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Egyptian Shaabi Music and Song


By Dr. Hisham el Agamy



Table of Contents




Shaabi is a general word. We use it to describe many things in our lives, not just music.

The word shaabi itself comes from the word "el shaab" which mean "the population" or "the folk". Examples of how we use the word shaabi can include:

  • Shaabi food refers to food such as foul [beans], falafel, and koshary. It's not expensive, and everybody can afford it. Therefore, we call it "food shaabi" because all people can get it.
  • We say "shaabi clothes" to mean inexpensive clothes, and not high class clothes.
  • We say "shaabi store", "shaabi home", and "shaabi area.
  • When we use this word to refer to poetry, it means the poem was written in shaabi style so that people without much education can understand it easily. Such poetry does not contain difficult words that could be hard to understand.
  • We speak of shaabi expressions, which are idioms that come from our culture and our lives.
  • We also use the word shaabi to refer to arts. It can apply to music, songs, or crafts. For example, we would say "shaabi arts" for certain types of handmade garments or other items.

Regarding the types of music that could traditionally be described using the word shaabi, we have: 

  1. Regional folk music
  2. Early 20th century shaabi music
  3. The Mawwal
  4. El-Enshad el-Deni

The above are the four types of traditional shaabi music and songs that I know of that were popular in Egypt before changes in the music industry that began in the 1960's. All four are described in detail below.

Tamboura at Aswan



Regional Folk Music

Regional folk music includes instrumental pieces and songs that arose in our culture over the years. They come from various regions in Egypt, are related to daily life in each region, and are characteristic of each region. Shaabi music and songs of cities that lie next to the sea such as Port Said and Suez City would be examples of these. Also shaabi music and songs of the village areas, also shaabi music and songs of Bedouin areas, also shaabi music and songs of Saidi areas. [Editor's note: many Egyptians refer to "music and songs" as separate things. "Music" refers to instrumental pieces, and "songs" refers to vocal pieces.]

Each area, throughout the years, has developed its own characteristic musical style that is related to the culture and lifestyle of its people. It also has its own characteristic musical instruments and its own style of singing. The words that are in these songs contain different meanings, and can express a variety of subjects: love for the country, or for the area, or loving a woman, or praising a popular folk hero, or referencing historical stories.

This type of music has continued until today, and can be found in mawaled [the plural of moulid] and in popular celebrations. There are many troupes in every city for singing and dancing the local shaabi style of that city, and they participate in festivals for shaabi arts. The names of these shaabi troupes are usually related to the city where they come from. For example, the Port Said Troupe for Shaabi Arts represents the city of Port Said. This kind of shaabi music and songs, and also dance was the foundation that Mahmoud Reda relied upon when choreographing his theater shows.

When Mahmoud Reda created his Reda Troupe for shaabi fenoun [folk arts], he went all over Egypt, discovering and collecting the different styles. He even joined the people in doing their dances, and then he used his viewpoint and his talent to create a theatrical show inspired by these shaabi arts. In fact, he was so successful at it, that he made the shaabi performing arts of Egypt famous all over the world.

Reda also succeeded in introducing the Egyptian people to what they didn't know, and they also loved his theater shows.

This is the type of shaabi music and songs that arise from within the culture of villages and cities all over Egypt. Those who sing it are often not famous like the pop singers with the big recording studios. We could say they were locally famous in their regions and within their local community. But after the formation of troupes in every city for the local forms of shaabi art, this type of music became more famous and people throughout Egypt became more aware of it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The Musicians of the Nile perform the Saidi style of shaabi music.

Saidi Musicians



Early 20th Century Shaabi Songs

This category of shaabi music and songs comes from about the beginning of the 20th century. Sayed Darwish was a leader for this genre of shaabi songs. Darwish's songs and lyrics were so simple that any person could understand and feel them. Many of his songs were for the simple people such as fishermen, construction workers, or other manual laborers; i.e., for people who work hard and suffer in their lives. 

Many of Darwish's songs celebrated his love for Egypt, and encouraged people to oppose bad things. We can say that his music and songs reached the populace, so we consider him a leader in shaabi songs and music. Egyptians look to him as not only a singer and composer, but also as a folk hero. His music and songs spoke out against the bad things, and encouraged people to be better in life, although he also sang and composed many lovely romantic songs for women and about love.

