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Scott Marcus: Cairo Classical Music

Scott L. Marcus is Professor of Music at the UC Santa Barbara, and author of a splendid introduction to Egyptian music of many sorts called “Music in Egypt” (Oxford University Press).  He has been traveling to Egypt to study since the 1980s, and more recently, to perform there.  He has also been an invaluable advisor to Afropop’s Hip Deep in Egypt series.  As a companion to the program “Cairo: Hollywood of the Middle East,” and the accompanying podcast concerning the new classical music scene in Cairo, here’s a segment from Banning Eyre’s interview with Scott Marcus on September 23, 2011.  This exchange deals with the history of the Cairo Opera House, the growth of the Egyptian classical ensemble, and new developments in classical music in Cairo.

B.E.:  You have worked with the Cairo Opera House.  Describe this institution and the role it played in the past, and in the present of Cairo’s music scene.


S.M.: Okay, sure. You know, one place to start is coming to know when the Cairo Opera House was built.  It was built at the time the Suez Canal was being completed, and to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal—the ruler was Ismail the Magnificent [grandson of Mohamed Ali]—and he decided, “Let’s also create an opera house.” People were coming. The queen came. Royalty came at this occasion. It was quite a big deal. So he created this Cairo Opera House to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal. So why an opera house? And why this idea that Verdi’s Aida would be the first opera performed there?  It turns out, the opera wasn’t completed in time, and I guess it was staged a few of years later.  But there was a sense at this time that Cairo was becoming one of the great cities of Europe. There was a Parisian type architecture, and there are these traffic circles that look like Paris. I was just in Paris, and, really, there are some traffic circles in Paris with all the surrounding buildings that really look very much the same as downtown Cairo. So this was the idea. Men started wearing European dress, and there was this whole push to celebrate a new sense that Cairo was progressing to such a wondrous state that it was now one of the great cities in Europe.  And there are people over the past hundred and some years, Egyptians, who actually said, “Oh, yes, we are Europeans.

So this meant many things.  One of the things it meant was that the traditional Egyptian music was perhaps unimpressive, and needed to be westernized in a variety of ways. So the traditional Egyptian music of the time was played by a very small ensemble called the takht.  And the takht had just four types of melody instruments. One was the lute, the oud, the flute called the ney, and they had a string instrument which in the late 1800s became the violin. They actually discarded the traditional instrument called the kamanche or the kamanga, and they put in the Western violin. And then they had a zither type instrument called the kanoon.  So there were four melody instruments and just one tambourine. And then there might be two or three people being a chorus, and there was a singer out front. So it was a five instruments, a small chorus of two or three people, and then a singer. And in this time when so many of the intelligentsia wanted to think of themselves as European, I think as this grew, it was like, “Well, wait a second, Europe has these great grandiose orchestras that seem so impressive.” And so little by little the takht grew.

And so the ensembles that were playing the art music, at first there were two violins, and then there were three violins, and then they were four and five violins. And then they decided, “Well, why don’t we add a cello?” And then they added the cello. And then they added some more violins, and then they added the bass, the Western double bass. So this really changed the sound drastically. Now the bowed instruments were just taking over, becoming the dominant sound, and the lute, the oud, the flute, and the plucked zither, that kanoon, they were like a special effects type of thing that occurred occasionally in the music, but the dominant sound became the bowed violin section with the cello and bass below it. So, little by little, it grew, it grew, it grew in the 30s. It grew some more in the 40s, and peaked in the 50s and 60s when the orchestras had maybe 16 or so violins, three cellos, one double bass, and then still one each of the three other melodic instruments, the lute, the flute and the zither—the oud, the ney and the kanoon.  And percussion, the initial tambourine grew to include one of the other percussion instruments called the tabla or darbouka.  And they also added the bongos.

So this is what the orchestra grew to in the middle of the 20th century. There’s no question that this was a straight imitation of the West. It seemed more legitimate.  It seemed that it was more respectable, and along with this, a number of things happened to make the music sort of fit a Western sense of what it meant to be classical. One, they created schools of music. Previously there weren’t schools or institutions that taught the music. Rather, you just had to be with musicians, sort of hanging with musicians. So from the beginning of the 20th century, they started what were initially called “clubs.” But then they were called academies, and finally they were called institutions, what we might call conservatories. So the music education became institutionalized. And in these institutions now they wanted to use Western notation. Historically, this music was all just learned orally.  It was not written. In the 19th century, for example, there was no written music. But in the 20th century, little by little, they adopted Western notation. And this seemed the right thing to do in this milieu where Europe was showing Egyptians and the Arab world what seems to be a substantial and flourishing, vibrant, dynamic sense of what culture should be.

So little by little, Arabic music became a written music, and the schools were totally based on notation, so there was no oral learning at the schools.  And that was in itself a sign of respectability.  “Oh, look, we have a written music.” And with that, they created a written music theory.  The music theory before was largely oral. There were treatises all the way back in the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th centuries, and subsequently, but these books that had to be published for the schools, the institutions. They needed music theory textbooks. Things had changed substantially.

B.E.:  Fascinating. So just to get my timeframe right, the original opera house was built when?

S.M.: 1869, if I’m not mistaken.

B.E.:  And that building burned down. When did that happen?

S.M.: I believe it was in the 1960s. And it was rebuilt in 1988. The new one was created in an open area. Right in the middle of Cairo, there’s an island called Zemalak, and on the bottom of this island, they placed this new opera house with Japanese funds, and I guess the Japanese architect.

