying tabla and riq and his cassettes were especially noteworthy for having a great percussion section. His voice had a sound unlike other singers.
There was a very raw unrefined quality to it.
Most Shaabi singers seem to have this quality. Also, his music had an untraditional sound. In Salametha he even used a trumpet! Adaweya used a blend of traditional instruments and modern instruments and sounds. He used traditional instruments such as the nai, violin, kanun, riq, large cymbals and tabla. Additionally, he introduced the keyboard, saxophone, trumpet and the accordion.
This blend of the old and the new instruments is typical of the Shaabi sound.
Today everyone knows Ahmad Adaweya for his songs, lifestyle, scandals and notoriety. He’s not known for his good looks or his suave style. He’s actually rather short and heavy-set with coarse blow-dried hair and very gaudy suits. He was born in a hara (ghetto, barrio) in the mid 1940s in a working class area on the outskirts of Maadi (a district in Cairo), but he spent time on (and eventually moved to) Mohamed Ali Street (a famous district known for where performers lived and networked). Adaweya worked as a waiter in a café where he started presenting his popular mawaweel (pl. of mawwal) or folk songs. By the end of the 1960s, he was a singer at high-class wedding celebrations. In the early 1970s, he was singing along the Pyramids Road and selling audio-cassettes of his music.
Where once he was known as a master plumber, he had now become a master of Saltana.
What exactly is Saltana? Nothing is exact in Egypt. The word evokes derogatory connotations of a drugged state. This is how people perceived Adaweya, whether he was awake or asleep. To get Saltana takes time—in performance, sometimes hours. If Tarab is ecstatic joy, then Saltana is the ecstasy of creation. Time passes, and you don’t feel it.
The performer becomes musically self-absorbed and experiences concentrated and intense musical sensations. The musician or singer will get high from music. (He may also be already high on a substance such as hashish.) Many sheikhs, singers, musicians and composers were known to get high in order to achieve Saltana.
Sheikh Sayed Darwish was one fine example of achieving Saltana. Sheikh Sayed Darwish -1892-1923- a working class citizen, a bricklayer, was known for his progressive, western and modern leanings. He was one of the pioneers of Arabic music and is revered today as the father of classic and popular Egyptian music. Shortly following his death, attributed to a heart attack or an overdose of drugs, it was rumored that a member of the Oriental Music Institute said, “That’s the end of debauchery in this country!”
In an interview from Al Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper, Adaweya says:
“I am a saltangi. Saltana is my thing—I can sing, and alternate between different maqamat (pl. of maqam—a set of musical notes with traditions defining relationships between them, certain melodic patterns and certain moods.) This is Saltana. It’s all in the maqam. Adaweya experiences this in his mawaweel. In the mawwal the lyrics can make Saltana. The creative state of Saltana can bring on Tarab—or the feeling of ecstasy.
In the interview, Adaweya says further, “I have achieved [Saltana] after a tough and tempestuous life. I have basically seen the depth of the pits when I started from the very bottom of the ladder.” Ahmed Adaweya has literally scraped the rocks with his bare hands as a plumber. “It is my singing experience in mulids (festivals for saints and holy men) and tents that founded my entire career. My own talent combined with such a life has qualified me for the equivalent of a Ph.D. in music. I never studied music, except through feeling, listening and a tough life. Many musicians have reached top academic degrees in music, but they do not have Saltana; they turn to someone like me and seek my experience in Saltana. The mawwal is my game. I sing all maqamat in the mawwal. This is history. I am a whole history. I am king of Saltana.” (Author’s note-Words in italics are my emphasis or definition.)
An Egyptian once said of Adaweya: “Ahmed, your voice is full of suffering. It is the voice of an orphan. When you sing the mawwal, I feel so blue as to be on the verge of tears. I feel like your voice.”
More on the Mawwal:
The mawwal is usually sung poetry –qasida—or a narrative that can precede a song. A typical Shaabi mawwal can include the following words: “love, wine, whiskey, suffering, falling in love, allusions to different fruits, being without love, torture, meddling nosey people, drugs, anguish, complaints, oh sleepless nights, wounds, patience, oh my eye, love, poverty, shame, bad luck, tears and blood, tired of all this…” It is lyrical and one might consider it the vocal version of a taqsim—musical improvisation of one instrument that can move from one maqam to another. Ahmed Adaweya would sing the mawwal in colloquial Egyptian accompanied by a fellahi rhythm and a nai response. This use of percussion and nai during a lamenting poetic narrative of love, including sexual innuendos, and complaints of social or political conditions is what makes Adaweya’s mawaweel distinctly Shaabi.
Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz said of the singer: “What is so wrong with Adaweya? He is a genuine son of the people, a true offspring of the Egyptian hara."
Adaweya is the sole true influence of an entire generation of Shaabi singers such as Hassan el Asmar, Hakim, Magdi Talaat, Abdel Basset Hamouda, Hamdi Batchan, Saad el Soghayer and Shabaan Abdel Rahim.
By the late 1980s, there were three categories of Egyptian singers:
- Those who tried to maintain their national identity with tarab-oriented traditional music.
- Westernized singers who resorted to western musical melodies.
- Those who supported Adaweya’s’ Shaabi musical trend.
Shaabi is always considered the music of the working class people such as Adaweya.
It is often sung using slang words or imagery. It can be about love, politics, or daily news and is usually good for dancing. It can be a bit of a disaster for the foreign dancer with no knowledge of the language. If you’re going to dance to an Egyptian band—do your homework.
You should always know what the song means.
The Egyptian media–radio and television–do not officially recognize Shaabi music as an art form. They feel it is an insult and a shame to their culture, and therefore, it has a subaltern status. Rather like how the Egyptian people do not recognize raqs sharqi (or as we often say “the Belly dance”) as a respectable art form. However, Egypt’s common people are many and numerous, urban and rural, and the Shaabi music was able to not only survive but to achieve also great success through what is known now as the cassette culture.
It’s been 40 years since Adaweya began his singing career. He has acquired true legitimacy. He has acquired fame outside his neighborhood, outside of his country, and throughout the world. He was able to finally have his songs aired along side Egypt’s favorite singers such as Om Kalsoum and Abdel Halim.
The Role of the Simple Cassette
Despite not being given official airtime, this music became the popular underground with the invention of the easy-to-produce and cheap-to-copy audiocassette. This music may not have been played on the radio but certainly, it was played by kids with boom boxes, in all the taxis (of course) and down the street at all the local music kiosks. If Cairo’s population is 17 million, it seems to me that there are probably at least twice that many machines that are playing cassettes.
This popular music phenomenon (starting from the bottom up) has also occurred at other times and other places such as Jamaica, The United Kingdom, our own (U.S.) Hip Hop and of course, India. The one thing these diverse cultures had in common was that the makers of the music had control of the means of communication, thus they brought about a true musical revolution.
In Egypt the common working man, who may have been born into poverty, was finally able to make money by working in the Gulf countries. These men were able to buy cassette recorders, return to Egypt, and make and reproduce their own cassette tapes by Shaabi singers—who were rejected by the music establishment as being cheap and vulgar. Remember the actual definition of the word “vulgar” includes, “the language of the common people.”
Adaweya didn’t need to be publicly aired because the people supported him and that’s where the money was for him. At that time, this would be equivalent to selling your self-made cassettes from the trunk of your car or the back of a donkey cart.
About 10 years after first hearing Ahmed Adaweya, I went to Egypt for the first time in 1983 to study and watch dance. I found I couldn’t take the physical sensation of the dance home with me but, I could take the music home–or at least as much as I could afford. In the music kiosks, I purchased cassettes of music that never would have made it to the U.S. It was an in-person introduction to the thriving “cottage industry” cassette culture that I had discovered. Consequently, I brought this (primarily urban) Shaabi music that I called “City Beledy” back home to San Francisco.
My “treasured find” profoundly influenced my approach to Egyptian music and dance. I started working on a suite of dances to Halawa min Masr Gadeeda (Sweety from new Egypt or Heliopolis) from one of my newly acquired cassettes. The very best thing that continues about this cassette music is that it is truly original music.
When I consider it, Shaabi has been with us for approximately 50 years–first as a rural and mulid-based music and then due to the audiocassette machine, it became an expanded international phenomenon. At this point in time, it seems fitting that anthropologists, musicologists and ethnologists are now giving this “new” music a category and label for the first time in it’s history! Shaabi has been granted a value with classification and notification. Shaabi music has been assured a future in whatever way it shifts and changes. Additionally, this same cassette-based record and re-record culture continues to grow and thrive in Egypt.
In this episode we find Amina in 1983 dancing “Shaabi” style to a song by Ahmed Adaweya called “Sultan Sultan,” performed by George Dubai, Susu, Mohammed Amin, and Daria, at the Ramalla Club in San Francisco.
A clip of Adaweya singing and performing with a bellydancer in an Egyptian film.
A taxi ride from the Marriot Hotel on the Zamalek island in Cairo, Egypt, to the drop off point on our way to the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar. This is in 1991. You will see a crowded city, the streets, store fronts, crumpling buildings, minarets, clotheslines, laundry, balconies, kitchy billboards, horse and buggy, moms and kids, head scarves and galabiya.
A Few Songs by Ahmed Adaweya
Salametha Om Hassan
Translated lyrics—not literal—by Nicole Ibrahim.
Salametha Om Hassan
God bless her, Hassan’s mother
Meil ein wei meil Hassad
From the eye and from envy
Wei salamtak ya Hassan
And God bless you oh Hassan
Meil reimsheilee hassad
From the lash that envied you
Galha tooreilee mash
The passing bull came to her
Weil toor ma nayeimhash
And the bull didn’t put her to sleep
Weil ein ma saybahash
And the eye is not leaving her alone
Mahsouda om Hassan
Someone envied Hassan’s mother
Malbouja leh malboug
Why is she so preoccupied
Meil feikr galha doj
From so much thinking she got sick
Hara eit shaba wei fasouja
She burned incense and a pickle fish
Ma ra eitch om Hassan
She didn’t recover, Hassan’s mother
Amaloulha zar latish ha
They made a zar too powerful for her, It
seemed too strong for her
Wei kaeino eiyar da washa
Too bad, no one rescued her, She has got her excuse, Hassan’s mother
Gara eh yamo Hassan
What’s happening Hassan’s mother
Behave and get your act together
La toor wala zar beiyenfa-a
Not a bull nor a zar is working out
Matfouee wei teia alee
Wake up and be wise
Zahma Dunya Zahma
(find youtube clip of A singing this)
(Crowded World) (composed by Hani Shenouda 1979)
He spoke of an overcrowded world, a world that has become a mulid with no master. (Mulids are religious festivals not necessarily Islam promoted or endorsed. They are very crowded and chaotic and have everything from Zikrs, to belly dancers and shooting galleries and ferris wheels.) It seems Adaweya’s overpopulated city (add at least 1 million people a year) could self-destruct.
Zahma ya dunia zahma, zahma w’tahoo al-habayib, zahma wala ‘adsh rahm,mulid we sahbuh ghayib
–Cowded, the world is crowded. Crowded and the lovers are lost. Crowded and mercy never comes. A mulid without a leader.
Sib wana a-sib
(I’ll let go if you do)
(lyrics El Shennawi, composer Sayed Mekkawi)
This song refers to the Palestinian and Israel problems.
"You let go of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and I’ll let go of the stones."
Haba Fou’ wi Hata Taht
(Title roughly translates to mean-Stuff Above and beneath)
The lyrics talk about the discrepancies between the Egyptian social classes.
The Ginnawi Jugs
A typical song by Sheikh Sayed Darwish (1892-1923)
Translation and interpretation by Duraid Musleh of Zawaya/Aswat
Beautiful are the Ginawi jugs; there are none like them. Come and buy a couple. Do not go on wasting your money on what is not made by your fellow countrymen. What is wrong with the world, Zalabawi? It has gone mad! See the banks trying to take away our money while we are penniless. If you care about your fellow countrymen, encourage his craftsmanship, and he shall progress. Put your hand in his hand, for he is your countryman. He will not disappoint you. Nothing should separate you.
After this Introduction, in Part 1, Amina will tell about beginning her lessons in the Arabic language
and how this affected her experience of Egyptian culture and dance.
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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!
Ready for more?
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We do know that today thousands of women in Africa and the Middle East use this music to cure all kinds of illnesses. They literally dance until they drop.
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- 5-11-09 AskYasmina #6 : Abhinaya, Personal Journey, What’s Missing? by Yasmina Ramzy
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- 5-5-09 One Hip in Each Camp, My Experience of Working in Both the Arabesque Dance Company and the Arabesque Orchestra
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- 5-3-09 The Quintessential Performer: Attitudes for the Stage
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May 20, 2009 - 04:05:00
Thank you, Amina, for this article. It is a lesson in the history of this art that we need. I’ll be delighted to share it with my students. Looking forward to the follow-0ns!
May 24, 2009 - 08:05:21
Thank you Amina for this wonderful article. I am grateful for the translations as well. I look forward to the series.. BTW – the dancer with Adaweyya in the video clip is Nelli Fouad.
Jun 10, 2009 - 08:06:17
Wow, what an excellent and informative article! Thanks so much for shedding light on one of my favorite singers, and explaining some of the lyrics, too.
Your description of the underground popularity and DIY nature of shaabi/city beledy sound exactly like the history of punk rock music and media in the US and Europe. People made their own records, because they knew the mainstream music industry would never sign them; we published our own zines and minicomics, because we had art and writing to share, access to copy machines, and staplers to put them together with, so why wait?
