On April 23rd, Egyptian composer/pianist Fathy Salama came to the Penn Museum to share his music and his thoughts as a lead-up to his concert this Sunday. The dimly-lit room and Ancient Egyptian artifacts were the perfect backdrops for a man and his music so enigmatic and worldly. His engagement in the Sphinx Gallery featured samples of his music, improvisation with several guest musicians, and his opinion on the current state of music in Egypt.
Fathy was educated in classical music but heavily influenced by Egyptian greats, like Umm Kulthum and Mohammad Abdel Wahab, as well as Western classics like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. For a while he was a member of the commercial scene, composing for Arab musicians in the 80s and writing music for movies and soundtracks, but he left what he felt was a static environment in order to create his own ensemble, Sharkiat, and produce the type of music he wanted to. For a while, he was able to make a profit from this music only in Europe, but he has now grown to more popularity in Egypt and the Arab world. And that isn’t to slight his international fame: Fathy is the only Arab artist to have won a Grammy, for his 2004 collaboration album with Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour.
Fathy gave a fascinating insight into the intricacies of Arabic music. He described an emphasis in Arabic music on melody and rhythm rather than harmony and described the complex tetrachords that make up the Arabic maqamat, or musical modal system. Likening it to how a normal piano can play one-half step (the black key) in between white keys, he explained an even further division of those notes in the Arabic system that pianos are not capable of playing, which therefore must be produced on string instruments. And indeed, his improvised piece with Hanna Khoury, Al-Bustan’s musical director and violinist, and Hicham Chami, the guest qanun (what’s qanun? see here!) player, could be recognized even by an untrained ear as an unusually complex piece of music. I can’t say I could identify the tetrachords, but I certainly enjoyed what I was listening to!
Also interesting was his perspective on Egyptian music today. Fathy spoke about the new pop music emerging from his homeland post-revolution; he criticized the simplification of Arabic traditions into machine-fed chords and rhythms that could be paired with catchy lyrics to produce something that everyone will listen to. He had more respect for pop music that built off of the Western-style and added an Egyptian touch; at least these artists, he remarked, did something themselves! He wasn’t optimistic about the prospects for music, saying that the next generation of Egyptians lacks a true appreciation of classical Arabic music and its intricacies and suggesting that this will get much worse before it gets better. His views were bleak and his criticism harsh, but there are few more qualified than he to share them both.
Fathy provided a little-heard voice from the Egyptian music scene as well as a great personal story, regardless of ethnicity or profession, of self-determination and commitment to one’s own vision. I would recommend him to any jazz lover who wants to expand his horizons beyond the traditional; his music promises not to disappoint!