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Egyptian Classical Music:

3 CDs reviewed

Entertainment or Education?

2 CD Reviews by Amina Goodyear
posted February 11, 2011

The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun Vol. 1 & 2, performed byThe Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble

  1. Volume 1 is 51:26 minutes in length and is performed by George Sawa, qanun;  Suzanne Meyers Sawa, darabukka, doholla, mazhar, duff; Raymond Sarweh, riqq.
  2. Volume 2 is 55:53 minutes long and is performed by George Sawa, qanun, Suzanne Sawa, darabukka, mazhar, duff; Michel Merhaj Baklouk, riqq, and darabukka.

Although the two CDs were produced at different times and are sold separately, I would highly recommend that they be bought and used as a pair; therefore, I am reviewing them as a single unit. I believe that these two CDs are meant to be educational rather than solely for listening or dancing. The qanun used in the CDs is an antique bought by George Sawa in a trip to Egypt in 1974. He restored it to its original construction and fashioned it to sound as close to the original as possible.  In both CDs, Dr. Sawa attempts to recreate the music as it was originally played. This music is historic and covers a time span from the early 17th century to the mid 20th century.

These CDs could be invaluable and important additions to your music and dance library providing an audible history of the times of early music from the beginning of the 17th century to the mid 20th century and from the Ottoman Empire and Syria to Egypt.

When studied, these CDs show a progression of how the rhythms and the music grew and changed. Some especially valuable examples of the music and songs of the period are represented.

I wonder about the title of the 2 CDs. Because some of the pieces seem to be music from Andalusia, Syria, Roumania, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire, perhaps a better title would have been "A Musicial History Leading to the Art of the Early Egypian Qanun."

Perhaps Dr. Sawa may be too close to all this music to realize that we, as the novice and often uninitiated listeners, dancers or budding musicians, are not aware of all the influences other countries may have had on Egypt either as part of the Ottoman Empire as it was colonized or becoming colonizers, or simply as neighboring tribes and countries.

As this seems to be more an educational rather than an entertainment CD, it would have been nice to have the liner notes give a short history of Egypt (as well as her colonizers) to put the musical history in perspective.

One disappointment for me is that the music is literal and seems to be played as a demonstration of what was rather than how it actually might have been played in a taht (small music ensemble) or at a concert of that particular time.

In the first volume the drum sounds a bit heavy and, at times, a little too dominant. I wonder, (because of all I hear of the music of those times) was the drum was played at all? I always felt or thought that during these historical times that the drum was almost non-existent in this type of music, being saved more for folklore and country music, and that the riq was the percussion of choice in most instances. I found the drumming to be a little irritating personally–continuously playing what I label “Belly dancers’ Beledy”. It didn’t seem to change in mood and sounded a bit busy to me. In Volume 2, the drumming seems to be electronically mixed down a little more and, therefore, less dominant.

I hate to be picky, but I also thought that the goblet shaped hand drum in Egypt is known as a tabla and that the darabukka is its Turkish name. If the reason it is named a darabukka in the credits is because the music is from the Ottoman Empire period, I would prefer that fact be mentioned somewhere in the liner notes.

I am not a music historian or music scholar but am surprised that some of the songs in Khamsa Saidi (volume one) are actually early 19th century. Although I do like the piece, it just seems to be a bit modern in sound. The Saidi medley sounds like a 20th to 21st century cocktail to me. Really? Is this music from the early 19th century? Did they play the qanun in the Said?  I thought it would more likely be a rababa or a wind instrument, but then, I’m not a scholar, so don’t know.

These two CDs would be appropriate classroom additions or would be helpful to those who like to do independent study.

Rating: zils – 3 1/2
Rating 3 1/2 zils


CD CoverEgyptian Taqasim: Produced and distributed by Nesma
The Players: Mohamed Fouda, nay; Mamdouh el Gebaly, oud; Emad Ashour, cello; Abdallah Helmy, kawala; Maged Naeem, kanoun, Mohamed Aly, violin
Percussion:Hesham el Araby, riq; Ahmed Bedir, riq; Khamis Henkesh, tabla; Negm Hanafi, tabla, Mohamed Sobhi, riq

The list of players is impressive; however, there are no accompanying liner notes.
Usually, a J-card or liner notes may have at least a one or two paragraph "mission statement" or description. This had neither; it had nothing, only an insert advertising other CD and DVD products for sale. This was disappointing to me.

Below are my notes on the 2 CDs’ individual tracks:

  1. Nay 1 – Begins with an nearly 2 minute no-rhythm introduction that is used as a mood setter for the album. I don’t know why, but it reminds me a bit like something from one of Nesma’s other CDs. This is good.
  2. Nay 2 – This piece with riq percussion sounds like a continuation of track 1 (only it is called “Track 2”).
  3. Oud 1 – is Flamenco and Andalusian in feeling. (This piece also includes a riq.)
  4. Cello 1 – evokes nights in the Orient, but, huh?  It just stops abruptly! (I would have preferred it to fade instead.)
  5. Cello 2 – After the abrupt stop in the previous track, the piece picks up again.  It’s the same river, just a different tributary.  Nonetheless, once again, it stops abruptly. (I begin to wonder: are these are merely out-takes from Nesma’s other CDs?)
  6. Kawala 1 – The kawala is like the nay–there is no percussion but there is “noodling”– a slightly jazz-modulating or noodling sound. It has a good ending.
  7. Kawala 2 – This is played with riq accompaniment. It is reminiscent of tracks one and two. This, being the second track and is a continuation or a good transition from track 6. This piece makes sense and is a fun, playful piece.
  8. Kanoun  – This is a good transition from the kawala. Its 2 minute liquid-like introduction introduces the riq. I like this taqsim but it seems to be out of context as it should be within a larger body of music such as a composed instrumental piece. It sounds to me like a lot of meandering. Perhaps it is great listening or instructive to serious music students, but it all sounds like a bunch of “noodling around” to me.
  9. Violin 1– This track ends too abruptly for my taste.
  10. Violin 2 – …but then, it almost makes sense when this track (#10 Volin 2) picks it up and the riq enters. It has only an acceptable ending.
  11. *Nay 3 – The transition from track #10 is okay, but I like this piece; it makes sense to my ear as it goes into that old formulaic sawal gawab of the formula baladi taqsim. To my ear, this piece becomes a danceable piece! I also like it because it has the promise of being an exciting, as well as danceable, piece.
  12. * The transition is good with this oud taqsim. It is comfortable and familiar, and I love the drone background. It is a beautiful taqsim that seems to morph into a bambi type percussive iqa (rhythm) and because of the drum, this taqsim becomes magical with a slight jazzy feel. The oud plays with some repetitious lines and probably lays a repeating loop track over itself to create a hypnotic dance. When the riq enters, it becomes the clincher (the deal breaker) and the CD becomes a hit in an "Is this a hit–or a miss?" album.

Would I use this album? Probably not; it is just not for me. Maybe it would be good for teaching or cool-down music. Would it make good background music in a restaurant? Yes. It is pretty music and soothing.

The titles remind me of going to a museum and seeing a photo exhibit with all the pieces labeled "untitled". However, it is a beautiful CD: beautifully recorded with a good sound engineer. The editing between the tracks is not always smooth enough. (Maybe some of the tracks could have had fade-ins or fade-outs to give the pieces smoother transitions.)

*Tracks 11 and 12 are what makes this album happen for me.

Rating: zils – 3 1/2
Rating 3 1/2 zils

I’m not a classically trained musician, but I do know what I like. I do not play musical instruments (outside of percussion instruments) but for over 20 years, have played in many bands that perform everything from pop to traditional to classical, including Andalusian and Muwashahat. At this time, I am active in two performing bands–one a dance band and one a classical ensemble–so I am familiar with all different genres of music.

In conclusion, my assessments of the two productions I have reviewed here are as follows:
The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun Volumes 1 and 2 does not contain what I would call good listening music; it is not liquid enough for my ears, but the two disks are a “must-own” for all serious music and dance students and teachers.

On the other hand, Egyptian Taqasim, is liquid and beautiful and has masterful musicianship–but that is all…

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  1. george sawaNo Gravatar

    May 20, 2011 - 11:05:44

    Thank you Amina for your very positive review of my 2 CDs: “The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun.” Thanx so much for highly recommending them to dancers as important and invaluable additions to their music and dance library because of their educational value and for listening and dancing. The CDs were also highly praised by dancers such as Momo Kadous, Bozenka, Yasmina Ramzy and Ranya Renee. (For their reviews please go to REVIEWS on my website
    The title of the CDs is about the performance style of the music and not the origin of the pieces, which are not only of Egyptian provenance, but also of Syrian and Ottoman Turkish origins. These three music nationalities are know as the Ottoman repertoire as well as the Ottoman Arabic repertoire. The purpose of the project was to revive the old dances on original instruments and in the performance style and aesthetics of that period. I would be overjoyed if dancers took this project further and danced to these pieces in the older style of Badia Masabni, Taheyya Carioca and Samia Gamal.
    Historically these dances were performed not only by a takht (small music ensembe) but also by one melody instrument (as for example Rakset el-Hawanem as performed by Sami el-Shawwa in 1928).
    The darabukka is another name for the tabla and both names are used interchangeably in Egypt. The Sa‘idi music dates back to the 19th century and sa‘idi music is often performed on rababa and arghul but also on urban instruments like violin, qanun, ud, etc.; on the other hand, urban music like Inta Omri can be heard played on rababa. In short, the urban folkloric divide is not clear cut.
    Thanx again,
    George Sawa.


  2. Amina GoodyearNo Gravatar

    May 20, 2011 - 12:05:40

    Thank you for your response and clarifying some of my questions posed in the above review. I so appreciate your CDs and all that you do to help educate us dancers. I hope that all dancers take it to heart and buy and study your CDs. We all need to learn about and understand the music we dance to.
    Sincerely, Amina Goodyear

  3. george sawaNo Gravatar

    May 20, 2011 - 02:05:52

    Dear Amina
    You are very kind. Did you get a chance to look at my “Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers>” IT is all designed for you dancers and I dedicated it to Naima Akef, Taheyya Carioca and Samia Gamal who brought so much joy to my childhood. Let me know if you have any questions and thanx again.
    George Sawa


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