« Program: Egypt 2: Cairo - Hollywood of the Middle East

Moody El Emam on Egypt Music and Film Production

Moody El Emam is a composer/singer/arranger in Cairo.  He got his start as an Egyptian rock pioneer in the 1970s, and has led an illustrious career composing for the film industry in recent decades.  Moody gave Afropop’s Banning Eyre a spectacularly rich interview in his home studio in August, 2011.  Moody’s remarks feature centrally on the Afropop program Cairo: “Hollywood of the Middle East.”

M.E.: Well, before the cassette, you could only have radio in your car in Egypt. Very few people had the eight-track cartridge thing. Cars basically had radios only, so if you are driving, or traveling by car, you would be in the grip of the media. You would listen to the songs that they put for you, and that was that. In our home, we had turntables, and we had reel-to-reel tape machines. They were popular, but you couldn’t take them out. They were big and heavy and silly. So when the cassette came, and the portable cassette and the car cassette, people took their cassettes, like the guy listening to “Funky Town” on his shoulder, or something. It was all over the place here.

And this kind of thing, the cassette, because it’s not reading or writing, even if you are a literate you will enjoy it. It becomes your new journal, not only for singing. There were tapes or you could listen to theater plays, to music on cassette. You could listen to comedy episodes. It gave value to artists who already existed, like actors. Because when you only hear them, you appreciate their voice talent. But as far as songs were concerned, there was a new wave of lyricists who could never make it through the government owned media, tune makers like myself, a voice. I was a singer too, still am. Every time I would approach — I am one of many — every time I would approach government owned media, they would say, “You have to stand before the committee of blah blah blah, and then they will yada yada…” And things like that. You may have to bribe someone or someone may flunk you, or scar you for life. And it didn’t really get much better, even long after cassette, when satellite TV came in. Still, media owned by someone is the voice of that someone.

But cassette, and then CD, and then your Walkman, and then your iPod, is your own personal choice. Your own personal library. You choose what to listen to. You choose to be the fan of the artist that you like. No one controls that. So cassette is the father of personal freedom in art and music.  That’s for sure.

B.E.:  Yeah. Beautiful. I lived that history too in America and Canada. I remember how liberating that was to be able to take music and mix it up your way. You’re right it was the father of all these things we all take for granted now.  So, when Sadat was killed, and Mubarak started, on the cultural side, was that a watershed moment? How significant was the change from Sadat to Mubarak?

M.E.: I remember some things… many things, actually.  Vividly. Sadat at the beginning of his rule, he wasn’t popular. People were very much in love with the image of Nasser. He was the movie star. The charisma thing. But I know different. I am the son of a movie director, the brother of a movie actor, I acted myself, I graduated from fine arts, I know how to take a photo and make you look great. Nasser had a great photographer. Excellent photographer. Portraits and stuff. He looked great because of the portraiture. A little bit of gray hair on the side, and the nice suit and the angle and the lighting. Sadat didn’t have a great photographer. He didn’t look like a movie star. He was a very great spokesman. He had a beautiful voice. He read very well. But he did not have that image. Then he became very popular when the war went well. The crossing of the Suez Canal. The negotiations. Egypt was coming back. The war with Israel was stopping. This was excellent news for many people. Everyone who had awareness found this great, great, great news.  But Sadat became very controversial because the religious fundamentalists and the political powers that depend on religion turned against him.

B.E.:  And that’s ironic. Because he had actually taken the pressure off them compared with Nasser.

M.E.: Yes. Yes, he did that.  But the more openness takes place in the Middle East and Egypt — this is the funny part. The more freedom there is, the more dictatorial the recently liberated become. Not everyone is well-versed in ethics. Freedom must come with ethics. It must come with self-restraint. People must learn to judge themselves. But now, the more you give freedom, the more they want, the more they take. And if this is my personal opinion. Because I said this 20 years ago on national radio. I said I was afraid of democracy, because democracy equals responsibility, and I want to see more responsible people out on the street. This is all I ask. I am not going to say I’m against it. No, no, no. I am a Democratic man, in my life, in my family, in my band, in my building. Everywhere. Except that you need responsible people. If you have them, let’s go.

