Gilded Serpent presents...

From the Street to the Virtual Cafe

Shaabi Cassettes

The History of Shaabi

by Amina Goodyear
posted October 4, 2010

In February and September of 2009 Amina Goodyear and Debbie Smith gave workshops on Shaabi. We called it Keda? Keda Ho! (Like this? Like this!)

What is Shaabi?

  • As a word, Shaabi has multiple meanings in Arabic: “folk”, “popular (of the people).”
  • As a musical form, Shaabi is the voice of the street, an urban expression full of feeling, double entendres, and social commentary.
  • As a dance, Shaabi reflects a true and authentic expression of the Egyptian people and their humor and playfulness..

We presented an in-depth look at Shaabi music and its place in Egyptian culture- from a historical, social and artistic perspective. Through looking at the great Shaabi singers of the past and present, we explored dimensions of class, neighborhood, and urban life unique to Cairo, and the movements you can use to bring the spirit of Egyptian Shaabi music to your dance.
I would like to share some of this information with you…

In the 1970’s after the introduction and popularization of cassette tape recorders and their accompanying boom boxes, musicians and singers all over the world were able to sidestep the corporate world and self-produce and self-promote.

There were several movements throughout the world that seemed to simultaneously create music in the genre called "cassette culture". Most notably this type of music was evident in England and the U.S. with punk music, in Jamaica with Reggae, in Algeria with Rai and in Egypt with Shaabi music.

The literal origin of the word Shaabi (Sha’bi) in Egyptian Arabic is "of the common people". Here we will refer to it as music created by working class people, mainly of the younger generation.

NasserGamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president who gave Egypt back to the Egyptians died in 1970 and some of his nationalism died too.The policies of the government that followed opened the doors to the West. The working class people (Shaabi) with their rural roots were finally able to enjoy a little economic relief. Thanks to the newly oil rich Gulf Arabs hiring Egyptians and thanks to their tourism in Egypt, money flowed enough to make owning cassette players and boom boxes a staple in their homes. But in the 1970’s Egypt also lost three of it’s beloved singers – Farid al Atrache, Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. All this marked the end of Egypt’s Golden Age and the era of pure love, unattainable love and repressed sexuality. It was time to move from fantasy and dreams to reality. The people needed to move on and were ready to declare war against the monied society and its conservative codes, the government, politics, corruption and just the general state of affairs in their miserable lives. True, there was a little more money flowing, but only enough to let them know that there really wasn’t enough. With the readily available cassettes – commercially made, homemade and bootlegged – the Shaabi people were able to sustain a voice and it was no longer ruled by that Egyptian monopoly, RCA, the so-called " voice of the people".

The first well known Shaabi singer is undeniably Ahmed Adaweya. I like to call him the godfather of Shaabi music. He used his voice to sing songs of protest to various social injustices and veiled commentaries on the government and its policies and the cassettes he made spread the word. He was born in the mid 1940’s in a working class (Shaabi) "hood" (harah) in the outskirts of Maadi, a district in the southern part of Cairo. He eventually moved to Mohamed Ali Street (also known as Shariaa al Fann -Street of the Artists) where he changed careers and gave up plumbing to work as a waiter in a café. There he was able to present folk songs and his popular mawaweel (pl. of mawwal or vocal improvisations, usually heart-wrenching). By the end of the 1960’s he went from singing at mulids (religious festivals) and street weddings to high-class weddings in hotels. In the early 1970s he was singing regularly in the clubs on Shariaa al Haram (Pyramids Road) and his popularity and his new sound sold millions of cassettes.

With his baladi roots, his shisha smokers’ raspy voice, his memorable mawal and sometimes satirical lyrics, his combination of modern and tradtional instruments, and just his general gruffness and way of life, he provided a template for the Shaabi singers who followed him.

Shaabi music is the sound and voice of the working class people. Many of these people are first and second generation from the countryside and they brought their baladi sounds with them to the city. They combined the Egyptian folk music and traditional instruments with the urban classic or art music and modern western instruments. Although it may seem that there is disregard for the traditional and cultural in their songs, quite the opposite is true. Their music is actually more versed in the Egyptian vernacular than the music and songs of the upper class modernized and westernized Egyptians. (Our beloved Mohamed Abdel Wahab‘s music was quite influenced by European and Russian composers. His music probably gave permission for others to follow along the same vein. Some of Farid al Atrache‘s songs are good examples.)

