Sampling Folklore: The re-popularization of Sufi inshad in Egyptian dance music
Issue 4, Winter 2008
January, 2008. Beneath the looming limestone precipice that borders the old city of Cairo stands the shrine of Omar Ibn Al-Farid, a 13th century Sufi mystic and poet. Much of his verse is metaphorical love poetry, and, now deemed classic, is most typically
Dancing at a Cairo street wedding.
photo by Ahmed Kamel, www.ahmed-kamel.com.
Dancing at a Cairo street wedding.
Although relatively modest in scale, the mulid of Ibn Al-Farid is a festival much like those held for hundreds of other saints in Egypt, combining spiritually-focused ritual with fairground fun. Pilgrims visit the shrine to pay their respects and make supplications amidst crowds praying, socializing, singing Sufi poetry, eating, and even sleeping in the mosque area. Near the shrine and throughout the festive space, Sufi patrons provide charitable "services" of food, water, hot drinks, and sweets to the public. Outside upon a stage draped in colorful cloth, a professional performer of inshad provides the musical and lyrical setting for dhikr, an emotionally-charged, rhythmic swaying movement whose practice is meant to engender a heightened spiritual state. Dervishes in eccentric dress converge on the mulid space, sometimes sporting ornate canes, flags, and symbolic props such as wooden swords. Families picnic on the pavement and children frolic among the fairground attractions, rambunctiously riding swings and playing at shooting galleys. Youth swagger in their most fashionable clothes, makeshift cafés fill up, and itinerant vendors hawk snacks, toys, party hats, trinkets, and cassette tapes of inshad and other music genres.
Although the mulid marks the height of the year's festive activity, Ibn Al-Farid's shrine remains a site for goings-on throughout the year, including the daily life of its caretaker's family and visits by the pious. It is located on the edge of the Al-Abagiya neighborhood, whose residents, like those of other low-income neighborhoods in Cairo, often hold their celebratory events in the streets. One evening in 2007, the tomb-lined block leading to Ibn Al-Farid's mausoleum was transformed into a bachelor party, the street strung with blue fairy lights, red Chinese lanterns, and chandeliers. With the shrine in the immediate background, a young DJ worked behind a wall of 18 speakers stacked across the road, orchestrating dance music for the party-goers and featuring a popular style called "mulid". Like the party's ornamentation, this music's name and sound evoked the atmosphere of a saint festival, but with a twist. Drawing on the context of mulid festivals and Sufi inshad, the "mulid" trend samples, imitates and remixes elements of mulid festival music, lyrics, and cultural references into a distinct form of boisterous, youth-oriented dance music.
This Al-Abagiya bachelor party was held for a DJ who produces "mulid" remixes on his home computer and specializes in this dance trend to the extent that he calls his small
DJ Mulid's work station at the 2007 mulid of
Al-Sayyida Nafisa. photo by Jennifer Peterson.
DJ Mulid's work station at the 2007 mulid of
Yet the scene of youth dancing to "mulid" tracks at a bachelor party before Ibn Al-Farid's shrine also underlined a significant aspect of the "mulid" dance music trend. Having drawn on the "popular" tradition of mulid culture, "mulid" dance music remains essentially street-based, emerging from informal production circuits and maintaining a local, grassroots identity. Slick as some of it may be, mulid songs are not the stuff of upscale nightclubs, just as this street party was physically and symbolically distant from the nearest hotel reception hall hosting more lavish wedding celebrations. Well below the radar of trendy "world-musicized" dance currents, and distinct from elitist "intellectual" or "artsy" borrowings of inshad, the "mulid" dance trend incorporates elements of a very Egyptian genre into an equally grassroots "people's" production, bringing re-worked Sufi borrowings into "popular" settings such as back-alley parties and crowded public transportation. Its use of one "popular" genre in the production of another has resulted in the "re-popularization" of mulids and their music among wide sectors of Egypt's youth. This study examines aspects of how and why this arresting form of "re-popularizing" Sufi inshad has taken place.
Popularizing the mulid
Like low-income neighborhoods such as Al-Abagiya, the types of loud street parties they host, and the local youth who produce mulid dance tracks, the "street"-based music genre that the mulid trend belongs to is referred to by the term "sha'bi". As is the case with its common English translation of "popular", the word "sha'bi" comprises various shades of meaning. It derives from the word "sha'b", meaning "people", and is used variously to imply "populist", "popular" as in enjoying great popularity, and "popular" as in being "of the people" – of being local, vernacular, and from the proverbial "street". "Sha'bi" is also used as a virtual synonym of "folkloric", for example in the context of "sha'bi" or "popular" arts such as folk dancing, the narration of epic tales, and other traditional "folk" genres.
With regard to its sense as being "of the people", which is the meaning implied when used as a label for sha'bi music and culture, the term is endowed with a full range of connotations. Like its counterpart "baladi", an adjective describing "low-class" urban culture of rural origin, and essentially meaning "native" or "cottage-industry", "sha'bi" is held both in high regard and abhorrent disdain depending on who is doing the naming and the context at hand. On the positive side, it is used to suggest authenticity, savvy, cleverness, and an engaged connection to one's humble yet honored origins and social environment. At the negative end of the spectrum, however, it can imply being poor-quality, grossly impoverished, unsophisticated, and downright uncouth.
