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As the Music Fades:

Camp Negum
Band at Camp Negum Cruise 2010
L to R: Reda Saad, Kamel Gaffer, Gamel Fouad, Samir Grinch, Gaber el Nassa, Yousry Hefney.

Egypt’s January 25 Revolution’s Impact on the Muscians and Dancers

by Leila Farid
posted April 11, 11

It is easy to take my musicians for granted. Sometimes if I am performing in a large ballroom and my orchestra is situated in a polar opposite direction, I don’t even really see them. What I do notice however, is if one of my core musicians is missing. From the first few bars of the opening music I can tell if someone is absent.

I can become almost panicked if I know one of them will not be there for an important show. I have come to rely on them as musicians and realize that they are also my friends.

With the exception of my tabla player in 2005 and my violin player in 2006, most of my musicians have been with me for 8 years. We have shared more birthdays and holidays together than we have with our families.
We have lived through some things that we now look back on and laugh about – like the time our bus caught on fire, or the wedding where we had to calm the guests down.

On the way back from a wedding in Alexandria our bus caught on fire. Kamel, the violin player, who is almost blind, smelled the smoke before anyone else and was beating the other musicians with a his cane to try and get off the bus while the others, who had no idea about the fire, were trying to stop him.

Then there was the wedding in Assuite where a fight broke out between the guests during the first few bars of music (before I had come on stage). The groom begged the band to keep playing to calm the guests. The musicians were dodging flying chairs while playing, and in the chaos lost two mobile phones and a wireless microphone.

There were also times that were not so funny. After the last Camp Negum Cruise in the early days of the revolution, the musicians were tear gassed in the train station and their train cars were pelted with bricks and rocks as they returned to Cairo.

Also there was the recent loss of my long time accordion player, Samir Askar, who passed away suddenly in February.

But the most recent event we have experienced together is also the one of the most devastating to our industry- the loss of work because of the January 25 revolution in Egypt.

Directly after the revolution we had eleven weddings cancel with no new bookings. The Nile Maxim also stopped sailing for the first month. And when it resumed they asked all the artists to take a 50% pay cut with less than half the number of cruises. In order to work, I had to let some of my musicians go. I was one of the lucky ones. I still danced 6 weddings and have a trickle of new bookings. Even with a pay cut, I’m still working. Others have not been so lucky.

The cabarets of Harem Street were almost completely destroyed. Looted and burned, it will take months, if not years, to rebuild. Dancers whose shows were in hotels were cancelled altogether, no guests. The musicians who work with these dancers have lost all their income. All musicians pay into a union and fees are collected by this union at all events where musicians work. As of today, no money has been paid out by the union to any musician.

Musicians, as a group, are not considered for donations by traditional charity groups because what they do is thought of as “haram.” If someone is going to help them, it has to come from the inside. Amr Diab and Tamer Hossni have both donated money. But since there are around 2 million registered musicians in Egypt only a handful of people received 150LE (approx $26) each and stood for days in front of union headquarters to get it.

I wanted to do something more personal, to help the musicians I know. I contacted Lynette Harris of with the idea of a charity concert. She put me in touch with Amina Goodyear of San Francisco who ran with the idea. She has organized a weekend of workshops and a benefit concert ( Most of the proceeds will go to a group of between 10 and 20 (depending on the amount raised) musicians from Cairo who are in serious need of support. The response has been overwhelming and the workshops are sold out!

Following are the stories of some of the musicians who work with me, to give an idea of what life is like for them pre and post revolution. We will watch as the real affect of the January 25th Egyptian revolution unfold in the coming months. Hopefully the benefits of self government and freedom will outweigh the current economic crisis, but as dancers we must help the people who give us the backbone of our dance….the music.

“Without music, life would be a mistake…I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.” Fredrich Nietzsche

Gamel Fouad – Nay

How did you start with music?
My sister played the nay. I started to play her nay when I was 12 years old. When I was older I went to music school and learned how to read music and play all types of nays.

When you started did you think this was a good life?
Yes, this is what I wanted to do and I had talent. I also studied to be an accountant but left it for music. Inside everyone is something you must listen to. When that something is music, it is from God.

Was work better in the past?
Much better. There weren’t as many musicians and there was more work. But we didn’t make as much money then. We worked a lot and the money was little but our lives were good.

How do you feel about other musicians? Is there competition between musicians?
We started together, so we understand each other and are like a family. This orchestra I am with now I have played with many members for 17 years. The nayeties in Cairo are friends. We know each other and help each other out.

If someone needs an instrument or if we can recommend someone for a job, we do it.

Did you work with only dancers or also singers?
I have worked with both and sometimes at the same time. I have also played with a Takht. (A takht is a ensemble typically comprised of between two and five musicians.). I like working with dancers the best. I feel the most comfortable with them, more than Tarab, because this is what I feel inside. It is the work I have gravitated toward.