Jun 23, 2009 - 06:06:36
Posted by editor for Linda—
This to add to Amina’s wonderful article on Shaabi and Ahmed Adawiya. Since I was involved in much of the article and loved the wonderful picture of me and Marsha (Shamira) and can you believe it, we often convinced people that we were sisters! I thought I would add two more tales.
The first was when Marsha, Amina and I finaggled our way into being ushers at the Hilton Hotel Extravaganza where Nagwa Fuoud was the headliner, along with a whole array of famous Egyptian movie stars; and Ahmed Adawiya was also performing. Not only did we not have to pay the $150 ticket (this was in 1984 or there abouts, so imagine how expensive that was ), we also got to sit at the head table because we were friends of Samir and Mona Khoury. We weren’t supposed to get dinner, but we befriended the waiters because they had no idea what was going on and we filled them in, so they brought us dinner.
So, after the show we were sitting in the lobby bar with George Dabaie; waiting for the crowd to leave. Sitting at a table next to us was Ahmed himself. George introduced us to him and we broke into song, singing his famous song “Salametiha om Hassan”. He laughed and then started talking to George. Next thing we knew George was furious, yelled at us to get up and hurry and leave. He was bright red with anger. We thought he was mad at us because we had embarrassed him by singing in front of Adawiya. We started apologizing. He said, no, he wasn’t mad at us, but we had been insulted and if we weren’t there he would have gotten into a fight and beaten him up. We said, what could be so bad. He didn’t want to tell us. We begged and nagged until he said, that Ahmad thought George was a pimp and had offered some money to him “to spend some “time” with us. We asked, “how much did he offer and I think it was some paltry 50 bucks or something. We said for all three of us or each. When he said for all three , we said, no wonder you were mad, let’s go back and kick his you know what. At that point, George realized we weren’t in the Middle East, we were Americans, and we are hard to insult!! He ended up laughing.
Second Adawiya story.
Our very good friend Leyla had a heart attack and was in Stanford Hospital. When Marsha, Amy, and I went to visit her she was completely sedated in a deep coma so that she would not move and ruin the fabulous work that her doctors had done. We were so scared and didn’t know what to do. We asked the nurse that was on duty, sitting on a high stool, if it was okay if we sang a song to her. The nurse looked at us weirdly and said she thought it would be okay if we were really quiet.
So, there was a little stool next to her bed, I stood on it and put my arms around Marsha and Amy and we sang every so quietly but with great conviction the “Salametiha Om Hassan” song. It is basically a song about someone trying to cure his mother’s headache and he tries all kinds of folk ways. Later, when Leyla was fully recovered and we told her the story, she swears that she heard us and that it helped her recover.
Oh, yeah, here’s a third story. There was a tacky little restaurant on Market street in the Tenderloin area where some of us danced. One night I was walking two friends back to their car and we were standing on the sidewalk talking. A very strange man came down the street talking to himself, he was dirty and disheveled, and had wild hair. He started ranting at us. I just ignored him, but the other two gals were starting to get spooked and started looking vulnerable. The crazy man got louder, so I did what came naturally to me and I started singing “Salametiha” with all the gestures of throwing the demons out. The crazy man recognizing that he was up against someone crazier, walked around us and down the street as fast as he could.
San Francisco, CA
Nov 30, 2009 - 07:11:57
Hi. Great job with the translation of the lyrics for Salametha Om Hassan. But there is an error I must point out.
Where it says
Galha tooreilee mash
The passing bull came to her
Weil toor ma nayeimhash
And the bull didn’t put her to sleep
In fact, it is not “toor” meaning “bull”. It is “door” meaning ..(sorry cannot be translated in one word). It is a flu or sickness that goes around. Therefore “el door elle mashy” means the sickness that’s running around. As in, a contagious disease.
“We el door manayemhash” means the sickness didn’t allowe her to sleep.
Mar 7, 2010 - 07:03:03
Great article! Thank you.
Here is a video of Adaweya singing Zahma ya dunia in a tv show
May 7, 2011 - 08:05:54
This should be suggested homework for Leila’s workshop this weekend!!! Love Adaweya!!
Aug 10, 2017 - 12:08:48
There are some translation errors. It’s not “toor” (bull). It’s “door” which refers to the “bug” that’s going around. It didn’t let her sleep.
She didn’t burn a pickle fish (feseekh). She burned fasookha which is a type of incense. She burned two types of incense: Shabba and fasookha.
Toward the end of the song these lyrics
La toor wala zar beiyenfa-a
Not a bull nor a zar is working out
La bokhhoor wala zar beiyenfa
Neither incense nor zar is working out