Egypt’s old records: Obsessive collecting and squandered heritage

Antique dealers, second-hand markets, auction showrooms, music lovers, music historians, amateurs and the rich are cornerstones of the wondrous world of vintage vinyl records.

The rich history of oriental music and record labels runs from the end of the 19th century until the mid 1950s, through companies such as Gramophone, Odeon, Baidaphone, Meshian, and Polyphon. There was vernacular free verse (adwar gheyanaeyya), couplets (taqateeq), odes, Quran recitation, religious chanting and more. And when the competition between the companies came to an end, the floor was yielded to fierce competition between amateur record-collecting music aficionados, record dealers and Gulfie moneybags.

Record companies

Records entered the Egyptian market toward the end of the 19th century, a little less than two decades after Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, later known as the gramophone or record player, in 1877. Abdo al-Hamouly (1836-1901) and Youssef al-Manialawy (1850-1911) are said to be the first to record on wax records, then called cylinders. This type of record is rarely found in Egypt. Some can be found in the University of South California’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

At the time, a very small number of gramophones existed in Egypt, mainly in rich households. In 1903, the industry witnessed an evolution from cylinders to shellac records, and finally to the now-prevalent vinyl-based compound records. This evolution occurred in parallel with record companies’ invasion of the Egyptian market, predominantly British company Gramophone. While the celebrities of that era forbore to record on the new invention, some records by unknowns, like Mahmoud al-Telegraphy, Nafousa al-Bombosheyya and Nazeera al-Faransaweyya, have been discovered. Although there do exist recordings of one of the most famous composers of that time, Ibrahim al-Qabbany, from 1903, the year the record companies arrived.

Outside Egypt, Lebanese company Baidaphone was founded by Botros and Gebril Baida in Beirut. The date of its first records is not known, as unlike Gramophone records they did not have the date printed on them, although its first record was made by Farajallah Baida. The company opened a branch in Berlin, where its records were manufactured, and one in Cairo, then the region’s most important city. Later, it opened branches across Egypt’s governorates and other Arab capitals.

Baidaphine introduced itself as the only Arabic record label challenging the monopoly of foreign competitors. It recorded almost all the Arab singers, but the biggest share of its sales revenues came from recordings by renowned Egyptian singers, for Baidaphone attracted Egypt’s music icons like Abdel Hayy Helmy (1857-1912) and Sayyed al-Safty (born 1867). The company signed exclusive contracts with many singers, but some actually recorded with almost all the existing companies. Helmy, who made 250 records, is one such example.

During the four years of World War I, the number of international companies recording declined. Political fractures were reflected in the companies: conflicts between the German branch of Gramophone and the British mother company emerged, for example. The German branch kept the Arabic records and marketed them under the new name Polyphon, a spin-off of the mother company Gramophone.

“After the war, Polyphon remained separate from Gramophone, but gave it the old matrixes back, and these records were banned,” according to Frédéric Lagrange, a French music historian who has conducted several studies on oriental music heritage and owns a rare collection of old records. “Yet record amateurs are proud of these strange Polyphon records of Youssef al-Manialawi or Abdel Ḥayy Ḥelmy, that are in fact Gramophone records carrying the German label.”

During the war, an Armenian called Setrak Mechian founded a local company, Meshian. It produced records for emerging singers and was the first to introduce Sayed Darwish (1892-1923). But Meshian recordings had poor sound quality compared to international companies, which were constantly developing their technology. By the end of the war, Meshian’s records disappeared for some time. A new German company called Beka Records was doing well in the Egyptian market. It existed in Egypt before the war, producing Samaa al-Molouk (Monarch Records), a label dedicated to recordings of Manialawy. Other small companies that produced few and rare records, like the Turkish Orpheon, also emerged.

The rise of electrical recording massively transformed the record industry, and was introduced to the region by Columbia Records in 1927. The new records were characterized by refined sound quality, but their short life spans made the sound unbearable if they were overused. In around the same year, Mechian had also began using electrical records.

