Musicians should not just strive after fame: Fathy Salama in one-on-one interview with Ahram Online

Edgar Mannheimer, Thursday 2 Aug 2012

Prior to a series of Ramadan concerts, Fathy Salama talks to Ahram Online about his music, his views on young musicians, and the political situation in Egypt and its prospects

Fathy Salama - photo by Sherif Sonbol

Fathy Salama, composer, music producer and pianist, internationally renowned for many of his musical projects and tours, is the first artist in the Arab world to win a Grammy Award and the BBC Award. Today, Salama performs extensively with his ensemble Sharkiat (Easterners) and is actively involved in the music field while passing on his knowledge to younger generations. 

Ahram Online spoke to Salama in a one-on-one interview.

Ahram Online: Your online bios describe your music as mixture between jazz and oriental. How do you define your music?

Fathy Salama: I never really describe what I’m doing as jazz. I think that if you’re true to yourself, you express yourself. I am a combination of different things. I played piano from a very young age and played lots of classical compositions, works by Béla Bartók, etc. In parallel, when young, I also studied oriental music.

When I was 13-14 years old I played at clubs and pubs, like Cairo Jazz Club for instance. We used to play Western covers, such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and later on ABBA. Then during the 1980s, I started arranging Arabic pop, and did around 2000 songs. From this I learnt a lot. Actually, I was the one who created the form of Arabic pop which is used until today. It was a mix from the beginning. I believe I reflect on my roots and I get to produce this through knowledge of classical and jazz, but it’s not my aim to play occidental music or jazz.

Then I started with my group Sharkiat, but nobody would release my work with Sharkiat or even let me play in concert. My first concert was in Berlin, and we toured Germany. The first company that released our album was a Swiss company. We toured Europe, Austria, Germany, Poland. I did different projects with different people abroad. My first concert with Sharkiat in Egypt was in 1994.

You won a Grammy. How has that affected your life and career?

It didn’t affect my life. It was never my aim to get a Grammy. My aim is to keep on learning and doing good music. If I win a Grammy, that’s cool. When it comes to here (Egypt), no one knows about a Grammy anyway, so it didn’t affect me.

Is your fan base larger in Europe than in Egypt?

No. After some time people in Egypt started knowing me. They called me “underground” or “alternative.” In this sense, I was the first alternative musician in the whole country.

Today, you also organise workshops for young musicians. How are they organised and what do they give to young musicians?

I advertise it on Facebook and set an audition date. Normally, I don’t take people who cannot play at all. You have to play or sing or rap or something. During the audition we also try to make these young people work together, to see how they cope in a group as this is an important element of the workshop later on. Chosen people get an intensive workshop for two weeks. Through working on them, I teach them about harmony, arrangements, production, mixing, and many other aspects of music production. We usually end up with 8-9 songs and play a concert or two with them.

I’ve done many workshops over the last 10-15 years here in Egypt. From what I’ve seen, young people start to have their own music, which is cool in one way. Many tried to imitate the West by doing hip hop, rock, metal, or a kind of pop. The problem with these people is they have some good ideas, but they don’t have enough music information, and that’s where I come in, trying to help them.

Have any musicians gone on to form their own serious groups?

Yes, and some of them became very famous, like Wust El-Balad, Cairokee, Black Theama, and Masar Igbary, among others who were all part of my workshop.

Generally, how would you assess the music field in Egypt?

I think that over the last 30 years the whole country is going down, not only music. The decline affected the whole scene, audience and musicians. One aspect is in education. There is no need for education anymore.

From the musicians’ point of view, if they (young musicians) get better at what they do, it doesn’t mean they will become more famous or will make more money. There were a lot of really bad songs, especially on CDs and cassettes, in the old days. There were bad films also. It affected negatively the general taste of people, and consequently affected their knowledge about music.

On the other hand, the only music people listen to from the West are people like Madonna, Shakira, etc. They don’t have any idea about groups from France, for example, Algerian and African musicians. This is the result of cultural decline. The Ministry of Culture and the government doesn’t help either. For example, I can tell you that none of my workshops has been sponsored by the government or the ministry. It was always Dutch sponsoring, or American, or whatever.

There is a lot of learning to do, while learning doesn’t mean that people will like us more or we get more listeners. This became very apparent, especially after the revolution. There are lots of artists who have become famous by taking a Western genre like rock and simply adding Arabic lyrics, which I’m totally against. Sometimes you find these songs attacking the US or the occident, while the music is completely occidental. To me, this doesn’t make sense.

And what about hip hop then?

