Tribute to Baligh Hamdi, ancestor of popular Egyptian music
By Jared Proudfoot May 25, 2022
Baligh Hamdi was one of modern Egypt’s most prolific and successful composers, helping to usher in a new cosmopolitan era in Cairo and beyond in the 1960s and 1970s. liner notes to his recently reissued 1980 album Indo-Arabic variations on AltercatHamdi is quoted as living by a rule in his music: “Draw on local tradition to reach the world.
In the mid-1950s, Hamdi began composing for popular Egyptian singers, drawing inspiration from traditional folk melodies and rhythms and adding luscious string arrangements for a decidedly classical sound. “Baligh’s brilliance is associated with our cultural calendar,” says Tamer Hamdi, Baligh’s nephew, speaking on the phone from Cairo, Egypt. “His sounds are what people listen to here. These are the most famous songs ever created in Egypt.
These sounds would very knowingly proliferate western culture in the form of samples used by Jay Z, who controversially borrowed Abdel Halim Hafez’s bookKhosara Khosarain “Big Pimpin”; Earl Sweatshirt, who used the “1001 nightsin “IS”; Madonna and Aaliyah, who sampled Warda (who Baligh was married to for ten years); and many more.
The relevance of these intercultural transmissions from East to West in the 2000s is that it was also Hamdi who pioneered similar transmissions, but in the opposite direction, from West to East, several decades earlier. In the 60s and 70s he began experimenting with western instrumentation in his music, writing for saxophone, guitar, drums, moog synthesizer and many more heard throughout the essential compilation. 1970s Egypt instrumental modal popproduced by Sublime Frequencies in 2021. The sounds produced are jazz, pop and psychedelic rock with oriental accents; equally appealing to fans of the Sun Ra Arkestra as they are for fans of Dick Dale and the Del Tones– a far cry from Hamdi’s earlier orchestral output.
“If we talk about the concept of merging two civilizations, Baligh was before the trend,” says Tamer Hamdi. “He did it before Peter Gabriel, before Led Zeppelin, before Buddha Bar. He was a visionary. »
In the late 1970s, and in the spirit of constant progression and innovation that had defined his career up to that point, Hamdi turned his attention eastward to India, and in particular, to the sounds majestic by Magid Khan: a well-known sitar player at the time, from a rich line of musicians. On the occasion of Khan’s visit to Cairo in 1979, Hamdi rearranged some of his own compositions to feature the sitar player as a prominent soloist in a set of works he named Indo-Arabic variations.
Unlike the West-meets-East collaborations, which merge very different tonal and harmonic understandings of the music, this East-meets-East collaboration features more subtle disparities. With Indian and Egyptian music both using similar modal scales (Indian raga and arabic maqam), monophonic textures and an equal emphasis on quarter tones, a main point of difference lies in the timbre of the instrumentation of the respective countries. On Indo-Arabic Variations, the sitar and boardpillars of Indian music coexist comfortably with the qanun, arghuland ney of Egypt and the Middle East.
The resulting result is a beautifully melodic and strongly percussive orchestral album with half a dozen hand-picked soloists improvising on centuries-old modal systems from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. It’s a unique conversation between old styles flirting with an essence of regional familiarity. The interaction between the soloists adds an element of surprise to each track on the album, as disparate melodies appear, disappear and overlap, causing a murky tonal center. Hamdi sets parameters in real time for instrumentalists to play solo. They roam far, wide and free, but at the constant whim of the maestro’s watchful staff. A few years later, in New York, the experimental jazz musician Butch Morris will invent this technique “conduction.”
For Sergi Roig, label manager at Altercat and collector of Arabic music, the Indo-Arabic variations album cover is what first caught his eye during a recent trip to Egypt. From the first listen, Hamdi’s international influences were immediately recognizable. “When you hear 200 songs and your ear ain’t so accustomed [to Arabic music], they can start to sound the same,” he says of his own listening habits. “But when you hear [those sounds] mixed with jazz, you immediately think “Wow, what is that?” I can’t remember any other easy to digest music that fuses Arabic, Indian and Jazz.
Although registered in Cairo, Indo-Arabic variations was released exclusively in France, where a large diaspora of the North African Arab community resided. Hamdi had spent a lot of time in France, and ended up living there in exile for several years in the 1980s following a controversy in Egypt. Asked about his broader contribution to the cultural canon, Tamer Hamdi offered the following: “Art should be put into the perspective of time. Time and history are the enemies of the artist. Van Gogh saved time, Beethoven saved time, and Baghir Hamdi saved time. Fifty to sixty years later, you still hear his music on the radio all over Egypt. It’s time to win.