INTERVIEW: Fayrouz Karawya decrypts trends of 19th, 20th century Egyptian songs

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 22 Jan 2023

Fayrouz Karawya spoke to Ahram Online, talking about her first critical narrative book, Kol Dah Kan Leih? (“What Was All That For?”), reveals a spiral way of reading the musical history of the late 19th and 20th century Egypt.

Fayrouz Karawy
Photo by Amira Noshokaty


Published by Diwan in 2022, Kol Dah Kan Leih? surfs between all the theories, and reflecting on the facts, the book unveils many of the game-changing dynamics that have led to the trends and hits in Egyptian music.

Having attained a diploma from the Arabic Music Institute in 1994 in vocals and lute, she earned her masters degree in cultural studies at AUC in 2009, and will soon present her doctoral thesis in Sorbonne University, Paris. Karawya’s own musical career kicked off in 2006 with her first single, The Coffee Song, written by renowned Egyptian poet Ahmed Haddad and established musician Sherif Elweseeimy.

Known to the independent art scene for her unique voice, and songs that broke away from regular lovers’ yearnings and expressed a more bold image of a woman that has no problem revealing her emotions. Since then, she has experimented with song writing, playing and singing, releasing several hits.

What was all that for?

She laughs, explaining that in 2017 she got a grant from the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture (AFAC).

“It was the first time they offered a grant for critical writing, and I was focused on songs and what oppressed it, and I even wanted to name the book (after Abdel Wahab’s song) Khayef Aqoul Elli Fi Qalbi (‘I Am Scared to Speak my Heart Out’),” Fayrouz Karawya told Ahram Online.

“However, after researching I realised that oppression is one of the factors but the evolution of the song is multifactorial and is not only due to the favouring of the authorities. When I looked at the technology and how switching from the musical theatre to radio to cinema dictates a change in both the music product and the thought of the music composer.”

“When you talk about Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed, you feel that the musical theatre is his factory, where he excelled at the taqtouqa (a short, vivid song; a genre of the early twenties). Abdel Wahab, on the other hand, shines more in cinema because he is more into this form of art.”

“I then realised that this is what defines the diversity between musicians and that writing a narrative needed to reveal that, which lead me to change the title to Kol Dah Kan Leih (‘What was All That For?’) after a song by Abdel Wahab.”

Abdel Wahab’s secret to success

Karawya’s book reveals that the constant changes in the music scene have always kept the artists in a state of motion, some would be washed away by time, and some were pioneers and managed to twist and turn and adapt to the technological as well as the socio-political changes of that time.

“Abdel Wahab left a very big impact on music because he was the most flexible. He was a music composer and a singer, which gave him freedom to experiment, for his ideas had his voice through which he was able to show the diversity of his work and how far has he come.”

“[This is unlike] Al-Qasabgy, who needed a voice to embody his orchestra opera like music and was stuck with ideas with no voice when he lost his interpreters; Asmahan, who died; and Oum Kalthoum, who felt that the opera and orchestrated music genre did not appeal to the general audience and decided to move to a different genre,” noted Karawya.

And so Abdel Wahab’s flexibility and boldness allowed him to be a pioneer of a new trend where he dared to infuse his songs with western music rhythms such as tango where Farid El-Atrash followed and the waltz that influenced the younger generations of music composers such as Mohamed Al-Mougy and Mohamed Fawzy, she explained. 

Oum Kalthoum’s journey from the title “Miss” to “El Set”

In her book, Karawya reflects on the Egyptian society’s perception of female artists at that time. She cleverly dissects the image of female artists from the late 19th century, when they were known as “Awalem,” plural for “Alma.” The title means, according to the book “the one who knows the art of poetry, music composition and playing music and improvising.” The title originates with the great singers that flourished during the reign of Khedive Ismail, when theatres, music halls and, cafes were venues for lots of female artists.

Taking legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum (1904-1975) – known as the Star of the Orient – as an example, Karawya describes changing public perceptions of her. In the beginning of her career, the public referred to her as Miss Oum Kalthoum.

“That was the time when she was still exploring her music genres. Soon she gained the title of El Set (‘The lady of great status’) because of her intelligence. She aimed to represent society at large, to be the common dominator between the peasant and the lady and all what is in-between,” noted Karawya.

“She established a certain image of female singers in contrast to others who came before her because at the end of the day, the general social scope of the art field have had a lot of moral questions and she was, in so many words, saying that she was ‘refining’ the art realm. Consequently, lots of artists wanted to follow her footsteps,” she added.

Refined national music

After the 23 July Revolution in 1952, Egypt entered an era of nationalisation, art included. Oum Kalthoum was proclaimed as the voice of Egypt who, while trying to refine her image, also helped to change the narrative of the history of Egyptian music.

“In the book, I showcase some articles written by Oum Kalthoum implying that Mounira Al-Mahdia and Salam Hegazi’s  songs were limited to addressing foreigners and upper class, which is not the case at all. Mounira was a very popular singer and her songs were folk and popular which granted her the title Sultantet Al-Tarab (‘The Sultana of Authentic Music’).”

“You see, when one changes the narrative and enforces only one reading of history that states that art was being refined from the Awalem genre, it changes the whole meaning of the title… You see it was very difficult for women to learn about these things for it was very difficult to acquire such knowledge because women did not go study it anywhere neither did they get tutors at home to teach them such and for a woman to go that far, they gave her the title Alma, meaning a performer," argued Karawya.

The concept of refining the music field paralleled the rise of the so-called “national music” discourse which is an idea that negates the dynamicity of music, argues Karawya.

“It is true that the local Egyptian music exists, but we are not the only people who produce authentic music and by all means there are influences from other music of the world. Music cannot be very nationalistic because the music composers are not sitting on an island all alone creating their own music. They have come in contact with people from the Levant, Turkey, Iran and the Balkans; the music process is a very interactive process," she explained.

The Cassette Revolution

There is no doubt that technology was the key game changer in the music industry. The shift from long repetitive songs to shorter, better quality on vinyl music records helped preserve many musical gems that would have been lost forever. About the same time in 1934, the state-owned radio, with its selection committee made its way into every house and café, with specific music genres that helped shape our collective musical memory. However, the invention of the cassette set all music genres free once again and made them accessible to all.

“The cassette gave you full freedom to listen to anything anywhere any time… It was the cassette that opened the door to local singers such as Gamalat Shiha and Fatma Eid; it is also the main tool through which the songs of resistance of Sheikh Imam and Negm spread throughout Egypt and the Arab world in the sixties,” noted Karawya.

The rise of resistance, folk songs and the band of the new era of music

“The 1967 defeat was a big blow to the icons of Egyptian national music of the 1950s, and resistance took on another face and headed to the folk art. This gave room to Mohamed Hammam’s resistance songs in Suez, as well as Bahr Abou Grisha and Ali Cobana who were the people that paved the road for Mohamed Mounir to rise,” she noted.

The defeat was also a game changer and helped launch a new face of Egypt manifested in the new bands in the 1980s such as The 4 M, Tiba and Al-Massryeen.

“Matehseboush Ya Banat En El Gawaz Raha, (“Girls Don’t Think that Marriage has Room for Rest”), Salah Jaheen, the poet here wanted to say that there is a new fresh young voice, that of a girl who dares say that marriage is not the best thing in the world, that there are fresh voices,” she added.

The internet

The internet was another technological milestone in the history of music because it welcomed all genres of music and connected them with the whole world. It also helped changed the stereotype image of the woman singer.

“Singers like Nancy Agram and Rouby came with their pop music that adopted the concept that their body image is not shameful and is part of their musical performance, a thing that reminds us of the Taqtouqa genre in the early 1920s,” she added, noting that other popular genres surfaced in the music scene such as rap and electro shaabi to name but a few.

Like the music genres she traces, the book is a rich melody that surfs up and down the musical scale and all the historic events that resonates with every tune. Karawya’s book is indeed a treat for those who seek to see the full dynamic picture of a brief history of music in 19th and 20th century Egypt.

Short link: