The seminal 1970s Kuwaiti comedy show Darb al-Zalaq (The Slippery Path) tells the story of Hussain, a janitor who comes into wealth after the government buys his house during the housing evaluation period following the discovery and nationalization of oil. He stumbles through one get-rich-quick scheme after another until he has a nervous breakdown, and his psychologist tells him to go on vacation to Egypt to get away from it all.
In Egypt he falls in with a shady Egyptian businessman who convinces him to buy the Giza Pyramids, which he claims belong to his corporation. Despite his brother’s entreaty to buy one as a sample first, Hussain comically insists on buying three. On reading Nermeen Khafagy’s Egypt’s old records: Obsessive collecting and squandered heritage, I found these buffoonish stereotypes appearing in what was apparently intended to come across as a thorough journalistic piece.
While the article attempts to qualify its patronizing image of record collectors from the Gulf with concessions that we may not all be so bad, and that some of us are actually knowledgeable about music, the overall image is quite negative. This is compounded by the summary of recording history in the Arab world, which completely elides the rich history of recording in the Gulf and Iraq, as if the Nile were the only major Arab river and Arab culture only sprouted on its banks. And while the original Arabic article is bad enough, the English translation has an even more direct tone of hostility, with the phrase “the rich of the gulf” (athria’ al-khaleej) translated as “Gulfie moneybags.”
While most of the second half of the article is reported from quotes by record and antique dealers (a generally verbose and opinionated group wherever you go, who always portray themselves as experts), the first half repeats and quotes from an interview with music historian Frédéric Lagrange on Sharjah Art Foundation’s Min al-Tarikh podcast, a collaboration with the Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR) foundation. A few episodes later, there is an interview with Kuwaiti musicologist and musician Ahmed al-Salhi.
This interview is enlightening in this context for the way it shifts the focus from Cairo to Baghdad, a historic hub for Arab musicians and recording companies. This shift in perspective highlights the decentralized nature of oriental music recording, and provides just one of the alternate histories that is ignored in Khafagy’s article.
Salhi mentions how the first known Kuwaiti recordings were made between 1912 and 1915, when a man from Zubayr in Iraq arrived with an Edison cylinder/record player that he set up as an attraction at a new cafe he had opened. Religious crown prince Salim al-Sabah was apprehensive regarding the new technology, and exiled the man to Bahrain, where a few elder statesmen purport to have heard the records that are now sadly lost.
According to Salhi, the commercial Kuwaiti recording era began when Hasan Darsa, Baidaphone’s representative in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, was scouting for local talent in 1927. After scouting southern Iraq and discovering historically significant Iraqi performers, such as Hudairi Abu Aziz, Nasir Hakim, Dakhil Hassan and Masud Amaratli, he made his way over to Kuwait.
In Kuwait, he reportedly met with many young performers, of whom a majority refused to record for religious reasons, and because they were uncomfortable with the idea of their disembodied voices. Darsa also met with musician Yusuf al-Bakr, who refused because of Baidaphone’s insistence that he be accompanied by an oud, which he preferred to play himself, and Salih Abdulrazzaq al-Naqi, who recorded one collection then stopped, probably because he was a trader and did not want to continue recording music. Those who did record went on to have long careers as recorded musicians, such as Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti, Saleh Ezra al-Kuwaiti, Dawud al-Kuwaiti and Saud al-Makhayta, who together formed an ensemble of singer, violin, oud and mirwas, a small handheld percussion instrument common in the Gulf.
In 1928, Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti made a series of records with Odeon in Baghdad, which added to the original ensemble a qanun played by Iraqi musician Sayun Cohen. Due to their popularity, Abdullatif was invited to record more. He agreed, and this time went to Cairo in 1929 where Odeon had moved their recording machine after the Baghdad sessions. In Cairo, Abdullatif made a series of records, primarily saut and other Kuwaiti genres, accompanied by oud player Mahmoud al-Kuwaiti and legendary Levantine violin virtuoso Sami al-Shawwa, who in his interpretations of saut music adopted a different style that nevertheless retained his recognizable personal flourishes.
Concurrently, Baidaphon was scouting in Bahrain, where they met saut singers Mohamed Faris and Mohamed Zuwayid. Originally the two men were meant to go to Berlin to record, but Faris declined and the company was left with Zuwayid, who was taken to Baghdad, met both Dawud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti, and recorded a series of records. For more on this period of recording in Baghdad, I’d point everyone to British record label Honest Jon’s superb compilation of shockingly well-restored material from this period, Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted, which features many of the artists Salhi discusses. The record features 20 songs from Gramaphone’s archive, which reportedly contains over 1000 recordings from the Gulf and Iraq from this period.