When the government realized that it wanted institutions for the teaching of this, they also realized that they wanted government ensembles. So not only would the famous singers like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez have their ensembles, but then with coaxing, the government created their own ensembles.  There was a national ensemble for Arabic music.  This was originally housed at the conservatory, but now its performances are at the rebuilt Cairo Opera House. This is surprising, because the Opera House really is an opera house. The architecture has the seating sloped up very high, and there are all these consecutive balconies where people lean over and watch the opera. And it’s all red velvet seating. It’s a glorious testimony to opera. But for that to be where Arab music is performed, it is a little surprising. And then the Opera House does this also. You have to wear a jacket and a tie to get in.  They even have extra ties there, in case you’ve forgotten yours.  But it’s like, “Wait a second. Why do we have to wear a tie to go in and hear Arab music?” So this is a bit of a problem.

And then there are people, intellectuals in the culture, who say, “By having it be so much a written music, where is the sense of improvisation that was so much a part of the music even in the middle of the century?”  So, interestingly, although I described to you how the music became written and institutionalized, the great singers of the middle of the 20th century, Umm Kulthum being the woman superstar, the example, she refused to use the notation in her music. Towards the end, she was one of the last holdouts.  When she asked a composer to create a new song for her, working with a poet, then the composer would have to come. He would usually come with his oud, his lute, and he would sit with the musicians, and phrase by phrase, he would teach them the song. And this would happen over maybe a dozen rehearsals. And then she would rehearse more with them, and more with them. So when she performed, there was never written notation.

One of the aspects of this is that, based on the audience’s response, she might stop in the middle and say, “They liked that so much, lets repeat the section I just did.” So this idea of spontaneous repetitions was just an absolutely essential part of the music. And this created the emotional quality in the hall that you just felt that you could contribute to the music by applauding. And the singer, Umm Kulthum, would respond by repeating something. And if she repeated a third, and a fourth, and a fifth time, she would probably repeat it with a heightened sense. “Oh, let me do something a little different.” So it was really created in the moment, in an atmosphere that was energized by audience participation and the musicians response to it. And so, little by little, it got more and more intense. People got higher and higher in that moment. But with the government ensemble at the Opera House, they used written notation, and played at the same way each and every time.

B.E.:  Umm Kulthum was all about taarab, musical ecstasy, and those repetitions were crucial part of that.  Let’s switch now to some of the more contemporary classical musicians. One who we found very interesting is a violinist Abdou Dagher. What can you tell us about him?


S.M.: Abdou Dagher is one of the great musicians who learned in a pre-notation world. He actually has trouble with his sight. He’s not blind, but he might be in some ways functionally blind, so this is one of the reasons he never dealt with notation. And when the government’s Arabic music ensemble would perform in the past, they would perform these pieces using notation, but then they would ask him to come out in the middle of the concert and do a solo improvisation in one of the maqams, the Arab musical modes.  This type of improvisation is called taqsim.  So he would just be brought to the center of the stage and he would do this long taqsim and people would applaud and he would go off. And I would ask my teacher, “Why he isn’t part of the ensemble?” The reason was was that he’s not notation based. He’s this great master, a holder of the tradition, but he wasn’t brought into the formal ensemble.

And at this time, he would always have these soirées at his house, and people would go over and just play music all night long. Music, music, music. And there would be tea, and people would be smoking continually. Just all night long. And actually, when I was a young student — this was in 1983 and 84 — I was invited to his house, and I was a part of these a number of times. And you could get there at nine or 10 at night and just stay and stay and stay, 4, 5, 6 hours later, and it’s just piece after piece, people taking turns improvising.  This idea actually grew over the decades, and he became this great guru, in the Indian sense, for a huge following of people. So all these people who would come over, they actually started learning his style of playing. And during this time, he would give them ideas, and so he has all these followers would’ve learned his specific style of playing the violin, and style of playing different musics. He would create compositions, and the people would learn them at his house, just informally, and then he would perform them on occasions when he had a chance. He also had occasions to go abroad. He has a tremendous following in Germany now. So he’s become this really quite a superstar, but based at his house. It’s a very unusual thing.

There is a new world going on with people feeling in Cairo that the national ensembles, and there are a number of these national ensembles, that maybe they have lost something, and they aren’t the brightest lights in the culture. Something new is happening where individuals have their own little scenes, some of which have grown very bright. Another example of this is Naseer Shamma.  And he has created his own scene. He teaches oud in an institution that he created called the House of Oud.  And so I consider these two artists very parallel in that they are not government ensembles. They are individuals who are creating a very, very vibrant scenes on their own,  I think this wasn’t the case 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. This is really somewhat of a new idea.

B.E.:  We have a wonderful recording of Abdou Dagher and a small ensemble performing at Makan.


S.M.: Yes, this Makan, this place is another example of what I am talking about. It’s sort of the NGO version of culture now. When I got to Cairo, this was the end of the period where people thought that the government’s Arab music ensemble was the height of Arab music.  I was still there when some of the superstars of the previous generation were the elders of that ensemble. But that was considered the height. They were on TV every other Thursday evening. You know, Thursday evening in the Arab world is our Friday evening. So at the end of the week you turn on the television Thursday night to see the Arab music ensemble — these were the cultural heroes.  And this still existed into the 80s, but soon after, it started feeling old. You say that people expressed that to you.

And so, sort of a new thing happens. Makan comes up when Dr Ahmed al Maghrabi says, “Look, I am going to create my own center because I think I can make it more vibrant.” And Abdou Dagher creates his own scene. And Naseer Shamma creates his own scene.  And there is a new center, the one under the bridge. Did you go to the Sawy Culture Wheel?

B.E.:  Yes. Indeed. We saw Naseer Shamma with his group there. Along with heavy metal and a few other things.

S.M.: Right. So here is a fourth example. This is the new world now, NGOs, not government ensembles.