Cairo cafes: A century of music and coffee

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 29 May 2014

Cairo cafes have always been platform for singers, composers and thinkers, replete with enchanting melodies and age-old tales

Badia Masabni theatre announcing their latest performance
Badia Masabni theater announcing their latest performance

Cairo cafes have always been a window on the cultural scene of the country. A platform for singers, performers, composers and thinkers, the mélange of coffee aromas, tea cups and enchanting melodies is a magical combination. Though sadly long gone, the old records and lyrics along with a historic account gives a vivid picture of what was once the golden days of music.

Naaima Al Masrya qeen of records
courtesy of Esmat El Nemr

According to Esmat El-Nemr, folkmusic expert and founder of Misrfone, an internet channel dedicated to reviving Egypt's musical heritage, the café musical scene started post-Ottoman rule in Egypt, where music and entertainment were affiliated to the elite courts only, and weddings.

At the time, the sheikhs music school (Sufi chants and religious praise) and folk schools (mainly epic poets reciting tales of folk heroes) were the two main music trends.

"By the late 19th century and the arrival of lots of immigrants from the Levant to Egypt, and the opening of several cafes and theatres, music and performances slipped into the public area and flourished in numerous cafes, tiatros (theatres) and pubs," explains El-Nemr.

Hagga Zeinab Al Mansouria
famous Alma, courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr

Ratiba and Ensaf singing troupe perform in Assuit
courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr

"Ghawazi and Awalem music is often mixed up, but there is a great difference between them," notes El-Nemr.

On the one hand, Al-Awalem are women singers and dancers that used to entertain in weddings normally. 1900-1925 was thought to be their golden age. A typical Awalem troupe would be comprised of eight women and their lady leader. They had a reserved dress code: no revealing dresses were used. The osta, or leader, would even cover her face, added El-Nemr. Among the key Awalem in Egypt were Amina Al-Sarfia, Bamba Kashar, Shafika Al-Qebtia and Al-Haga Hoda.

Ghawazi, on the other hand, often referred to the belly dancers that dance on the streets and in mulids (carnivals of faith) dressed in revealing clothing and adopting rather provocative attitudes.

"Back then, Emad Al-Din Street alone held over 30 theatres, cafes, dance floors and cinemas," El-Nemr said. Among the famous cafes affilated with music performances is Cafe Riche in Downtown, Casino de Paris (was built on the same premises of Studio Misr Cinema in Emad Al-Din Street), Shafiqa Al-Qebtia Casino in Al-Azbakia Garden, and many more

El Set Bahia Al Mahalawya wedding songs
courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr

And so a new era of music dominated, allowing fresh musical talents to flourish. Dawood Hosny, Munira Al-Mahdia, Badiaa Masabni, Fathia Ahmed and many other voices enchanted coffee shop and theatre dwellers and later were captured on record.

The old singing school was composed of a singer and his takht (oriental musical instruments) along with Al-Goqa (chorus) and a musical dialogue would start between the lead singer and the rest of the troupe. "However, by the arrival of modern musical trends that focused on the singer, the goqa and takht days gradually vanished and hence a new musical era started, depending on the lead singer, such as the star of the orient, Om Kalthoum," concluded El-Nemr.

Best wedding songs
courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr

No wonder most of our local coffee shops cherish older genres to date. You seldom pass by any of them without listening to radio songs or loud television sets — some dedicated to Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. But if you listen longer, you might hear a much older tune lingering in the air.

Farida Makhish famous Alma
courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr

A taste of 20's songs:

Ah Ya Asmarany, by Naaima Al-Masrya

Courtesy of Misrfone internet channel

Photos courtesy of Esmat El-Nemr


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