The singer’s voice, besides being emotional almost to the point of tears, quite often has a low, raw and raspy almost gruff edge. The singer may begin many of the songs with a plaintive mawal. This vocal improvisation like much of the mawaweel of traditional Egyptian songs may sing of love, but often will be couched with references of disdain for the government, corruption and the establishment and other social issues.The mawal usually does not have a rhythm, but it may be accompanied or answered by the traditional nai, or the modern accordion, saxophone or keyboard.The mawal tells of the beliefs and feelings of the singer and sets the emotional stage for the actual song. Ahmed Adaweya, Hasan al Asmar and Shaaban were known for their mawaweel (pl) and many times their mawal would be the song. Following the mawal and preceding the actual song and melody is usually a fast upbeat tempo (such as maqsoum saeria- double time maqsoum) played by the tabla.The song, short and fast, can sometimes be shorter than the mawal and can broach many subjects. The lyrics are usually simple, contain slang or street talk and may complain of many things such as the use or non-use of drugs and alcohol, poverty, work and money, love and marriage, food (which is usually used as a metaphor for sex) and just the general hopelessness of living and life in general. More recently the state of economy has brought about even more depression and many of the songs also appeal to a greater power.

These songs, used as a popular form of resistance, using humor, irreverence and street talk to mask the true meanings, are often censored in the governmental supported media. Through the cassette culture cottage industry, they are passed on from person to kiosk, to taxi drivers and microbuses, and on to the general popular public. More recently Shaabi styled artists such as Hakim and Saad have been "discovered" and their music, although sometimes censored locally, has nevertheless been promoted worlwide as the music of the youth "in-crowd" or the "hood" – music like hip hop and reggae – slightly bad, so it’s really in.The cassettes are a cheap and easy way to distribute the music. Even the stars such as Hakim and Saad don’t seem to object to their music being bootlegged because the sales and thus, their popularity, can eventually lead to big gigs in large venues – and this translates to big money.

Another newer method of passing on the Shaabi music has been through the more modern tools that are virtually accessible to all. This is the mobile phone and the internet. In the late 1900’s the saying was "telephone, telegraph, tell an Arab". Now in the 21st century that funny little joke is a reality as the mobile and the internet indeed quickly spread the lyrical word.

Also there is a slew of new Shaabi musicians using the nomenclature DJ Mulid and DJ Sufi. They hang out at mulids (religious festivals) and remix songs for the youth to dance to. Many of these Shaabi songs latch onto the rising conservatism of the times.The songs of love and money and the lack of both, seem to focus more on social injustice, poverty and giving up drugs and alcohol.The melodies and remixes can be hypnotic and trance-like (as in a dhikr -repetitious invocations) and often invoke the aid of a higher being.This new music is quite popular in Shaabi weddings as the repetitive rhythms and lyrics pull the audience in and are quite danceable.

This modern urban musical style with its rural roots combines a very eclectic range of instruments from the most classic and traditional such as the riq, cymbals, large and small (tura and sagat), the nai and the kanoun to the western violins, accordion, saxophone, trumpet, electric keyboard and now the digital sounds of the computer.

Since the turn of the 20th century Mohamed Ali Street was the main Shaabi center of these urbanized baladi artists – artists who had their roots in the country. Today, thanks or no thanks to the gentrification of the historic parts of Cairo and the economic neccessities to move to the outskirts of Cairo such as to Feisal Street and Pyramids Road (southeast towards the pyramids and Giza), the new main Shaabi center for the baladi artists – the musicians and singers – is the mobile and the internet. The Shaabi neighborhoods are now linked – almost as in a virtual Shaabi center.

(Singers and Cassette information – approximate dates)

1952 End of Monarchy (King Farouk) in Egypt by military coup.Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes president of the new republic.“Egypt for Egyptians!” finally.
1956 Suez Crisis (with British). Suez Canal nationalized.
1960’s Aswan High Dam – Nubians relocated. Many moved to Cairo
1967 Arab/Israeli war. Israel’s army defeats combined Arab forces and occupies West Bank, Sinai, Golan Heights.
1970 Nasser dies, succeeded by Sadat – Sadat is pro-west
1971 Ahmed Adaweya
1973 Release of "Zahma Dunya Zahma" by Ahmed Adaweya in cassette format. October War by Egypt and Syria against Israel.
1974 Kat Kut cassettes – Farid al Atrache dies
1975 Om Kalsoum dies
1977 Abdel Halim Hafez dies – Belly Dance clubs attacked in Cairo
1979 Egypt and Israel sign peace treaty. Egypt banned from the Arab League
1980’s Shaaban Abdel Rehim cassettes
1981 Sadat is assassinated and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak
1984 Belly Dance clubs torched
1985 Hasan Al Asmar, Abdel Basit Hamouda cassettes
1988 Hamdi Batshan cassette
1990 Yallah! Cassette with Shaaban Abdel Rehim, Samy Aly, Hasan Al Asmar. (this is the mainstream of older "cottage industry" cassettes) – Hakim cassettes
1991 Mohamed Abdel Wahab dies
2001 DJ Mulid Shaabi music Shaaban Abdel Rehim makes Shaabi history with "Ana Bakra Israel"
2004 Saad al Soghayar
2005 Digital cassette "Immortal Records"
2008 DJ computer mixes on cassettes includes mulid carnival sounds DJ compilations available free on internet – Film "Cabaret"with Mahmoud El Leithy DJ mulid song
2009 Film "El Farah" with Abdel Baset Hamouda‘s "Ana Mush Arefni" and Mahmoud el Hosseny DJ mulid song