But power is tantalizing. It’s exciting. People lust after it. You cannot expect every politician to be honest. You cannot expect every man to be moderate. You will surely have people who are power hungry, people who are opportunists and you want to jump on your freedom and basic rights that we all must have. People who will lie, people who will manipulate, and this is something you must get used to. And Sadat was actually for it. He was. Except that he was torn, like Mubarak, but more so, because Sadat was less of a military man and more of a person. When you are a mixture of a military person, a politician, family man, shabby man, if you want, these things they pull you a part. Because when you are military, you are like a maestro in the Philharmonic Orchestra. You expect discipline, chain of command. You want results. You want everyone to know the rules and the law, to know their place. Soloists, first violin, things like that. Choir in the back, brass section on this site. Military are like that. You cannot have discussions every day. Second guesses. Machines don’t work this way. Your car doesn’t work this way. But this cannot be everything.

On the other side, you have the city men, the family man, the Democratic guy, and you have a society that isn’t really up to date with you. Sadat was ahead of the people. And we will always doing guesswork on why he was killed and how he was killed. It’s like Kennedy. But this moment, moving from Sadat to Mubarak, we could only hope for good things. But the very next morning, you read in the newspaper about Mubarak being sworn in.  He wasn’t popular, he wasn’t famous, he wasn’t known. He was known more to the West than he was known to Egypt because he was like an envoy, and he was functioning more like an ambassador really, shuffling. And all we heard is that he had an excellent military record, but we are not all from the military, so we wouldn’t know much about that. I served in the Army, so I may have known very little bits. It’s like going to summer school. I wasn’t really a soldier and officer. I just did my service, a year and a half. I am fascinated by the American Navy films, and the things that they teach you, the discipline. You watch a film like “An Officer and a Gentleman” with Richard Gere… I like these things. You can be idealistic.

Came Mubarak, the very first morning, the first thing they write is that his wife likes jewelry and yogurt. And he doesn’t like artists. I thought that was stupid. There is no way he could have said that. There’s no way anyone could have said that. Until today. I keep saying, no, no, no, that was a columnist doing this. I don’t think so. It’s impossible.

Mubarak and Sadat

B.E.:  And yet he didn’t show any great concern for artists during his 30 years, did he?

M.E.: Not quite.  Not personally. But during his time, we had the opera rebuilt, a new cultural center. We didn’t have Opera because it was burned down, the beautiful, fantastic Royal Opera that we had, it was burned down. And in Mubarak’s time, we had culture centers, new film center’s opening, and he allowed the media to go free, satellite television, cable TV was in every home. You could watch any channel you like.  There will always be yeses and nos about Mubarak, but then again, what do you do?  If you are an Egyptian and you have 12,500 years of dictatorship behind you, you don’t know to get used to, and you don’t know what to expect. What should he be? A pharaoh? A president? A President-elect? A Democrat? What should he be? We are still finding out.

The fact that he no longer works for us is undeniable. Okay?  But this fact it doesn’t come alone.  Hundreds of facts come. It moved from Sadat to Mubarak. It wasn’t anyone’s choice. We didn’t have a say, really. This wasn’t an election. You know, we were surprised when we’ve found Nasser as president all of a sudden, when the revolution, 23 July revolution happened, it wasn’t led by Nasser. It was led by a general, Mohamed Naguib, who respected the King, and the King saluted back to him, but suddenly, no, no, we don’t see Mohamed Naguib. We see Nasser. “Who is Nasser?” “I don’t know. Shut up. We don’t want to go behind bars.” And Nasser died, suddenly. Here is Sadat. “Who is Sadat?”  LAUGHS  You know?  It was like that.

B.E.:  Wow, so people become accustomed to having a new realities more or less imposed on them, and they just have to sort things out as they go. And of course that points to why it’s so difficult now to try to think about imagining, electing, creating a new government.

M.E.: There is no problem with this. People want elections.  But not now. Not today. And the thing is, like I said earlier, this revolution awakened a desire that everyone had. We wanted to practice our rights. He wanted to vote. We want to choose our representatives in the parliament. We want to partake in writing a constitution. We want to make sure that the things that are bothering us don’t happen any longer. But the thing is, people are still so, so accustomed to dictatorship. They don’t realize it. The way they handle things, people are being dictatorial. People. Society. I don’t know, because the revolution to me is not a single person.

B.E.:  You said earlier that you were concerned that the revolution was becoming a religion.  What you mean by that?

M.E.: It is something that I’ve always admired in American films and television production, that there was always this warning about some part of the Constitution, or some part of the law. There was always this pointing, which should take precedence, the law or the spirit of the law? America is the greatest democracy, and America makes amendments to its constitution, to set things on a better course. It corrects things. It adapts. It changes with the times. This is not how people are thinking here. This is what scares me. I want freedom. I want liberty. I want to help write my own constitution. I want to present my experience, for example, so that people benefit from it as a person, citizen, an artist, anything. …  But what I am reading, and what I’m hearing is what?  A 20-year-old lady, and American University of Cairo graduate, is telling me in a discussion that all older people must go. And I am older people. I am senior now.

B.E.:  It happens. I am the same age, and I know why you feel.

M.E.: So, I asked her, “Do you think it’s time for me to go to the elephant graveyard now?  And what are your credentials? What are you going to write when you apply for a job? “Young.” This is what you’ll write? Or are you going to write PhD and so on, or multi-awarded in that, or you got A’s in an exam?” When you say, “I am young,” that’s not qualification. That is age. That is a condition. I explained that to her.

B.E.:  And what was her answer?

M.E.: Very bad. She responded in a bad way. This is what they do. When the inexperienced feel cornered, then it’s all wrong, it’s not right, it’s not correct. I did not want democracy and liberty or to get rid of the old. This is not Nazi Germany. This is not what we should do. You shouldn’t tear down the paramedics. Because they’ve been there for a long time.  So what do you say to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? Go home? What do you say to Steven Spielberg or James Cameron? Or Sir Anthony Hopkins? You hire everyone. You use everyone. This is my point. Use everything. Use all you’ve got.  She was trying to knock down a leader or a politician by attacking his age.

B.E.:  Well, it’s like that old 70s thing. Never trust anyone over 30.

M.E.: It’s good advice.

B.E.:  It’s a sentiment, but maybe not a governing philosophy.

M.E.: No. No. It doesn’t belong to science. It doesn’t belong where science is. I want to hire the best. If I am hiring a president, or a senator, I want to hear qualifications, listen to an agenda, see a plan. Yeah, sure. I’m not going to say, no, no, no, you are too young, or you are too old. I’m not going to do that.

B.E.:  Okay. There is one more musical development I would like to talk with you about before we have to wrap up here. So we’ve reached the 1980s, the beginning of the Mubarak time, the time when you are becoming active with your band, and then comes this big change. Last night, we interviewed the famous producer Hamid El Sary.  He is credited with being the architect of a new, high-tech, stripped-down music production style so prevalent throughout the Middle East. We don’t need orchestra anymore. We don’t even need real drums. We can do it all with keyboards, and we can make a new kind of popular music. And this is the beginning of the music that we still hear to this day from Amr Diab, Tamer Hosny, Sherine Abdel Wahab, Mohamed Fouad, and so many others.  What was your experience of that change?

M.E.: When I heard Hamid El Shary… Hamid is from western Egypt. He’s from Libyan origins, and West Egypt is… we have tribes who are very connected to Libya. And do they have their own pace, their own beat. It’s just a little pull up of the speed. And he used the Egyptian maksoum beat, only sped up a little bit, using drum machines, and he made very simple, sweet tunes. They were sweet and they were simple. Which was also very clever. And it was easy to sing along with.

He didn’t go out to make complicated music, or to show off on a guitar, or to make complicated rock guitar solo or something. He was there to make sing along songs. He was targeting celebrations like birthday parties, weddings, country club concerts. He chose his targets very well, and he targeted an age group.  That’s an excellent commercial distribution plot. It’s excellent. It works very beautifully for cassette companies. Now cassette companies at that time were booming. They were spreading, multiplying. And this is why he was very popular, and again, people could sing easily with his tunes. Others became popular for very different reasons. There were singers who are very sophisticated and their voices were very beautiful. They did very difficult tricks with their voices.

B.E.:  Who are we talking about?

M.E.: Ali Haggar, for example. I will send you a song that I made with Ali Haggar, who is very famous. And he was a brilliant singer.  Ali Haggar, Mohamed El Hain, Mohamed Sarwat, Methat Salah.  Methat Salah had a very big hit in the early 80s. “I Want to Live on Another Planet.” That was the name of his song. He wanted to go to another planet. He was angry with the world, and it was very, very nice.  Methat Salah had a boyish voice, and he had the skills and experience of a very, very well-versed singer. A nice mix. Ali Haggar was a baritone, he had a beautiful voice, a baritone, a very sympathetic voice.  Mohamed El Hain had a powerful voice, and in his voice, you could hear the sha’bi genes, but not like Adaweyya.  Sha’bi genes with a very elite, skilled voice. And people would have a taste for everything. You just need to get to them. You need to reach them.

B.E.:  What were you doing in the 80s and 90s? Did you still have your band, or have you moved onto composing for other people?

M.E.: Theaba was a very strong recording and live performing band, and we had trouble, my brother and I, because we lost our drummer. He left, Ahmed As, who later became the king of steel and the head planner of the ruling party in Egypt’s government. He became such a big shot! He was a brilliant drummer. Brilliant. You couldn’t find anyone like him. And we had a really, really talented bass player. His name was Mansour Shawi, who is now a very big shot architect. He builds banks, and things like that. When they left us, we didn’t know what to do. Because this band was very well in tune. So my brother and I, we had to work as a duet. In the studio, it was easy. Outside the studio, it was difficult. But then, we drifted apart, because my brother’s acting career was picking up. He started having less and less time for me. And I found refuge in making film soundtracks. Occasionally, I make a song or two for a famous singer, and I was making a living from commercials. Jingles, and stuff like that. You had to make money.

Because when you are trying to be an innovator, you lose money. More than you gain. So you have to make it somewhere. It was a good deal for me. I’m still a composer, still in the studio, still meeting with the same friends, sound engineers. Your instruments are in the same place. I didn’t have a studio of my own at the same time, so I had to hang out somewhere. So the early 80s, we drifted apart, my brother and I. I will send you a recording with Ahmed As, the drummer who became the king of steel. And you will see what a brilliant drummer he was. He was excellent. And since then, since the early 80s, I became better known as a film composer. I got a few awards in films.

B.E.:  Nice. Oh yes, indeed, I see [looking at the walls].

M.E.: Some of these are signed by ministers of culture, or tourism, and a very famous movie director, an icon. I cherish it, the one in papyrus. This is for a film called “Terrorism and Shish Kebab.”  We made a funny soundtrack for that film.

B.E.:  What year was that?

M.E.: “Terrorism and Shish Kebab” was 1988. It is very much like what happened in Tahrir Square. It actually happens in Tahrir Square, the story of the film. It happens that way. The police come with snipers, and people don’t want to move, and they take charge of the place. You know this huge building in Tahrir Square?  The Mugamma?  It’s a consolidation of government offices. And a very famous comedian–Adel Imam is his name– is the hero of the story.  He wants to stamp some papers to move his kids from one school to another, and he gets into a fight with a very silly man working there. Every time you go for this man to finish your papers, he prays. You cannot reach him. He is a fanatic. And when they fight, a soldier comes to calm him down, and he grabs his gun and the gun goes off, unintentionally. Bang. Nothing happens, just a big sound. But from the outside, people say there is a terrorist who took hostages and doesn’t want to budge.

It’s a sort of adaptation of “Dog They Afternoon,” a little bit of that. The people sympathize with him, and he gets them kebab instead of pizza. He gets them shish kebab. It’s a funny film. Maybe I’ll send you a clip.

Terrorism and Shish Kebab (1988)

B.E.:  That sounds like a very nice film. But this is happening in the context of the Mubarak era, a time when you were saying that film was generally on the way down in terms of its creativity and social impact.

M.E.: Film became very political in the 70s. And then it was like, either go political or go completely cheap and mediocre, please the crowd in any way. Make jokes. Make a cheap movie. Because producers were after quick money, very, very quick money. We didn’t have as many cinemas as we have now. But the same problem remains. When someone owns 70 cinemas, and produces a film, no matter how bad this film, he will put them in the 70 cinemas to make as much money as he wants. Now, it no longer matters if the film is good. It doesn’t matter if the music is good, the story is good, the actor is nice. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you have to get out. Young people must get out, Go to the mall, go to the cinema. Because there is not much to do sometimes when it’s too hot, too cold. So they make their money this way. And when this happens, it is again as bad as when the government monopolized the industry. Because it means good talents get lesser breaks, because good talents are expensive. You cannot work cheap forever. And there is always someone new, always someone cheaper. So this affecting everyone. This is bothering everything.

B.E.:  Has this made it harder for you to work? Even before the revolution, were you getting enough work?

M.E.: Before the revolution, I was getting what I wanted. I’ve been working for 38 years. I am known in the industry. I am trusted. So what I did for the past 17 years, I have accepted less jobs and asked for more money. It was better this way, because as a young man I didn’t mind.  You want to do as much as you want. You want to make your name. But later on, I was thinking I want to do better work, and I have to work less in order to do this. Take more time in the studio. And I have to, of course, get better pay, because a distributor will be benefiting from my name.

After the revolution, the producers themselves, and the movie distributors are too scared. They aren’t as generous with the budgets as they used to be because there is a great amount of uncertainty in the market. Any market. Not just the cinema. There is a great uncertainty. I think it’s easing off now.  Little by little, I think things will come back to normal. I got offers in the last six months, but they were very modest. The pay. And this is not nice because if you accept, you are setting a new record. Word gets around. Everyone knows that you signed for that amount of money, and then you’re going to have to start climbing up again. If you say no, I’ll pass, that is best. You benefit from comparison as well.  The last film I did, last summer, I did really, really good work. So I want this to remain that way. When I’m compared to the competition, it will testify for me. Next am I get a job with nice to a, okay, I have to surpass that. I have to beat that. But beating the low pay is not good. Especially when you’ve made your name. That’s not good.

B.E.:  We are running out of time here. But I have to ask you one more question. And it’s kind of the philosophical question. We don’t know where this revolution is going to end up politically. But I’ve learned over the last weeks talking to a lot of people that on the cultural side, there are a lot of things that have been happening in Cairo and in Egypt for at least a decade now. There’s been a great increase in the number of bands, for example, challenging the supremacy of the singer star, where musicians are not really even considered. It’s just the star. So now we have a lot of bands. We have experimental jazz bands, rock bands, even heavy metal bands. We also have new performance venues from traditional venues like Makan and Mastaba, bringing traditional music to the city in a way that urban upper-class people can appreciate traditional music from upper Egypt or the Delta for example. We have Sawy Culture Wheel, which is presenting a whole lot of new opportunities for artists who didn’t necessarily have voice before. And I’ve heard pluses and minuses, but on the whole, I think these things add up to a pretty significant development.  The other thing I’m hearing is that people are not satisfied with love songs anymore. They want songs about life. They want songs that sang about serious things, real things, the way Sayed Darwish did.  So this is something that goes in waves. But if you put all that together, and then slap this revolution on top of it, where do you see this going?  Do you think that Egyptian music might be entering a new phase of creativity and reinvention?

M.E.: My observation… I have played Sawy, and I’ve played the Opera. And I’ve seen the newer bands play. They were all from before the revolution. You see, the revolution will benefit from these guys. Much more than the revolution will serve these guys or help these guys. They are just like we used to be, my brother and I, and Yehya Khalil, and all the names I told you about. It’s people like these, at least culturally, who helps something like the revolution come about and take place.  If they sing about the revolution, that it’s real in the hearts and minds of the people, that’s good.  But it would also be nice if this revolution is accompanied by other revolutions in the way people handle culture. Like you’ve been to Sawy. It’s a nice stage. It’s a nice tradition there. It’s informal. It’s nice. But we need a few hundred thousand like that. We need much more like that. I don’t know who can do this. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s done well.

If the revolution represents more openness, more cultural bridges to the world, then I would expect, I would hope, that the world would come in this way, create more stages, but not for political agendas and conflicts. No. Just for the sake of having the people becoming more open to each other, open to the rest of the world, open to art, to self-expression, to freedom of expression.  This helps. This is building more bridges. This is better than having people polarized. This against that. Muslim Christian. Eastern Western. Military civilian. This is just too bad. These titles. They should go. We’ve had enough of that.

Sometimes, this is what I don’t like. People who don’t get it.  Some people don’t get the point of making revolution. It isn’t just toppling a president. You should make a revolution against everything that doesn’t work, everything that is bad, and get something better. So John Lennon said all you need is love. Yes. We all need it. We should have more of that. And people should learn to blend.  There is too much racism coming from satellite TV for example. Christian this. Jew that.  Buddhist what. This should go. We don’t want that. And artists can do a great job in this, artists with stages and culture centers. We should stop the racism. It doesn’t fit Egypt. This is a country that is 12,500 years old, where everyone was here. Everyone. You can trace this back to Noah if you want. Everyone was here.  Joseph was here. Jacob was here. You name it. Which means that this was never iron curtain material. This country shouldn’t be isolated. This country shouldn’t be the victim of conflicts, walls, wars, borders. These issues should go to sleep. We should be secure, and fine. Yes, of course. But they should go to sleep, and they should be replaced with what goes on in Amsterdam, for example. A place like Amsterdam.

Tahrir Square Today

I went to Berlin seven years ago. And at that time, watching TV, I thought that a guy with my skin tone would be gunned down in the street. My wife said, “Don’t be silly.  That’s the media. You go. They will know you for who you are. They will realize. They will understand. You just go.” So I went. I was mixing a soundtrack for a film, a comedy, that was very much again like what went down in Tahrir. The title was “I Want My Rights.” That was the title. A guy who wanted to change the constitution and demand his rights and stuff. It was a funny film. Nice. So, I went to Berlin. From the moment I set foot in the airport, I smiled, people smile back. I joked, they smiled again and joked back. I got lost. I asked for directions. Fine. Nobody said, “No, no, no, you have dark skin and you’re from the Middle East.” No one said that. But the media tells you that they’re burning down houses of immigrants and I don’t know what.

But the truth of the matter is when you have 80 million people living in the same land, there will be trouble. And media isn’t helping. But the artists can, if they are true, if they are real. And I would expect from younger artists, instead of making a new religion out of the revolution, and it becomes taboo and untouchable and things like that. They should do exactly the opposite. They should embrace everyone. They should help everyone feel open. Be calm and you will be yourself. You will be free. There is no us or them. You don’t have to fight anyone to be good.

B.E.:  Thank you, Moody. That’s excellent.