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Ahmed Adaweyah: King of Shaabi Music

posted on: Sep 1, 2021

Adaweyah performing in the 1970’s. Credit: Ahram Online

Ahmed Adaweyah brought the Egyptian musical genre of Shaabi to the mainstream, making it a global sensation. This new genre of music has defined Egyptian popular music to this day, creating a distinctive Egyptian style.

Origins of Shaabi Music

Shaabi Music performed today by the Aswan Dancers. Credit: Aswan Dancers

Shaabi music originated in Egypt, specifically Cairo, during the 1970’s as a form of street music. It evolved from the popular baladi music, often associated with belly dancing. While Shaabi music often uses the same instruments and similar rhythms, it differentiates itself by expressing frustration at the current state of the world. Namely, the lyrics are often political, negative, and they commonly discuss taboo topics. In spite of this, the lyrics typically use humour and wordplay to express these points.

Adaweyah’s Rise

Adaweyah in his early years. Credit: Discogs

The first Shaabi artist to become popular in Egypt and around the world was Ahmed Adaweyah. He was born in 1945 in the Minya Governorate, then moved to Cairo for work. There, in 1971, he began his music career. He originally performed on the streets of Cairo, before moving on to small audiences. His songs heavily featured taboo topics, such as politics and sex, and made heavy use of double entendres, or words and phrases with a double meaning. 

As his popularity increased, he began to perform at five-star hotels and Egyptian clubs. He eventually became popular enough to perform at English clubs. Many people in the Egyptian elite did not welcome him, however, as Egyptian TV and radio often excluded him from their broadcasts. In their place, audio cassettes, oftentimes pirated, were the main ways people were able to listen to Adaweyah’s music. Even as his wealth increased due to the success of his music, he still identified with the Egyptian working class with whom his music found the most support.

Popular Songs by Adaweyah

One particularly political song of Adaweyah’s is “Salametha Om Hasan,” or “Her Peace, Mother Hassan.” This song is about Egypt’s loss in the 1967 war against Israel, which many Egyptians felt humiliated them and their nation. The song wishes a quick recovery for Egypt and hopes that the “evil eye” that struck Hassan, the Egyptian soldier, will leave him alone. The references to incense and drums in the lyrics represent a zar ceremony. The zar ceremony has historically been a female-only ceremony which intended to drive out evil spirits from a person, and typically involves feasting, dancing, and music. In the song, Adaweyah implores Egypt to give up on superstitions like the zar ceremony.

Other songs discuss life in Cairo, such as “Zahma,” or “Crowded.” In this song, he decries the hollow crowdedness of Cairo, likening it to a pointless festival. The well-known mantra of this song translates as follows: “How overcrowded the world is, You lose your loved ones in the chaos, Crowded so there’s no more mercy, Like a Saint’s Festival without a Saint.”

Adaweyah is also famous for his mawwal, or long, slow, emotional improvisation. His song, “Ya Bent es-Sultan” exemplifies this mawwal, lasting nearly 4 minutes. This song is in fact dedicated to an actual daughter of a sultan; in this case, he sings about a Kuwaiti princess.

This song would turn out to have a massive impact on his life. Sheikh Talal bin Nasser Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti emir, grew furious at Adaweyah for saying lewd things about the Kuwaiti princess in his song. So, in 1989, bin Nasser invited him to perform, only to attack him and put him in a comatose state using heroin. Adaweyah recovered, but he is still partially paralyzed to this day. The Egyptian police arrested him on drug trafficking charges and put him into prison in 2007, where he died in 2014.

Adaweyah in Current Times

In the 90’s, people began to criticize his music for using drum tracks and synthesizers. They felt as though this detracted from the working class nature of Shaabi music. While he was never as popular after the attack as he was before it, he has still made new music, notably in 2009 with Ramy Ayach “Alnas Alrayiqa” and in 2018 with the song “Helw Wasl.”

While Adaweyah has faded from popularity, his music style still persists. Other Shaabi singers, such as Hakim and Shaaban Abdel Rahim, built on his style and added their own twists. Hakim tends to make more upbeat music, while Abdel Rahim makes even more provocative music, such as his song “Ana Bakra Israel,” or “I hate Israel.” Even as Shaabi music continues to evolve, its roots still go back to the innovations of Adaweyah.

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