Resources:More Shaabi info on Amina’s site: Shaabi singers and their songs – Some songs are complete; others will give some words and the general gist. Then I give my translations, etc.
References: Al Ahram, Walter Ambrust, Nicholas Puig, Michael Frishkopf, James Grippo, Jennifer Peterson, Debbie Smith’s and my personal research and the internet

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Ready for more?

  • 6-11-09 Arabic Lessons, My Introduction to Shaabi, Part 1 by Amina Goodyear
    She taught us that besides learning the words and their meanings, Egyptians do not stand still when singing. They dance around a bit and use their hands, body and eyes to gesture according to the songs.
  • 5-17-09 Ahmed Adaweya My Introduction to Shaabi by Amina Goodyear
    Where once he was known as a master plumber, he had now become a master of Saltana.
  • 6-28-09 Faruk Sarsa ; The Life of an Artist of Mohamed Ali Street by Amina Goodyear
    The best drums and riqs, however, were inlaid with mother of pearl and had fish skin heads. The best store selling these instruments was Music Center. It was owned by Mohamed Sarsa who had the fish skin monopoly and the best instruments of this kind.
  • 9-17-07 Changes: Egyptian Dance – Has it crossed the line? by Amina Goodyear
    Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.
  • 8-17-10 And I thought I Knew Him, Horacio Cifuentes: Confessions of a Male Belly Dancer Book Review by Amina Goodyear
    Yes, I thought I knew Horacio Cifuentes, a San Francisco dancer who moved to Berlin to be with and wed Beata Zadou. After reading his book, I realized I really did not know him. The book, “Confessions of a Male Belly Dancer”, is exactly that. It is a self-produced autobiography written in a very sincere, almost shockingly honest way. It is personal and personable.
  • 7-16-10 Fusing Jazz with Middle Eastern, Souren’s "Taksim, It’s About Time" and Vince’s "Beginnings", Two CDs Reviewed by Amina Goodyear
    However, in all reality, now in this world when we fuse a Belly dance with everything as well as the kitchen sink (pots, spoons, mop handles, bowls, vases, trays) why not consider seriously performing to one or both of these Jazz fusion CDs played by some of the most respected Middle Eastern musicians in the field? If dancers perform already with fusion music, why not use music that is specifically fusion?
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    Upon first hearing this CD, I liked, no, I loved, the way it sounded like a live show. Exciting! Nevertheless, I question why some tracks sounded like they were recorded in a sterile studio.
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    This CD is best for dancing in the mind, not in the class. (There are, however, several tracks that are dance pieces.)
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    Then, I would speak to them about being authentic. If Bellydance was chosen with conviction, love and integrity, then their relationship with God would remain real and honest and maybe one day they might win back the respect of her family. It was still a huge risk, but at least, they could have comfort in living an authentic life.
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    Yaa Halla Y’all is an action-packed, four-day event for all styles of Belly dance: Tribal, Alternative, and Cabaret.
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    In this way, he demonstrated that belly dance isn’t something that is defined by culture. Rather, it is an art form that can be perfected by anyone who puts their mind to it, and it’s an art form that can be used to bridge cultures rather than divide them.
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  1. Yasmin Henkesh

    Oct 6, 2010 - 10:10:36

    What a great article! So well researched. I particularly love the timeline. A true resource for anyone interested in sha’abi. I would mention that Khamis Henkesh got his start as Ahmad Adawia’s drummer. There are some fun TV shows from the 1970s where Adawia sings with his band.

  2. Monica Berini

    Oct 6, 2010 - 06:10:32

    This is a great read!!

  3. Barbara Grant

    Oct 10, 2010 - 12:10:48

    The subject is fascinating and I found this to be a delightful, well-written, informative article. I find the analysis of music and lyrics with respect to social and political issues like class particularly interesting. I hope we will be hearing about (and listening to) Shaabi for the forseeable future.

  4. Terry

    Oct 13, 2010 - 09:10:29

    Great Article Amina!  Loved the time line, puts it into perspective.  I was looking for a reference to Ahmed Adeweya’s “accident”….

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