Music of Egypt

Arab music
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The region around the Nile is one of the oldest continually-inhabited areas in the world. Ancient Egyptian musicians are known to have played harps and flutes circa 4000 BC, and double clarinets and lyres from around 3500 BC. Percussion instruments were added to orchestras by 2000 BC. It is probable that no system of musical notation existed at the time, as none have survived. The music of ancient Egypt has not been documented, but some musicologists believe that the liturgical music of the Coptic Church is directly descended from ancient Egyptian music.

Modern Egypt is ted by Arabs, who have multiple distinct forms in common and divergent styles across North Africa and the Middle East. Arab musical tradition is usually said to have begun in the 7th century in Syria during the Umayyad dynasty. Early Arab music was derived from Byzantine, Indian and Persian forms, which were themselves very influenced by earlier Greek and Semitic music. In the 10th century, Al-Farabi translated Aristotle's Problems (and Themistius' commentary on them), Euclid's Elements of Music and Ptolemy's Harmonics into Arabic. These works, foundations of Western music, became the basis for Arabic musical theory.

Like African music, Arabic and Egyptian music has strong improvisatory and rhythmic components. The base rhythm of Arabic music is the maqamat, which is formed by dum (downbeats), tak (upbeats) and rests. Arabic music uses microtones, or notes not present in the formal musical scale (half-flats and half-sharps). Arabic tones are divided into thirds, which makes their sound inherently different from most other musical traditions.

In Egypt, religious music is frowned upon, but still common in Muslim celebrations called mulids. Mulids are held to celebrate the saint of a particular mosque, and is related to the Sufi zikr ritual. A type of flute called the ney is commonly played at mulids.


Modern pop and folk traditions

Egyptian music began its recorded history in the 1910s, at the same time as composers like Sayed Darwish's first mixtures of traditional Egyptian and western musical forms. Since, some of the Arab world's biggest musical stars have been Egyptian, including Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Amr Diab, Mohamed Al-Qasabji and Zakariyya Ahmad. Kulthum was especially popular, and is considered the most successful Egyptian recording artist in history. Most of these stars, including Kalthum, sang Arab classical music. Some, like Abd el-Halim Hafez, were associated with the nationalist revolution in 1952.

Folk and roots revival

The 20th century has seen Cairo become associated with a roots revival. Musicians from across the Arab world have kept folk traditions alive, while Nubians, Saiyidis and Bedouins have established their own scenes. New varieties of folk and pop have also arisen from the Cairo hit factory.

Sawahii music is a type of popular music from the northern coast, and is based around the simsimaya, a stringed instrument. Singers include Abd'l Iskandrani and Aid el-Gannirni.


Bedouin music comes the deserts of the west, near Libya, and the east Sinai area. The mizmar, a twin-pipe clarinet, is the most popular folk instrument, and popular singers include Awad e'Medic.


The Saiyidis are musicians from the upper Nile valley who play a form of folk music also called saiyidi. Met'al Gnawi's Les Musiciens du Nil are the most popular saiyidi group, and were chosen by the government to represent Egyptian folk music abroad. Other performers inlude Shoukoukou, Ahmed Ismail, Omar Gharzawi, Sohar Magdy and Ahmed Mougahid.


Nubians are native to the south of Egypt, but are now found in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and in Sudan. Folk music can still be heard, but the migration and intercultural contact has produced new innovations. Ali Hassan Kubans jazz fusions have made him a regular on the world music scene, while Mohamed Mounir's social criticism and sophisticated pop have made him a star among Nubians and others worldwide. Hamza el Din is, however, the most famous Nubian singer, well-known on the world music scene and has collaborared with the Kronos Quartet.

Popular music

Until the late 1980s, classical singers like Umm Kalthum were Egypt's biggest pop stars. By the middle of the 1990s, though, al-jil and shaabi music had taken over, especially among young audiences.

Starting the late 1960s, light song emerged as the first modern Egyptian pop tradition. Often nationalist in tone, light songs were humorous and sometimes risqué, and ted by singers like Aida al-Shah and Layla Nasmy, who were popular in middle-class communities. The working class youth of Egypt reacted against light songs and shaabi music evolved out of Cairo's poorest districts. Shaabi began entering the mainstream of Egyptian society in 1971, with the breakthrough success of Ahmed Adaweyah.


Adaweyah gained controversy for his lyrics, which were often humorous, salacious and highly critical of social rules and respectable society. By the 1980s, shaabi was being influenced by music from the United Kingdom and United States, as well as other Arab pop stars. Electric guitars, synthesizers and later, beat boxes, were integrated into the music, which is now highly-polished and meant for mainstream consumption.


Al-jil music arose in the 70s. It was dance-pop led after foreign rock and roll and pop music, and it included distinctively Arab characteristics. Hamid el-Shaeri, a Libyan immigrant, was the most influential of al-jil's early performers; his song "Lolaiki" (1988) was the first major al-jil hit.

External links


  • Lodge, David and Bill Badley. "Partner of Poetry". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 323-331. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Lodge, David and Bill Badley. "Cairo Hit Factory". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 351-355. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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