Sayed Darwish died at a young age, but fortunately his son El Bahr and his grandson Eman el Bahr Darwish have done such good work in preserving the legacy of Sayed Darwish, that his music and songs are still alive today. His grandson Eman el Bahr Darwish is now the the leader of the Musician's Union in Egypt. When Eman el-Bahr began to sing, he performed the old songs of his grandfather. Even today, the Egyptian orchestras of Arabic music always include songs by Sayed Darwish in their shows in theaters, especially for performances in the Egyptian Opera.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Sayed Darwish.

Sayed Darwish

After Darwish, some new singers came along who performed in the shaabi style. We saw them in the cinema and liked them. These included singers such as Mohamed el-Kahlawi, Mohamed Abdel Moutaleb, Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, and others. They achieved great success as singers. Every one of them had his own characteristic style in shaabi singing, and most of their songs are still popular today.

Their songs didn't originate organically from the rural culture; but rather, the lyrics were shaabi words written specifically for those songs, and with music specifically composed to go with them. Their music was stylistically different from other singers with more of a concert hall musical style such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Farid el-Atrash, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Mohamed Fawzy.

These singers were so famous and so beloved by the people, that when Abdel Halim Hafez first appeared in a theater in Alexandria singing his amazing concert-hall style of song "Saafene Mara", people threw eggs and tomatoes at him. They wanted and preferred Mohamed Abdel Moutaleb and his songs, which they were accustomed to hearing and enjoying!

These shaabi singers continued to perform their styles, and people loved them.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows Mohamed Abdel Moutaleb, who performed at Badia Masabni's club for part of his career.

Mohamed Abdel Moutaleb

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the movies that featured singing by Abdel Aziz Mahmoud was Sett el-Beit (Lady of the House) from 1949. It starred Faten Hamama and Emad Hamdi. Faten Hamama was the real-life wife of actor Omar Sherif and the only woman he was ever married to.

This film is about a newly married couple who goes to live with the husband's domineering mother. Many clashes occur between the mother and the wife because the man's mother is difficult and controlling.

In one scene, which appears at this link, the husband is fed up with the constant fighting between his wife and his mother, so he has gone to a nightclub to escape them and to have a drink. The singer here is Abdel Aziz Mahmoud. The dancer is a very young Naima Akef. She only has two dance numbers in this film but no acting parts. This link leads to a clip of the second dance scene.

Abdel Aziz Mahmoud does not have an acting part in the film either, he appears only as a singer. In the credits of this film he is listed as "The Shaabi Singer Abd El Aziz Mahmoud".

Naima Akef and Abdel Aziz Mahmoud

Two more very good shaabi singers appeared: Mohamed Rushdi and Mohamed el-Ezaby. Mohamed Rushdi appeared almost at the same time as Abdel Halim Hafez. It seems that the composers who created the music saw that Mohamed Rushdi's voice would be better suited for singing shaabi style, so he took this career path.

I once heard Mohamed Rushdi say that he wondered why Abdel Halim Hafez was so much more famous than him, even though he had a good voice too and they both appeared almost at same time. I also heard him answer his own question, saying, "Abdel Halim and I were good friends, but he was more famous than me because he took the path of romantic love songs that girls, women, and lovers liked."

Also, the revolutionaries [referring to the 1952 revolution] here in Egypt embraced Abdel Halim, asking him to sing many patriotic songs for Abdel Nasser and for Egypt, so both of these factors made Abdel Halim more famous than Rushdi. Rushdi was famous in his style of shaabi singing, and he appeared in many films, but for sure to a lesser extent than Abdel Halim. 

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows Mohamed Rushdi.

There also appeared two female singers who performed in the shaabi style. They were Aida el Shaer [sometimes spelled as 3ayda el Sha3er] and Layla Nazme. They were famous, and they specialized in songs for the celebration of marriage.

All these shaabi singers continued to perform, and audiences loved them. We can say that their shaabi style and their songs existed in parallel with other singers who were not shaabi style. They appeared in films and concerts too.

Everything about the older shaabi songs and music was good: the lyrics, the music, and the vocal quality of the singers who performed them. They needed talented people with good voices to sing them. 

