From song to song

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

Nahed Nasr celebrates a remarkable Ramadan TV tradition



One established Egyptian soap opera tradition is the title sequence theme song, which is used to grab the audience’s attention and brand the show. Many of the best remembered series — almost always aired in Ramadan — are associated with a song, which will usually be written and performed by well-known and popular figures. Over the years new generations of performers have replaced older ones but this Ramadan the theme song scene is dominated by 1980s and 1990s figures: Hanan Madi (born 1966), Mohamed Al-Helou (1955), Medhat Saleh (1960), Hakim (1962), and Mohamed Mounir (1954) as well as Sheikh Yassin Al-Tohami (1949), one of the most popular Sufi chanters of all time. Some of the sounds hanker back to the theme songs of three or four decades ago.

Together Hanan Madi and Mohamed Al-Helou performed the theme song of Al-Wasiya (The will, 1990), and this year they joined forces again for that of director Mostafa Fikri’s Darb Nar (Shooting), a melodrama written by Nasser Abdel- Rahman and starring Ahmed Al-Awadi, Yasmine Abdel-Aziz, Souheir Al-Morshedi, Maged Al-Masri. The song itself is written by Amir Teima and composed by Khaled Ezz. Starting in 1989, Madi became famous as a singer in the 1990s, though today she is best known for soap opera theme songs, which she continued to perform long after her heyday, her last one being in 2015. That was the year Al-Helou announced his retirement at the end of a busy and distinguished career that started in the late 1980s. Though he soon changed his mind about retiring, he had not released anything new since 2015.

Both Madi and Al-Helou performed in a classical style and were unable to adapt to the faster rhythms that took over the scene in the course of their careers, but they made an indelible mark through TV drama. Made in the same classical style, the theme song for Darb Nar is a powerful dose of nostalgia as well as a pleasant surprise. By herself Madi contributes another song in the same vein, director Abdel-Aziz Hashad’s Leil Umm Al-Banat (Leil, Mother of Daughters), written by Ahmed Sobhi and starring Soheir Ramzi and Nasser Seif.

An icon of shaabi (or urban folk) music, Hakim, in stark contrast to Al-Helou or Madi, developed his own new style of fast-paced, upbeat pop starting in the late 1980s, and his songs were frequently played at weddings and other celebrations. He remained phenomenally successful until the middle of the millennium, continuing to perform in music videos and concerts as well as releasing albums — the last one being in 2020 — to this day, though his contribution to film and television has always been limited. His voice in the theme song of Ramadan Kareem (Ramadan is kind), directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz, written by Ahmed Abdallah, and starring Sayed Ragab, Bayoumi Fouad, Salwa Othman and Sabri Fawaz, was very well received. A folk-inspired drama set in a traditional alley where the characters live according to the customs and traditions of old, the first season was a hit in 2017 — and Hakim’s performance may have contributed to its success. This year, to introduce the second season, he contributes a music video-like piece in which he walks down the alley doing his usual, energetic act.

Sheikh Yassin Al-Tohami too appears in the theme song of Settohom (Their lady), behind the stage microphone at a moulid or saint’s anniversary — one of his  usual performance spaces — enabling the series to benefit from his immense popularity, the core of which is in Upper Egypt whence he hails. Set in Upper Egypt, Settohom is written by Nasser Abdel-Rahman, directed by Raouf Abdel-Aziz, and starring Rogina and Iyad Nassar as well as Sheikh Yassin himself. Inspired by a true story, its events revolve around a woman who is forced to disguise herself as a man. Sheikh Yassin’s appearance is a powerful draw.

Since his singing career began in the early eighties, Medhat Saleh has maintained his melodious voice and mesmerising presence. Since his last album came out in 2019, he has given concerts, performing in films and plays as well as soap operas (though less successfully as an actor). He has performed the theme songs of some 40 works of drama, the most recent being director Adel-Adeeb’s Hadret Al-Omda (His Excellency the mayor) this year. Written by Ibrahim Eissa and starring Ruby, Mahmoud Abdel-Moghni, Bassma, Samiha Ayoub, Lotfi Labib, Salah Abdallah, it is the story of a woman who becomes mayor and suffers the stereotypical reactions. The song, which is light and satirical is written by Ayman Bahgat Qamar, and composed by Walid Saad, and showcases Saleh’s ability to switch emotional registers convincingly.

Affectionately known by his fans as The King, Mohamed Mounir has maintained a glorious musical career that spans generations for four decades since the mid-1970s. His music fuses classical Egyptian and Nubian tunes together with blues, jazz, reggae and other forms. His lyrics are often deep, with either philosophical depth or a social-political message. Also an actor — notably directed by Youssef Chahine and Khairi Bishara — Mounir’s last album appeared in 2021, but he has been seen in TV advertisements as well as concerts and major national events, not to mention theme songs.

For the title sequence of filmmaker Khaled Youssef’s TV show Sirruh Al-Batea (Secret of the Sultan) — about ordinary Egyptians resisting the French occupation of 1798-1801, based on a short story by the late Youssef Edris and starring Ahmed Fahmi, Reem Mostafa, Ahmed Al-Saadani, Hanan Mutawa, and Hussein Fahmi — Mounir performs a patriotic song that recalls many such contributions of his through the years, written by Mostafa Ibrahim and composed by Walid Saad. Mounir also performs the theme song of Omla Nadra (Rare Breed), with lyrics by the late prominent vernacular poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi and a tune by Mohamed Rahim. Written by Medhat Al-Adl, directed by Mohamed Al-Adl, and starring Nelly Karim, Jumana Murad, Gamal Suleiman, Kamal Abu Raya, Ahmed Eid, Farida Seif Al-Nasr, series revolves around a woman from Upper Egypt who struggles for her right to her inheritance, challenged by the patriarchy. The Upper Egyptian lyrics suit Mounir’s Nubian voice.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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