What do you think of foreign dancers?
I like to work with foreigners best because they are on time and they respect their musicians.

How do you feel about the money you make?
Before the revolution I felt I made enough to support my family. Now there is no money and no work.

Do you feel it will improve?
I don’t know, everyone is afraid. There are many things still undecided in the country. We are living in times of indecision.

You have not been well for a few years now. Is it difficult to play?
In the beginning, I had an operation that the musicians’ union paid for. When I needed a second one, they said they would pay but didn’t. I had to ask my friends for the money. Sometimes I am sad on stage now because even though I am sick I still must play to earn money for medicine. I also have a wife and three kids to look after. There is no government help anyone. And the money we paid into the union has disappeared.

My medicine is very expensive. Since I am no longer earning money I stopped taking it. I don’t know what will happen to me.

Do you feel there is respect for musicians in Egypt?
The people of Egypt love music but they don’t respect beautiful music or want it. They want only the marketable stuff. In the past, becoming a musician was hard. Families were against it. But now we are free to do what we want and most people believe that music is not a bad life.

Band recording in studio
Recording the new CD, Tarab, at the Maryland Sound in Heliopolos. photo by Miriam Abdel Aziz
Safaa Farid, Youssry, Reda, Magdy, Kamel on violin, Gamel on ney, Mohamed duff, Gaber on dumbek, Akmed kanoun player

Youssry Hefney-Tabla

How did you start with music?
I was young. By the age of 5 I loved the tabla. My father encouraged me and arranged for me to go to music school. But then I left to play for a children’s TV program. After the show I went to Mohamed Ali and Harem streets. I was the youngest tabla player there. I didn’t finish my schooling because I was working so much.

How did you choose to work with dancers?
I started playing for dancers on Mohamed Ali Street. I worked with a dancer who was also performing in Harem and with singers, but only for a short time. I liked working with dancers more. Dancers wake you up and it’s harder – I have to be on all the time, watching her.

A tabla player is like a tiger, smart and constantly watching.

Are the dancers of Mohamed Ali different from the dancers of Harem?
Of course. Mohamed Ali dancers work at neighborhood street parties and weddings. They only do it for the money. Harem dancers work because they also want to be artists. People come to nightclubs to see the dancers’ art.

You worked many years with Lucy, what was the best thing about her?
25 years with Lucy. She made me think all the time. She was constantly changing and never did the same show twice. I had to anticipate what she would do. She had more than one mergence’ and many tableaux.

She would give me cues from her waist for everything.

Was it better in the past then now?
Yes, we made money because we had more work and the cost of living was not high. The dancers knew which musicians were famous and paid good money for them to work for her. Now things are expensive and there are not many good dancers. In the past there were many.

Why do you think this is?
The dancers of the past danced for art and now it is for money. They just want to make a quick buck.

What caused this?
The government was not the problem. The economy is the problem. Anyone will undercut another to get work. The people used to care about art but now they only bring a dancer if she is not expensive. Also people are afraid of the Islamists.

We live in fear they will take over our country. Then they would stop the dancers and we would all stay home.

What do you think of foreign dancers?
They respect time and themselves. Sometimes Egyptians don’t respect their work. They say they are tired and don’t feel like dancing – and then don’t show up for the job.

What about foreigners’ dancing?
The one who wants to be good will be good, but it must come from the inside. Egyptians feel a good dancer and will say that she is good. The good ones succeed here and are requested. The rest just dance and then go back to their countries after a while.

What is next for you?
I want our work to come back. I love my work. Without work I am not happy. I play at home now to practice. Before, when I worked a lot, I would never play at home. Now I miss it.

Om Mohamed-Libisa (dresser)

How did you start working with dancers?
My son and my brother worked with Fifi Abdo. My son was her bookkeeper who paid the musicians and my brother was a bodyguard. I wanted to work so they told me to come make zagareet for her band. That’s how I met Mona Badr. I was her dresser for 4 years, then Safwa, followed by the singers Eman and Gawaher (Morocco). I also worked for Soroya (Brazilian/Egyptian) since Soroya worked in the same place as Gawaher. Then I worked with Nagla (Tunis), Amr (Syria), Busi Samir, two other Busi’s, Liza (English/Iranian) and now Leila (American/Egyptian).

There’s always something I liked about the dancers I worked for. One could be ugly but funny, another could be a bad dancer with a big heart. I liked them all.

Did any of these dancers do something strange before their shows?
Some were nervous before they danced, wondering what the guests would think. So to relax they would take their nerves out on me. I left two dancers because they smelled so bad I couldn’t be in the same room with them (names are not on the above list). No one I worked with drank or smoked drugs. Can you believe it? I’ve heard many stories from other dressers about dancers who were drunk all the time, but mine never were.

Some were constantly sick or worked so much they were tired all the time. But I would try to encourage them to give them strength, since one way or the other they still had to dance, even if they were exhausted.

Were there any problems working with dancers?
When I worked with cabaret dancers, we would finish early in the morning and I would go sit at the musicians’ cafe until the sun came up. That was to avoid my neighbors asking me where I was or what I was doing. People talk, even when they don’t know the truth.

What do you like about working with dancers?
It is clean and not difficult like factory work. I get to see many beautiful places, tourist places that I would never visit otherwise.

Your daughter and nieces work in the same field; did you encourage them?
Yes, because they are near me. Sometimes it is complicated to find the best way home for them when they are out late at night. But when we work together I know who they are working for and can make sure they are respected.

Do you feel that people respect belly dancers?
Not all of them. Some people don’t understand dancers. But the ones who understand it is art, they respect them. The dancers who dance without art or class destroy the reputations of those who do. The religious people lump all dancers together and say they are all bad, but I have worked with many dancers and know this is not true. Some are good people and respect themselves. Others do not. Our history includes dancers like Naima Akef and Fifi Abdo. They were real artists.

I like the foreigners because they respect the dance and are classy like them. They give work to so many people from their sweat. Many are generous and give to poor people. We must respect them.

Did you ever think to leave the dance industry?
Yes, but it was not my idea. My neighbors pressured me because they didn’t understand what I do. They made me feel bad about working with dancers. But I see what goes on behind the scenes, I know what I do is respectable – but people talk. Finally, I decided not to listen to them.

What do you think of the Egyptian revolution of 25 January?
There are good and bad things that came of it. The worst part is that money has disappeared for day workers. For us, artists are not working so we sit at home. No one wants to spend money on artists now. On the other hand, the revolution changed the system so maybe it will get better.

Leila and Om Mohamed-2004 in Alexandria

Reda Saad-Accordion/Organ

When did you start to play music?
The first year I worked on stage as a musician was 1970 as an accordion player. My father was a musician and played the piano. My brother played the keyboard. I started with the singers Emad Abdel Halim, Kerry Mahmoud, Shafi Galel and Sabah. The first dancer I worked with was Zizi Mustafa. I have worked with dancers for 25 years.

You like to work with dancers more than singers?
Yes, because dancers work every day. Big singers only work once a month. I make more money and have a steady income.

You have played with many foreign dancers, was this a choice?
Of course. Let me tell you, if an Egyptian comes along now and wants me to play for her, I can’t. For every 20 Egyptian dancers there will be only one who knows how to dance and who does it for art. I can’t play for a dancer who isn’t any good. It makes me tired. Foreigners are the opposite. There are 19 good ones and 1 bad. In Egypt, the religious people make it difficult for Egyptian women to dance. People talk badly about them, so those who are smart and classy decide not to dance. Being foreign makes it easier. People don’t think badly of her, so she is freer.

How did you start to write music for dancers?
I wrote a song for Bussi Samir. Then I wrote a mergence’ for Leila. I like to write.

Even if someone hasn’t commissioned a piece from me, I still compose on the organ at home. I don’t like to sit in coffee shops or go out after work. So to relax, I play.

Do the people of Egypt respect musicians?
Many people respect musicians, although those who don’t understand our culture think it is haram. But there aren’t many. Often people get their ideas from their families and don’t think for themselves. They never ask what is right or wrong, they just follow. If someone tells them music is haram they believe it. But most Egyptians love music and listen to us. The irony is an Egyptian will say belly dancers are not acceptable, but will hire one for his daughter’s wedding.

We must think for ourselves and make our peace with God, not with others.

What do you think about making money from music?
I have always earned my living from music. It has been good to me.

What do you think of the Jan 25 revolution?
This had to happen, but real change will take many years. We need time to change people’s mentality. We have taken our ideas from Mobarak’s government. Unfortunately, it is still here, even after the revolution. We gave our new government to students of Mobarak. Since they learned from him, they don’t know how to think outside of his regime. Ahmed or the father of Ahmed, it is still the same person.

What about the state of Egypt after the revolution?
People are afraid to spend money. There is no work. Egypt is full of money but only a few people know how to earn it. We have tourism and the Suez Canal and electricity. We need to work together to return this money to the people.

I love Egypt and Egyptians are kind, but they are not thinking.

Do you think the Mobarak regime was good for artists?
Art has not been respected since the reign of King Farouk. Back then, people were free to think and experiment and made good art. Sadat, Abdel Nassar, and Mobarak were carbon copies of each other and didn’t appreciate art. They were always at war and interested in other things – especially amassing money. They kept the people poor. Poor people think about food, not art. Mobarak took over the government when I was 21. I have worked in music since Sadat.

We can’t attain what they had in the past because we are not free. Our minds are full of work and what we should and shouldn’t do. There’s no time for good art. Politics mixed with religion does not make for an atmosphere where the arts can flourish.

Kamel Gaffer-Violin

How did you start playing music?
I started to play when I was 9 years old. My first instrument was the violin. My father and his father were both musicians and they noticed I had talent. They hired a teacher and I studied for three years. From 12 years old I was playing on stage. I thought I was special then. People would cheer and request me. They liked to see the child prodigy.

You have poor eyesight. Was this one of the reasons you decided to be a musician?
My eyes were fine when I was a kid. But later, when I waited for work in the street after dark, my eyes couldn’t adjust to the bright stage lights. The older I got, the worse my eyes became. When I played for films, the movie lights also hurt my eyes. Now I can’t see very well.

You have many kids, are any of them musical?
I have 9 children, the youngest is in high school now. Balal is a great organist, Ali is an oud player and my two twin girls are singers. All of them attended the music academy.

How is your life as a musician, do you feel people respect musicians?
Musicians who start to play young can do nothing else. I know nothing but music. If you compare nations, for example Europe and Japan where I have traveled, there is tremendous respect for musicians. Here in Egypt, it is not the same. People think musicians are machines and can play on stage for hours. In other countries people know musicians are artists and that playing is physical labor and that we get tired.

Here we must enter the hotels where we work by the staff door. This says a lot about how we are not respected.

What do you think about the 25th revolution?
I was always worried the country was not being run properly under Mobarak. Now life is very hard. There is no work and no money in the bank. We have used up all our savings. We are starting to borrow money to live because there is no work. If musicians were respected, the government would have helped us. Our union would have helped us. But no one is helping us.

What do you think about the future?
If the Islamists win a majority in parliament of course they will make our lives difficult.

If they see someone with a violin case in the street, they might grab it and beat him.

What do you feel when you are on stage?
I am very happy on stage – I feel alive and that I am part of an orchestra, a member of a team. I feel the dancer’s every step and I want to play this on my violin. I am most happy when I am playing.

Leila’s Benefit Workshop Schedule

  • April 16-17, Washington DC- Yasmin Henkish
  • April 20, Manhattan, Alia Thabit of Vermont and Nicole Macotsis of New York.
  • April 23, Lebanon, NH
  • May 7 & 8, San Francisco, Amina Goodyear, SOLD OUT!
  • May 11, Long Beach, Tonya and Atlantis and Beach City Mecda, ?

If anyone is interested in making additional donations please contact the author for more information.

Leila has also produced a new CD, Leila Presents “Tarab, Safaa Farid Singing Classic Egyptian Songs for Dance”. This was produced in February 2011 just after the revolution to provide employment for musicians and part of the proceeds of the sale of this CD at all events will go to benefit musicians.

Band Relaxing
Band Relaxing-Circa 1990
L to R: Unknown, Gamel Fouad, Safaa Farid, Reda Saad


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Ready for more?

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  1. Amina Goodyear

    Apr 11, 2011 - 03:04:43

    As of this posting the May 7 and 8  workshops are sold out but there are a few (8) show tickets available for May 6.  Advance sale only – no tickets will be sold at door.

  2. george sawa

    Apr 13, 2011 - 06:04:50

    Tis is indeed very sad. Can Lynette Harris tell us how to proceed here in Canada to help?
    George Sawa

  3. Yasmin Henkesh

    Apr 13, 2011 - 07:04:35

    Perhaps the best way is to host a benefit for the musicians where you are in Canada. Leila, or I, will make sure that all the funds you raise go directly to the musicians. Given the track record of the musicians’ union in Egypt, this is a better way to funnel the money to those who need it most. When $50.00 per musician can be such a life saver, even a small fund raiser can make a huge difference in the lives who need it most.
    Yasmin Henkesh

  4. Tatiana Eshta

    Apr 19, 2011 - 11:04:26

    I was there, but it was interesting to remember. Such will never be forgotten!

  5. Barbara Grant

    Apr 22, 2011 - 02:04:20

    First person narratives are so important. They help us get to know the people who make our dance and our music what it is. Thank you, Leila, for providing their stories.

  6. Yasmin Henkesh

    Jul 4, 2013 - 10:07:16

    When I was in Egypt in Sept 2012, Leila told me about the musicians they gave money to. Safaa talked about how hard it was to decide who to give the money to. Many musicians called him with their stories of why they needed it when they heard he was giving some away. At one point during my visit I was sitting with musicians who mentioned the effort and how grateful they were. I never saw the $ pass hands, but I have no reason to believe these spontaneous moments of gratitude, when they heard I had contributed, were anything but genuine and heart-felt. As far as I know this was a successful effort during a very difficult time. Leila’s musicians were lucky. Leila had work, not much, but some. Some of the others had no work at all for months.

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