I think hip hop could be good, but only if Egyptian musicians find their own style of hip hop. This genre introduces social and political problems to listeners, which fits what’s currently happening in Egypt. Yet, speaking from the music angle, the roots should come first from here (Egypt), and then if you want to put it in a hip hop frame, or rock frame, that’s cool, but not the other way around.

Speaking of the revolution, do you think that artists have taken advantage of the revolution by simply adding revolutionary Arabic lyrics to an occidental rock format?

Unfortunately, yes. A new market opened up for young musicians, in concerts and on TV. Of course people are interested and want to hear them. But the musicians misused it. There were many people who went to Tahrir Square with a guitar. In my point of view, there is not enough work behind it. These musicians need to be ready to do something good, and not just to strive after fame.

Of course, I also understand where it generated from. Young people in their 20s who lived during Mubarak’s time haven’t had sufficient access to education. The culture was just going down; films and music were becoming jokes. So when the revolution happened, what do you expect? They won’t learn everything in a minute. They are what they are. They are where they were brought up. That’s my opinion.

But many of them gained considerable popularity, not only through TV channels but also on stage, at El-Sawy Culturewheel (El-Sakia), for example. El-Sakia gave them a lot of exposure through it’s open door policy.

I’m totally against this whole El-Sakia concept. I’m one of the people who started El-Sakia. I played a lot there, helped the centre, etc. El-Sakia had and still has many sponsors and I never understood where all the money goes. All of the musicians who play there are mistreated and used, getting a percentage of the ticket minus taxes.

This has two negative side effects: the first is that they think of bringing a lot of people, while art doesn’t matter; the other is the payment for those musicians. Why does El-Sakia give those musicians peanuts while using the idea that they are young people who are happy to play on a stage?

I believe there isn’t any place in the world that allows just anybody to come play. Maybe in universities and some clubs. There should be auditions for the band. Sometimes the musicians can’t even tune their guitars. Many can hardly play.

It is true that we don’t have many places to play, so when you have a place like El-Sakia that is attracting thousands, what is it that you’re trying to do? Do you want to make people more ignorant? Do you want to use their ignorance to make profit from them?

There are other locations for the young musicians to perform, El-Genaina Theatre being one.

I like the work of El-Genaina. It always brings good acts. El-Genaina is under Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, headed by Basma El-Husseiny. She knows music well and is always searching for new and good ideas. If the band performing at El-Genaina attracts an audience, to the management that’s still not the priority incentive.

How do you feel about the political situation in Egypt right now?

There is lots of games and plots and things we don’t know. I think the political players are treating the nation like sheep. Nobody really knows what’s happening behind closed doors, and what kind of relation there is between the three sides: young people, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Are you optimistic?

Not at all. I wouldn’t feel optimistic just by having a revolution, as until now the revolution has not accomplished everything. Though I recognise that since the revolution everything went down, I am totally with the revolution, and I was part of it. The first six months I was in the streets.

The whole thing for me is very strange.  First, the people who got the fruits of the revolution are people who were never part of it: the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, the young people who started the revolution never got together to form a party or organise themselves. Not forgetting that lots of these young people who started the revolution are now in prison! What kind of revolution is this? 

Also, I don’t understand President Mohamed Morsi, nor the army! Some people wanted the power and took it, and they will be the new Hizb Al-Watani (National Democratic Party, in sole power during the Mubarak era). Every day I hear about some movements getting together, but in fact all are going off in different directions, like Hamdeen Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh.

Do you feel betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood?

They used the chance. I’m totally against them. But I should say they are the ones who had the best organisation for a long time. Of course, it’s very complicated, nobody can do anything in such a short time. But they are discussing very stupid things, like lowering the age of marriage for girls to 12, and stuff like this. Nothing is happening. So in general, I’m not optimistic at all. We have lots of problems and for sure the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t create these problems, but I don’t think they can fix them either. If they want to fix them, they shouldn’t have the appetite to control everything. They’re not helping the situation.


Fathy Salama's upcoming concert series: Ramadan with Fathy Salama, Sharkiat and guests

- Thursday, 2 August, at Amir Taz Palace, 27 Al-Syoufiya Street, Al-Khalifa district, Cairo

- Saturday, 4 August, at Sayed Darwish Theatre (Alexandria Opera House), 22 Tariq Al-Horreyya, Alexandria

- Friday, 10 August, at Damanhour Opera House, Damanhour

- Sunday, 12 August, at Cairo Opera House Open Air Theatre, Zamalek, Cairo

Short link: