As this article is being written, public discourse in Egypt is heating up in a debate on the principles of the freedom of expression; one faction is vocal in its support of the recent ban on Sha’bi performers implemented by the Head of the Musicians Syndicate, Hany Shaker, whereas the other sees this as an encroachment on the rights of the masses, and that it is unnecessary.
There is no doubt that this form of music has great appeal with many Egyptians, transcending class differences, and this fact comes as a no surprise when one looks at today’s weddings and finds that, whether taking place in a simple side-street or the most prestigious of venues, all weddings have Sha’bi music. One way or another, it became the de facto art form on these occasions.
More than often, Egyptians from older generations who are against this genre of music lament over the glorious past of Sha’bi music, mentioning the names of Mohammed Taha, Mohammed Roshdy, Horeya Hassan, and many more. These artists shaped this form of music in the early 1930s, popularizing it throughout Egypt and the Arab World.
Back in the day, this was the music of the everyday farmers and workers; each region from Upper Egypt to Sinai had its own sub-genre laden with elements of culture and heritage. Each village had its musical prodigies who sang on the hardships of life, love, resilience, sorrow, and heartbreak.
With the industrial revolution making its way to Egypt, the advances in radio technology allowed this art form to gradually reach all governorates of the country, and elements from Lower and Upper Egypt started to merge, forming somewhat of a unified sound to the Sha’bi song.
It was not until the 1970s, with the rise of Ahmed Addaweya that this art form truly became regional. Songs such as ‘Salametha Om Hassan’, ‘El Seh El Deh Embo’, ‘Bint Al-Sultan’, and ‘Zahma Ya Donia Zahma’ had made an impact on the Egyptian music scene that lasts to this day.
Following Addaweya came the Egyptian superstar Hakim, who with songs such as ‘El Salamo Aleko’, ‘Wala Wahed Wala Meya’, and ‘El Wad Da Helw’ became a staple of Egyptian celebrations. The first song ‘El Salamo Aleko’ was so popular that it was featured in a belly dancing scene in the Hollywood film ‘Vanity Fair’, and although the scene did not make any sense as this was a modern song featured in a film supposedly from the Victorian era, it was still amusing to see Reese Witherspoon dancing to Hakim tunes.
Hakim had a number of contemporaries such as Sha’aban Abdelreheim, Abdelbasit Hamouda, and more, who added their take on the art form.
Then came Saad Al-Soghayer, who was popular throughout the early 2000s, followed by artists such as Oka and Ortega, who popularized the electronic form of the music. Then came the rise of mahraganat, and now, Hamo Bika, Hassan Shakoush, Omar Kamal, and producer Figo Al-Dakhlawi are taking over.
The Sha’bi scene looks very different from what it was 90 years ago. The evolution of the sound and lyrics is phenomenal; indeed, it is one of a few art forms that witnessed such revolutionary changes over the course of a century, but should that be a bad thing?
Taha, Addaweya, and Hakim were considered radical artists at different points of their careers, but did this fact make any of them less of an artist? You might disagree with the lyrics of ‘Bent Al-Geran’ for referring to alcohol and drugs, but would that make the song less popular with people? Art has always been a reflection of the internal and external worlds of an artist, their soul and environment, and a violation of an artists’ freedom of expression would only make their art more popular.