Mohamed Rushdi



The Mawwal

The mawwal is also a shaabi style of singing. One of its leaders is the shaabi singer Mohamed Taha who appeared in many old films. He was very accomplished in singing mawwal, usually appearing with a dancer.

Singing mawwal requires a powerful voice. The words can be about either love, or a historical story from the folk culture. This style was famous in villages and in mawaled. Some people say mawwal must always be performed in rural village style wearing a galabiya. However, Mohamed el-Ezaby, who was a shaabi singer and was the lead singer for Reda Troupe for many years, achieved perfection in singing mawwal, even though he didn't wear a galabiya to do it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohamed el-Ezaby sings the song "Luxor Baladna" in the Reda Troupe movie Gharam fi el-Karnak.

In mawwal, the singer stretches the words. For example when he sings the words:

ya leil ya 3ayen

they sound like

ya leeeeeeeeeel yaaaaaaaaaaaaa 3ayen

He is essentially trying to show people that his voice is so talented, so powerful, and so beautiful.

Mohamed el-Ezzabi

In fact, many shaabi singers can sing mawwal, but the one who was most famous for it is Mohamed Taha. This kind of shaabi style continues today and singers still perform mawwal, but today it is mostly in mawaled and villages. I don't know any stars of this kind of shaabi now, and no one is as famous as Mohamed Taha. But they can still be found in mawaled and celebrations in villages. By the way, Khedra Mohamed Khadr was also this type of shaabi singer. 

There is a shaabi artist who spent his entire life collecting and arranging shaabi history. His name was Zakaria el Hegawe [sometimes written as Zakariyya Al-Hijjawi]. He was similar to Mahmoud Reda, but before his time. El-Hegawe traveled to every place in Egypt searching for the historical shaabi music and songs, and he collected many of them. He did not, so far as I know, collect any dances as Reda did. His target was the music and songs for the many regions throughout Egypt.

El-Hegawe was also the talent scout who discovered Mohamed Taha, Khadra Mohamed Khadr, Fatma Serhan, and Gamalat Sheha. He is the one wrote the Operet Ya Leil Ya Ein in 1957, which was the first shaabi opera in Egyptian theaters.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: One of the singers in a Saidi ensemble sings a mawwal while wearing a galabiya at El Dammah Theater in Cairo, in February, 2015.




El-Enshad el-Deni

El-enshad el-deni is a religious style of music that is also regarded as shaabi. This music consists of religious songs whose lyrics praise God and our Prophet. This kind of shaabi music is still popular today, and many singers perform it. We call them el sheikh because all their songs and lyrics are about religion.

There was a famous sheikh who was a leader for this style of shaabi. His name was El Sheikh Ahmed el Towni. Around the 1970's there appeared another who presented competition for him: Sheikh Yassin el-Tohamy, who is still singing today. He is the most prominent performer of the enshad el deni shaabi style of music today, although he is now elderly. For sure, there are many additional singers who perform this kind of shaabi, but Yassin still remains at the top.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Sheikh Yassin el-Tohamy sings.

Sheikh Yassin el-Tohamy



Shaabi Music Since the 1960's

Changing Society

You could say that #1, #3, and #4 are still seen today, whereas #2 is the one that has disappeared somewhat. I.e., the one that has disappeared somewhat is the one of Mohamed el-Moutaleb, Mohamed el-Kahlawe, and Abdel Aziz Mahmoud. Mohamed Rushdi died in 2005, and Mohamed el-Ezaby is alive but retired. He is friends with one of my mother's cousins, and I saw him perform live. He is so perfect, and his voice is so powerful. 

In Egypt in the 1960's and 1970's, many cultural and economic changes occurred. It began with many Egyptians traveling to Arab countries to earn higher salaries. [This reference to "Arab countries" refers to the Gulf Arabs in the oil-rich countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, etc.] Some of those Egyptians were uneducated and worked in manual labor jobs, such as construction, painters, or plumbers. These people returned to Egypt with wealth.

Also, Egypt's economy became more capitalistic. Money and material wealth took priority over other things, even the behavior of the people, their interests, their values, and their feelings.

