Excavating the Egyptians

In the fall of 2005, I discovered an antique market in the basement of a commercial building in Kuwait. It was filled with bric-a-brac, fake souvenirs, giant birdcages, Nazi memorabilia, and framed carpets with the faces of past rulers woven into them, alongside genuine local and regional antiques. The place was a little overwhelming, like the contents of a monstrous cabinet of curiosities that had spilled out of the cabinet. But one could sense that amid all the tacky made-in-Taiwan trinkets there was mighty treasure to be found. And ancient treasure I did find!

Lo, it was… an eight-track tape. A pile of them, actually, sealed in plastic and covered with an insidious layer of barely perceptible gunk.

The shop also sold cassette tapes and vinyl records of all sizes and speeds, some broken in pieces (“Aha my friend, is still antique!”). But I was mesmerized by the eight-tracks. They were by far the most exotic things in the store. I had never seen an Arabic eight-track tape before; the format had been killed off by the cassette tape in the early 1980s. I swiftly decided to buy the whole pile of them, some twenty tapes in all, as well as the cheapest and least elaborate eight-track tape player in the shop. (There were several.) I didn’t even look through the tapes, saving the pleasure of discovery for home. Post-purchase, the seller kindly directed me to a sink — my hands were black and sticky from the grime.

Back at home, after peeling back the sealed plastic of yore, I surveyed my bounty. The prize was a pair of 1970s albums by a band I’d never come across, El Masryeen. Literally, The Egyptians. One called “Bahibik La” (“I Love You Not”), and one called “Horeya” (“Freedom”). I shoved the latter into my eight-track player, and after some technical fidgeting, finally achieved sound. It was the sound of a vocoder! My eyes were watering from joy (and dust). Could it be that an Arab band had used the vocoder in the 1970s? It was odd enough that there was an Arab band at all in that era, swimming against a tide of solo performers. Then the title song kicked in, and an electronic voice sang “horeya!” “Freedom… freedom… in the world, freedom. Don’t control my darling and don’t let him control me… freedom!” Followed swiftly by a driving martial rhythm, bird whistle, and funk synthesizers, exploding into a chorus proclaiming “Horeya!” It sounded like eight bands playing at once. I was beside myself.

Who the hell were The Egyptians? I Googled them immediately — no easy task, given the name — and discovered that an MIT student had painstakingly transferred his cassette tape of “Bahibik La” and uploaded it on the university’s site. I hurriedly ripped the Real Player files using a mono-sound ripper — a terrible idea in hindsight, but it was the only way to safeguard my new purchase. I was glad I did, because my eight-track player whirred its end-all spark soon after, completing the cycle of obsolescence.

El Masryeen was the work of Hani Shnouda, a composer with extensive experience in making music for television. It’s said that the idea for the band came from Naguib Mahfouz himself, who urged the young Shnouda to create a music that would stylize the new realities of Egypt at that moment in time. There were almost no bands to speak of at that time; Egyptian music, which had a totemic power across the Arabic-speaking world thanks to the power of its film industry, was orchestral music — the great singer interpreting Arabic poetry. It was a formula that had hardly changed in decades, and it cried out for shattering.

Les Petites Chats, a new late sixties group from Alexandria, were one sign of life. But there was nothing radical about them — smooth and lounging, their sound and repertoire derived from sixties French pop. El Masryeen introduced Western rhythms, electronic instruments, new harmonies, and humor, creating modern songs in the Arabic language that sounded like nothing that had come before. And thanks to Shnouda’s connections, their music, radical even without vocals, often played on TV. (The track “Longa 79” was the theme song of the soccer program Camera in the Field.) They released six albums, finding an audience beyond the cosmopolites at the American University.

Their lyrics were modern as well. Arabic pop was all songs of unrequited love, subtly nuanced by regional filters. Lyrics were staid, slapstick, or just plain solemn. El Masryeen did love songs, too, but they were consistently progressive in their approach. Besides “Horeya” — a song about not dominating one’s partner in a relationship — there was “Bahibik La” (”I Love You Not”), a clear rebuke to the Romeo and Juliet school of romance espoused by lyricists of the day. Liberated from centuries of pining in a cobwebbed corner, the narrator of the song “Assif Gidan” (“I’m Really Sorry”) matter-of-factly announces, “My experience with you was a failure… and that was clear from the first glance.” In the song “Mafetshi Leh” (“Why Did He Not Pass By?”), lead female singer Iman Younis bemoans being stood up by a man, only to drift off to the subject of being stuck in a bad traffic jam, uncontrollable by the police. The abstractness of those lyrics! This song was the pearl in my eight-track oyster — a sonic artifact of exceptional melodic expression, ahead of its time in every way, its origins fiercely guarded by a hoarding jinni: moi. I can imagine it falling into the grasping hands of Jay-Z or some other over-the-hill dad rapper, who will sample its dreamy intro for an iPod commercial.

Perhaps it’s only fitting to remember El Masryeen now, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution that gave new hope to people across the globe. Last year, the group reformed, uniting Shnouda and Younis for the first time in two decades. (Various other principals, including lead male singer Omar Fathy, died in the intervening years.) Profiles appeared in Egyptian newspapers and website, including one by Dina Abdel Al in Al-Masry Al-Youm that was indispensible in writing this article. As Shnouda told her:

Our music is revolutionary in its tune, in its arrangements, and, of course, in its lyrics. We transformed Egyptian music from being monophonic music, where the singer and the orchestra would play the same note, to polyphonic music that makes the keyboard, the bass, etcetera, play different notes. This is the change we made and that was the base we gave to modern Egyptian music.

Shnouda is being modest here. The move from monophonic to polyphonic harmony was radical for Arabic music in general, not just Egypt.

The artist and musician Kareem Lotfy thinks that El Masyreen’s greatest achievement wasn’t their modest success as a self-consciously experimental musical outfit. It was the slow, almost anonymous diffusion of their style through the media, especially their numerous, mostly uncredited TV appearances. “For better or worse,” he says, laughing, “people started copying them, and the mainstream style changed.” Lotfy suggests that Shnouda’s post-Masryeen career as a producer and music writer for solo artists was equally influential. The legion of contemporary Arab pop chanteuses hearken back less to Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim than to the kind of post-polyphonic arrangements Shnouda pioneered in the early 1980s with Mona Aziz, among others.

The final El Masryeen album, “Ebdaa’ Men Gedid” (“Start All Over Again”), was released the day that President Sadat was killed, although a handful of tracks would appear throughout the 1980s, including the instrumental “Longa 85.” There were “musical differences” — they were a band, after all. But Shnouda was also tired of the criticism the band was subject to, despite its popularity. El Masryeen had long been critiqued for un-Egyptian influences — a critique the group would address in its song “Mickey Mouse.” But they were also attacked for being too Egyptian — for undermining the pan-Arab ideal of Orouba (Arab unity). It was our loss. If you ask me, the Arab world still has much to learn from The Egyptians, then and now. About unity, and about deviations from the norm.