As Salhi notes in the second half of the interview, both Kuwaiti and Egyptian music suffered a distinct blow with the advent of recording because the traditional music session usually lasted hours, while records could only afford a maximum 20 minutes recording time. Both the fasl of sea songs in Kuwait, and the wasla in Egypt and the Levant were cut up into their constituent songs rather than being played in proper sequence. As a musician, Salhi himself works as a saut and fann artist (a tradition still alive and well in Kuwait), and with his band Oxford Maqam works to revitalize turn-of-the-century Arabic music and play it without the static orchestration and segmentation that has come to define the form.
This little summary does no justice to the wealth of information Salhi provides in the two-episode interview. He also plays some of the records he speaks of, all of which are marked by beautifully unadulterated performances that easily retain their magic. While I can only dream of achieving the musical knowledge (and record collection) of Salhi, who is much more qualified to write this response than I am, my own approach to records stems from my interest in Arab modernism, particularly in how the period witnessed state and commercial cooperation between Arab nations. This period is marked by what Edward Said qualifies as an attempt by Arab writers to culturally create the Arabs as a nation, an observation I extrapolate to the wider spectrum of cultural production, with the caveat that with music and theater, cultural practitioners went to great lengths to incorporate local folk forms into the larger Arab identity. The links between Egypt and Kuwait is particularly storied in this respect, and include some well-known landmarks that may help dispel the stereotypes in Khafagy’s article.
The first modern Kuwaiti magazine, Al-Bi’tha (The Mission), was founded by the first group of Kuwaiti students sent to study in Egypt in 1946. In the 1960s, alongside performances of original Kuwaiti material, Kuwaiti director Saqer al-Rushood was keen to adapt plays written in standard Arabic, most famously Alfred Farrag’s Ali Janah Al-Tabrizi and his Companion Quffa (1969). Farrag admitted that Rushood’s was his favorite production of this period piece because it successfully integrated local heritage and culture, organically introducing Kuwaiti folk music in the opening and closing scenes.
Meanwhile, Kuwaiti musicians and composers such as Abdulhamid al-Sayyid, Saud al-Rashid and Awadh al-Dookhi established a project of modernizing Kuwaiti music by marrying traditional folk forms to Mohamed Abdel Wahab-era orchestration, to the ire of traditionalists and the joy of audiences, who were listening to both Oum Kalthoum and local genres without any sense of contradiction. In 1958, Rashid visited Cairo and recorded a series of five records. On this trip, he worked with Egyptian musicians and invited many to Kuwait to form a Kuwaiti-Egyptian orchestra headed by Neguib Rezqallah.
Sayyid would compose the song Ya Halli, written to coincide with Abdel Halim Hafez’ visit to Kuwait in 1965. Hafez famously performed the song on Kuwait Television. More recently, Mohamed Mounir performed a cheeky cover of it.
What I find most ironic and interesting about this era (the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) is that it begins to trace the way that modern commercialization of music production would take hold and yet the records are the domain of the Arab world’s antiques dealers. What were markers of modernity now sit dustily next to cheap replicas and photocopied black-and-white photographs. This is happening as records as a medium make a global comeback with the proliferation of online buying and selling communities like ebay and discogs.com, and Western initiatives like the annual Record Store Day.
The modern era is also interesting because of the remarkable number of record labels that would appear, put out a few records and then disappear, competing as they were with massive commercial and non-commercial monopolies on music distribution, as well as the entrenchment of major record publishing and recording houses, such as Sonocairo in Egypt, Parlophone’s operations in Lebanon, and Bou-Zaid Phone in Kuwait.
I buy a few records whenever I travel, and I came away from a trip to Egypt this summer with a handful of records I treasure and play regularly. Abdelhalim’s Qari’at al Finjan was a song my father would always play on the oud when I was a child, and his face lit up when I played the record for him. The Arab Music Ensemble’s collections of traditional dawr and muwashah, while representing just the kind of orchestration that to many people’s ears killed these forms, are deftly performed and almost robotically tight — and thus become a good way to introduce people to these genres. Records orchestrated by Zakaria al-Hejjawi, a revivalist of Egyptian folk forms who moved to Qatar and also worked on folk music of the Gulf, are among my favorites — folk forms from Nubia orchestrated with rock and roll drums, and a folk song from Mansoura with dizzyingly grand percussion and snaking trumpet.
Most interestingly, in a dusty box at Sonocairo (Sout al-Qahira), I found a record by Saud al-Rashid and Abdulhamid al-Sayyid — an epic choral Kuwaiti record with clear Egyptian influences reportedly recorded in Kuwait and distributed by Egyptian label Moriphone, which was founded in the early 1960s by Egyptian record producer Maurice Iskandar. Whether my purchase of these records makes me a third-rate Al-Waleed Bin Talal is not for me to say.