Competition over record production gradually abated as radio emerged in the 1930s, as well as the beginning of sound films in Egypt. This also coincided with the 1929s economic depression, so record sales plummeted. As Lagrange writes, “The 1930s were the beginning of the end for the golden age of Arab records.” Records continued their gradual demise as technology advanced, with new devices like deck recorders and compact cassette tapes.

The vintage record market

Zein is an antiques dealer in downtown Cairo. He has a fondness for collecting vintage records and a good knowledge of Egyptian musical heritage. He sees vintage record collecting as a trap; once sucked into this treasure-filled world, one is dragged to the depths of heritage to search for gem-like tunes and performances.

Music historians, aficionados, record dealers and amateur collectors from various countries come to Zein, while he roams villages, markets and auctions in search of rare records to complete his valuable collection. His store is stacked with all the record varieties and phonograph labels that have ever existed in Egypt. He also owns a large number of recording devices including deck recorders and cassette recorders, and innumerable cassette tapes. He believes that genuine old music aficionados are extinct, recounting stories about Abdel Aziz al-Anany, Mohamed al-Bann, Saeed al-Masry, Am Gerger al-Tarzy, Mostafa Abul Oyoun and Mahmoud Kamel – who composed music for old Egyptian radio show Alhan Zaman. They were his companions and masters, the bond between them forged through love for genuine old music and record collecting, despite their diverse professions and social backgrounds.

Zein says his customers can be divided into three groups. The first are those who are very knowledgeable about music, and their number has dropped sharply to almost 10 people, including some Gulfie Arabs. Kuwaitis in particular are considered the best music aficionados in the Gulf region, he adds, such as the manager of Kuwait Music Academy, the most important among his customers. The second group consists of researchers such as Lagrange, and institutions such as the Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR) foundation in Lebanon. The third group is collectors, mostly Gulfies. Usually they request Oum Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab records and have no interest in older music icons. Zein is not alarmed by Gulf money buying out Egyptian heritage, saying that Egypt still swarms with countless undiscovered gems despite centuries of plunder and robbery.

Zein owns a copy of the record archive at Dar al-Kutub (the Egyptian National Library and Archives), and uses it in his ardent search for old recordings to complete his collection.

Essmat al-Nemr, a physician from Zagazig, is one of the old amateur record collectors, founder of online music portal Misrfone, and a member of the online oriental music heritage forum Sama3y. Nemr says the amount of this heritage – collected by music amateurs – available on online music heritage forums and other websites isn’t much above 20 percent. The number of members of Sama3y – launched in 2005 – has reached 726,517. Nemr meets his fellow amateurs at what he calls “the music aficionados’ sanctuary,” the residence of Mohamed al-Baz, who with more than 3000 records and 20 gramophone devices owns one of Egypt’s biggest vinyl libraries.

“These markets still surprise us with many more rare records,” Nemr says of vintage record markets. “I bought a valuable Oum Kalthoum record from the Tuesday market in Zagazig, while Dr. Baz got hold of a number of records by Seliman Abu Dawoud, a Jewish Egyptian singer, a music icon of the early 20th century and a descendant of an elite Assiut family. So the old and rare aren’t just found in metropolises like Cairo and Alexandria, but also at the elites’ homes in rural areas across Egypt.”

The tiny group of record dealers is well known to music aficionados. At the Friday market at Sayyeda Aisha, for example, street vendors spread merchandise on the ground and you can dig for a rare, well-preserved recording or two. Such gems can also be found at antique shops that still sell gramophones and records. Sur al-Azbakeyya’s old booksellers also buy complete record libraries.

Price is usually defined by two factors. The first is the rarity of the record itself, with rarity having a number of categories: First, rehearsal records singers prerecorded for fellow music connoisseurs to evaluate before recording final masters for the market, and second, missing recordings of icons like Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab – if ever found, they’re sold for extremely high prices. An example is Oum Kalthoum’s lost recording of Kol al-Ahebba Etnain (All Lovers are Couples). It was performed by many other artists, but it’s widely known that she also sang it, though the recording is missing. This also applies to Abdel Wahab’s missing Ya Lail Feek al-Aneen (Night Time is the Time for Grief), as some references note that he recorded it at the end of the 19th century. Another factor determining record price is the artist’s name.

“Egypt has a trove of rare recordings going back to the beginning of the 20th century,” Nemr adds. “For example, you can find very early and first recordings by female Quran reciters. There is a record of the female reciter Mabrouka in 1905, and records by Sekeena Hassan and Munira Abdo. But around 1920 a religious fatwa was issued that women’s voices are awrah (shouldn’t be heard), so female reciters were banned from reciting for radio broadcast and recording their own records. Another famous female reciter was Karima al-Adleyya, who infatuated Sheikh Aly Mahmoud, founder of religious chanting in Egypt. The demise of female Quran reciters should be addressed when discussing women’s history. Before the invention of the microphone and cassette recorders, there was usually a female Quran reciter in the women’s section and a male one in the men’s at any funeral or other celebration.”

In general, the documentation of Egyptian music heritage is deficient in drawing links between it and the remarkable social changes in Egypt. For example, the taqateeq (couplets) and other illicit songs prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century up until WWI are worth analyzing, for most music studies have focused on musical notes and artists’ histories. It’s worth pointing out that a paradox of the time was the appointment of Sheik Younes al-Qady – famous for writing illicit songs like Irkhi Issetara Alaina (Draw the Curtains Around Us) – to head the Arts Censorship Authority after the new arts censorship law following the 1919 revolution.

There is an immense record library at the Egyptian National Library and Archives – owing to a law that obligates artistic companies to deposit a copy of all productions there – but the library’s condition is deteriorating and to search for what you want you need the mediation of an acquaintance who works for the Culture Ministry. The broadcast radio archive, of course, had the biggest record library in the country, but much of it has been stolen and smuggled out of the country. It’s worth noting that records are easily broken, and some can by played a maximum of 30 times. They therefore need maintenance by experts in record restoration.

“Online music heritage forums like Sama3y, Masrphone Radio, Samaa al-Molouk and Zamaan al-Wasl have not only helped bring about a new generation of music aficionados – they also manage to aggregate important music research, besides continuous efforts to search for missing parts of that heritage,” Nemr says. “It’s always delightful to see the notable contribution of young people in Masrphone Radio and I always receive a number of thank-you messages for making heritage available. Masrphone is a self-sustaining project supported by funds from two Egyptian friends of mine living abroad who are genuinely concerned about making the monumental material of oriental music heritage available to the public. Another friend volunteered to design the website and technically support it, while I prepare lists of productions for streaming. To make this heritage available online, we first need to make a copy of each record by playing it on a deck recorder, then send it through a cable to a computer and finally upload it to the online music forums.”

Nemr claims that the Israeli radio broadcast archive also owns a massive library of oriental music heritage, that he believes is collected from American and European record companies. He is also alarmed by the impact of Gulfie money on our music heritage: “They only buy them for the sake of stacking them in their houses as antiques, not to share them!” he says.

Amgad Naguib, an amateur antiques collector and owner of a vintage record library, disagrees. He believes we should drop the old stereotype of the wealthy Gulfie as ignorant nouveau riche, as Gulfies have come a long way in education and culture. While recognizing that they live in countries with arguably less heritage, Gulfies see Egypt as a neighboring country in which history has accumulated a remarkable amount of heritage, yet remains completely neglectful of it. In Naguib’s view, Gulfies highly value what they possess of Egypt’s heritage. He adds that they don’t only request vintage records, but anything that is old and rare, and that they have their own Egyptian brokers who are experts in old and valuable items. He concludes that exaggerated fears over the loss of our heritage is a mere delusion, especially as there are remarkable efforts to make it publicly available online.

The historical part of this article is indebted to the work of Frédéric Lagrange. More information can be found at the Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR) Foundation.

Correction: This article initially named two more people as record-collecting music researchers and customers of Zein, which was not completely accurate. It was amended on February 21, 2015.

Nermeen Khafagy 

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