Ahmed Adaweyya

This was the environment when Ahmed Adaweyya appeared in the 1960's. I remember when I first heard him. His music was something that wine drinkers, laborers, or bus drivers liked. He was famous in Pyramid Street nightclubs [bars with entertainment], singing his new version of shaabi for Arab tourists and people drinking alcohol. It was something new, but most people viewed him as singing low-class habta songs, and only certain people liked him at the time.

Habta is an Arabic slang word that refers to a coarse, tacky way of expressing oneself.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Ahmed Adaweyya.

The lyrics of Adaweyya's songs were not on the same quality level as the old shaabi lyrics of previous eras. Also, his style and his demeanor while singing was something that mainstream Egyptians considered crass or low class. I remember people of the Egyptian middle and upper class did not like or accept him. Only people who went to bars or Pyramid Street clubs liked him, and listened to his songs while they drank alcohol. In fact, his voice is a good, powerful voice, but his style and most of his songs were not generally embraced by the general public.

Around that time, film producers discovered that if they included an appearance by Ahmed Adaweyya singing in their films, he would be like the goose that laid golden eggs for them. So they began to feature him with some dancers such as Zizi Mustafa and Azza Sherif, exactly as film producers do today by featuring Saad el Soghayar and Dina.

Ahmed Adaweya

The Trend that Followed

Another singer who emerged around the same time as Ahmed Adaweyya was Katcout el-Amer, who was married to the dancer Azza Sherif for some time. Similar to Ahmed Adaweyya, he performed in bars for people drinking alcohol, and also for [Gulf] Arab tourists. He made many cassette tapes which were highly successful at the time, and his music spread all over Egypt like wildfire.

Many, many, other singers, after they Ahmed Adaweyya's great success, began to imitate his style and perform songs similar to his. It was not important whether the melody was good or not, not important whether the lyrics had good meanings or not, not important whether the singer had a good voice or not. The important thing was that this style of music brought in money. And step by step, this style became known as shaabi style. Ahmed Adaweyya, Katcout, and other singers who followed them became sought after for parties and celebrations such as weddings or birthdays. 

Many singers followed in their footsteps to make money in this new shaabi style and it seemed as if a new singer appeared every day. But in fact, I never heard of any of them singing in the good theaters such as those where Abdel Halim, Farid, Sabah, Warda, and Fayza had sung. Their singing was only in bars and parties. I don't remember any of them singing, for example, in the opera theater or others. Their work was mainly in bars, parties, and commercial films.

Step by step, this style which began with Ahmed Adaweyya became mixed more and more with low class singers and bee2a singers, until people began to say, this is the shaabi style, in many cases without distinguishing between what's good and what's bad, and not distinguishing between who had a good voice or not. They only wanted loud music that made them get up and dance.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Saad al-Soghayar, whose lyrics often contain double entendres.

Saad al-Soghayar

EDITOR'S NOTE: The slang word bee2a in this context means crass or vulgar, such as lyrics that are openly sexual, or containing obvious double entendres. Swear words would also be considered bee2a.

This word is relatively new slang, mostly used in this way since about 2008 or so. See this article for a more detailed discussion of bee2a.

Also, some people looked at this style as something to mock. They liked to make fun of the lyrics and how the performer sang. This is so opposite, so different from the old shaabi style. Even today, the singers in high-quality Arabic bands still perform the old shaabi songs of Mohamed Abdel Moutaleb, Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, and Karem Mahmoud, Sayed Darwish, and others.

I think two of the better modern shaabi singers are Hakeem and Hassan el-Asmar who died a few months ago. Hakeem doesn't sing just any lyrics, he sings only the good lyrics. [This means he doesn't sing the vulgar lyrics with double entendres such as those used by others.]

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows Hakeem, one of the newer breed of shaabi singers.

History repeats itself, and today commercial films bring in Saad as a singer and Dina as a dancer to make money, just as in the past they brought in Adaweyya and dancers to make money. What people found unacceptable in the past about Adaweyya appears today as being valued after the spread of bee2a styles in shaabi.




About the Author

The late Dr. Hisham el-Agamy was an Egyptian physician who shared his passion for Egyptian music and dance through social media. He passed away on February 15, 2014.



About the Editor

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 




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