Tarab Zaman: Pillars of Egyptian music and the legacy of 50,000 songs

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

Egyptian musical researcher and collector Esmat El-Nemr spoke to Ahram Online about his debut book Tarab Zaman, which delves into Egypt's musical heritage.

Tarab zaman


Tarab Zaman or "the euphonious music of bygone days,” is a compilation of El-Nemr's extensive research which features the musical genres of Awalem (female performers), Sheikhs (men of religion) and showcases the rich musical heritage and origins of Arabic music.

A surgeon and musical enthusiast, El-Nemr has been passionate about music since his youth and has collected 50,000 tracks from the late 18th century to the late 1950s.

Living in the city of Zagazig in the Sharqiya governorate on the Nile Delta, he was a close friend of 1960s resistance figure and patriotic music icon El-Sheikh Imam Eissa (1918-1995).

A Man with a Musical Mission:

In the late 1990s, he co-founded the online Samaai Music Forum, which offers almost 500 hours of exceptional musical gems.

After the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, El-Nemr teamed up with his old friend and web developer, Alaaeddin Abdel-Fattah to launch Misrfone Online Radio in 2013. The station was dedicated to introducing Egypt's musical heritage to the world. In 2023, he published his first book titled Tarab Zaman, where he traces back the legacies of musical icons, poets, composers and singers from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.

"I thought of compiling my music series of articles published in Ahram over the past 10 years, then I delved into my library of music books that reached 4,000 books," he told Ahram Online. El-Nemr rejoiced at going back to his memories and regretted not taping Sheikh Imam's performances of heritage music such as Mowashahat.

"I believe we focused on Sheikh Imam's patriotic songs and forgot about all the Mowashahat, Adwar and Taqatiq (all classical music genres) he knew by heart and we should have taped them to preserve such heritage," he added.

Though he believes his first book is a work-in-progress introduction, Tarab Zaman remains a unique reference and a great introduction to the world of music. It traces back to vernacular poets such as Beiram Al-Tounsy and Ibn Arous while uncovering the musical world of Sheikhs such as Sheikh Abul-Ela Mohamed and Sheikha Sakina Hassan. The book also opens the door to a rich, yet rarely mentioned genre of Egyptian music, the Tarab El-Awalem (music of female performers and composers). From renowned singer and performer Naima El-Masrya to Zouba El-Clobatia, the first female dancer to perform while carrying a metal chandelier on her head. The book also dedicated a chapter to female Quran reciters.

The Realm of Reciters and Chanters:

"There is a saying that the Quran was bestowed in Mecca and read in Egypt," said El-Nemr about the numerous rich artistic recitations of the Quran that blossomed in Egypt. “Quran reciters and Munshideen (religious chanters) preserved the essence of Arabic music, Maqamat (musical notes),” he noted.

"In upper Egypt, we have great Munshideen topped by Yassin El-Tohamy. Egypt pioneered the reading and Tagweed of the Quran and Egyptian recitations helped preserve the singing heritage as well. A typical classical singer is usually a Munshid who must study the Arabic music notes to chant and recite the Quran correctly and the Arabic musical note is the essence of singing," El-Nemr eloquently explained how the divine and secular have the same musical roots.

When asked about the status of Inshad today, he was quite enthusiastic, saying “there are many young Munshids in their 20s and knowing that tickets are sold out in Arabic concerts at the opera house is a great success. However, one must admit the radio needs to allocate a much bigger segment to broadcasting heritage music,”

Tarab of Awalem:

During the 19th century, Egyptian female performers were quite popular. They were known as Awalem plural for Alma and short for "The one who knows the art of poetry, music composition and playing music and improvising."

The title originates from the great singers that flourished during the reign of Khedive Ismail when theatres, music halls and cafes were venues of revolution and when Saad Zaghloul’s name was banned from songs during the British occupation. “The Awalem used to incorporate his name into their songs so that people kept remembering him, as seen in the famous folk song Ya Balah Zaghloul ya Helewa (You sweet date Zaghloul),” explained El-Nemr.

The Awalem usually performed at weddings and cafes, different from the Ghawazi (belly dancers) who used to dance in Mulids. By the early 1930s, music records were invented, which had a time limit of 15 minutes for each song, so Awalem led the transition of the Taqtouqa music genre to modern-day songs. 

Female Reciters:

Until the 1930s, female reciters and Munshids were quite common. They would recite the Quran in private homes and on national radio. They grew popular when they entered the recording realm. Unfortunately, a fatwa issued in the late 1930s prohibited them from reciting on the radio. “Shikha Om Mohamed was in her 80s when she approved any new reciter,”  he concluded.

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