When I wrote to Gramafoon’s Ahmad Kamal of my interest in the language of sound, especially when the image ceases to talk, his response was that the image is the easy way out.
And then Mada Masr’s “Sound of Stories” eventually came together, as an event that mixed sounds with stories to talk about how Arab music traveled historically to become a repertoire, a cultural definer, where sound pounced into space to tell stories of love, hate, victories, defeats, nationalism and more. As with other realms of expression, the story of sound in Egypt is also one of dispute over who controls the record and its means of dissemination.
In this public moment of a newspaper hosting an event on stage, Mada Masr with the aid of moderator Mahmoud Refat attempted to take a trip with the audience to other territories of storytelling outside the realm of the visual, where image and text are dominant. As a tribute to sound being the first draft of journalism, to which first-hand oral records remain vital, “Sound of Stories” dug further into the institution of sound.
Musician Mustafa Said, director of the Beirut-based Music Archiving and Research Foundation, was the first panelist to speak. He examined the historical narrative of music in the Arab cultural repertoire, which tends to be constructed locally using Orientalist accounts and their subsequent flaws. He started by debunking the common belief that Arab music was not recorded until the first decade of the 20th century because musicians died before recording devices were introduced in the region.
This video was produced by Mada Masr.
Said explained that recording practices actually entered the Arab world in 1895 on request from Abdeen Palace, the site of the kingdom’s rule in Egypt, to Edison Records. Since then, numerous discs were recorded, though much has been lost in the archives.
Another misconception is that Arabs didn’t note down their music. Said clarified that Arabs wrote musical notes in an alphabetic way as opposed to the prevalent neumatic method of notation in the West. He cited hundreds of alphabetic scores for Arabic music, found particularly in Baghdad.
Finally, Said spoke of a significant heritage of purely instrumental recordings that is largely ignored in the official historical narrative of Arab music, with such recordings constituting 34.4 percent of total music recordings in the region. In order to put this into perspective, he mentioned that in Europe, instrumental recordings were at 35.2 percent, only slightly more than in the Arab world.
“The history was written by those who wanted to create a symphonic orchestra and sing Arab nationalism through it. But they didn’t reach the symphonic orchestra or Arab nationalism,” he said.
Said unearths this history from trash bins and collectors in Arab cities, not for nostalgia’s sake or with a desire to restore some lost sense of pride, but because he sees this history as a site of new creations.
Turning to a more experiential approach to his presentation, Said played discs on a phonograph, which he called “yesterday’s iPod.” In a brief trip with different discs, he traced recording practices from the time of musician Zaki Mourad, circa 1912, up until the time of his daughter, renowned singer Laila Mourad, circa 1938. This showed how evolving sound quality and the diversity of both vocal and instrumental recordings testify to dynamic recording practices.
After Said established that the historical record exists, Kamal of Radio Gramafoon came in with a narrative about the distorted dissemination of this record through radio.
Although 1934 is the official start date of Egyptian radio, there is a concealed history of community radios servicing limited ranges and neighborhoods, Kamal said. Many became sites of community infighting, which prompted a state intervention to declare one official wireless radio network commissioned to the famous British Marconi Company.
The evolution of radio from then on is a narrative about a state controlling and mainstreaming the realm of audio expression to service its national project. With the end of Marconi’s contract in the late 1940s, radio was further nationalized to the tune of the new ruling elites. Recordings from the past, from the pre-1952 revolution era, were banned or distorted, while shows and dramas promoting the revolution were specifically commissioned for radio. In 1958, former President Gamal Abdel Nasser named the radio a legal personality and transmission devices were banned.
“They were so crazy about radio that they named it a government employee,” Kamal said, laughingly, before a final telling anecdote: Nasser’s speeches, as well as those of his successor Anwar Sadat, were often recorded on top of old recordings.
Kamal said that today Egyptian public radio plays only 8 percent of its archival recordings, with the rest unknown, recorded over or trashed. Yet community networks are back in play today with the aid of digital tools. They still service very limited areas and have limited impact, Kamal said, but they exist in the shadow of the mammoth public radio. But by virtue of being mammoth, public radio has been able to export a hegemonic narrative of music nationalism with persistent historical flaws.
A playful audio mix prepared by Kamal opened with a record from an early-1900s community radio, the Viola radio, followed by the seminal “Huna al-Qahira” (Cairo is Here) announcement of the official wireless radio network. Then the famous Mohamed Abdel Wahab sang “Shoft Khayaloh fel Manam” (I Saw his Shadow in a Dream) in what would be the first official radio performance, followed by a recording from Om Kalthoum’s monthly concerts, played for the first time on radio. The track then moved on to show a sample of radio programming in the post-1952 era, a mix of pop content from radio productions, ranging from Maarouf al-Iskafi’s Ice Cream operetta to renowned singer Abdel Haleem Hafez’s love songs — both brands of state-sanctioned entertainment back then.
This video was produced by MadaMasr.
Despite a distorted history of sound in which both the archival record and its mode of dissemination are subject to state control, there remain spaces of possibility. Abdel Rahman Hussein spoke of the internet as one, through which he introduced his project Dandin, an “online space for any form of expression in audio format from Egypt and the region.” Hussein spoke of the liberating nature of the internet both for un-curated varieties of audio expression and for uncontested access. Dandin, as a platform, reproduces these traits, and the type of users’ uploads on it speaks to both the question of variety and access.
Like the other panelists, Hussein had been asked to mix a track of sounds of preference from Dandin, sounds that somewhat delineate what the platform is about. So he put together a track that mixes Abdullah Miniawy’s “Touf Be” (Err with Me), which carries shades of religious intonations, with PanSTARRS’ “So Little Time,” which has a British indie style, moving on to excerpts of Egyptian hip hop by Abyusif, remixes of classics such as DJ Pretentious’ take on Asmahan’s “Ya Habib Taala” (Come, My Love), and closing with Aly Talibab, praised by many for his poignant odes to today’s youth. The mix was diverse and reflected the un-curated nature of Dandin, a parallel to the un-curated nature of the internet.
A brief interjection by Kiss FM co-founder Gordon Mac introduced a view from outside, but also a tale of similar contestation of the state’s control over what we listen to. He spoke about how the phenomenon of pirate radios started in the UK in the 1960s, with offshore pirate broadcasting from international waters in response to young Londoners’ desire to listen to types of music, like soul and reggae, that were not played by the BBC. Kiss started off as a land-based pirate station in 1985.
“There was no legal radio station for young people who wanted to hear dance music,” Mac said. However, in the 1990s, through popular pressure, Kiss FM and other pirate radios were legalized at the realization that different communities have different listening needs.
Realizations aside, Mac’s contribution left many of us wondering why piracy has not been as common in Egypt. Panelists suggested that strong deterrence mechanisms, such as espionage charges that can translate into death sentences, may have killed the potential for piracy — but perhaps not other illegal practices of transmission, and certainly not divergent and audacious musical expression.