All of these various qualities are applied in evaluations of sha'bi music, a genre that often fuses "rural" musical traditions with "urban" instruments, dance tempos, and lyrical concerns. Yasser Abdel Latif, a fan of the sha'bi genre, describes it as a blend of traditional, plaintive scat – "oh night, oh eyes, oh, oh" – and a type of urban blues "whose content revolves around cursing fate and its treachery that destroys pleasure and disperses communities, as well as love concerns of a sensual nature […] This is in addition to the untamed, raw performance of this sector's singers and their rough voices that pour over music that is a mix of the city's clamor and crowdedness […]". Fans of sha'bi music appreciate what they perceive as an unassuming attitude, simple honesty, and a down-to-earth approach that remain in touch with contemporary urban reality. Detractors, on the other hand, typically deem it "meaningless", vulgar, and gauche. Sha'bi songs including the mulid strain are eschewed by official broadcasting outlets, which characterize them as "lowbrow" and unsophisticated. Mulid songs are not given airtime on the radio and are not heard on television except for rare snatches broadcast in the soundtracks of a few films.
 On the performance of inshad and its relation to Sufi poetry, see Frishkopf, Michael (2001) "Tarab ('enchantment') in the Mystic Sufi Chant of Egypt." In Sherifa Zuhur (ed.) Colors of enchantment: theater, dance, music, and the visual arts of the Middle East, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 233-269.
 Festivities held to honor a saint are in the Egyptian colloquial called mulid (pl. mawalid) from the classical Arabic mawlid, literally meaning a birthday or anniversary and in this context typically marking the anniversary of a saint’s death. On Ibn Al-Farid, his poetry, and his sainthood, see Homerin, Th. Emil (2001) From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Fārid, His Verse, and His Shrine, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
 On mulids and their various aspects, including debates around them, see Schielke, Samuli (2004) "On Snacks and Saints: When Discourses of Order and Rationality Enter the Egyptian Mawlid." In Georg Stauth (ed.), On Archeology of Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam, Yearbook of the Sociology of Islam 5, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, p.173-194, and Schielke, Samuli (2006) Snacks and Saints: Mawlid Festivals and the Politics of Festivity, Piety and Modernity in Contemporary Egypt, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam.
 On the relationships between mulid festivities, wedding celebrations, and the mulid dance trend, see Peterson, Jennifer (forthcoming 2008) "Remixing songs, remaking mulids: The merging spaces of dance music and saint festivals in Egypt." In Samuli Schielke and Georg Stauth (eds.), Dimensions of Locality: The Making and Remaking of Islamic Saints and Their Places, Yearbook of the Sociology of Islam 8, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
 Abdel-Latif, Yasser (2007) "musiqa al-shari'." amkenah: ta'ni bi-thiqafat al-makan, Book 8, Alexandria, p. 232-237, citation on p. 223. Abdel Latif works for an Egyptian music television station loosely modeled on MTV (qanat al-nil li-lmunawi'yat "Nile Channel for Variety Acts"). In this article, he chronicles his attempt to co-produce a show documenting the lives of sha'bi stars and the cultural assumptions and biases encountered in the process.
 A peculiar exception to this rule was an advertisement played in December 2007 on iza'at al-aghani (Song Radio) calling on listeners to vote for their favorite male and female singers, lyricists, composers, and songs for 2007, and playing a mulid dance music track. When I called to vote for mulid songs, the staff member handling calls seemed surprised and amused, but granted that "tastes change" and "nothing is strange these days". He was unaware that the advertisement featured a mulid song, but suggested that its purpose may have been to provide a "change". Films that have featured mulid dance music include lakhmat ras (A mixed-up head), which showcased a full track, 'awdat al-nadla (Return of the mean and nasty), discussed in detail below, al-hubb kida (Such is love), which incorporated a mulid dance riff into one sha'bi song, and karkar (Karkar), which featured mulid instrumentation in a wedding scene and a short mulid track subsequently adopted by the mulid dance trend. lakhmat ras (A mixed-up head), Ahmed Al-Badri, Cairo: Al-Sobky Film, 2006; 'awdat al-nadla (Return of the mean and nasty), Said Hamed, Cairo: Al-Sobky Film, 2006; al-hubb kida (Such is love), Akram Farid, Cairo: Al-Sobky Film, 2007; karkar (Karkar), Ali Ragab, Cairo: Al-Sobky Film, 2007.
 Muhsin, Mahmoud,"studiyuhat al-aghani tahawwalat ila 'aswaq tujariya'…wa-l-muwazzi'un sabab al-azma." Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, No. 1024, Tuesday, 3 April 2007.
 Conversation held in Al-Mahdi’s cassette tape shop in Imbaba on 20 April 2007. mulid al-kharbana al-gadid (2007). Imbaba: Abdu Company.
 Gamal Al-Sobky (2002) al-mulid. Shubra: Al-Imam for Artistic Production and Distribution.
 Interview with DJ 'Alaa, Al-Sayyida Nafisa, 17 July 2007.
 Interview with DJ Ragab, Gazirat Al-Dhahab (Gold Island), 20 August 2007.
 DJ 'Alaa suggests that most video clips center around a love story. Interview in Al-Sayyida Nafisa, 17 July 2007.
 Interview with DJ Mahmoud, Sohag City, 2 April 2007.
 See www.britishcouncil.org/musicmatbakh.
 On aspirations for the Music Matbakh project, see Cumming, Tim "Middle Eastern collective Music Matbakh cook up a musical feast", Independent Online Edition, 18 May 2007, accessed at http://arts.independent.co.uk/music/features/article2554622.ece, and Lynskey, Dorian "'Governments can go to hell'", Guardian Unlimited, 8 June 2007, accessed at http://arts.guardian.co.uk/filmandmusic/story/0,,2097397,00.html.
 Danielson, Virginia (1996) "New Nightingales of the Nile: Popular Music in Egypt Since the 1970s." Popular Music 15/3, p. 299-312, citation on p. 301.
 These modern classicists are namely the composers and singers Muhammad Abdel Wahhab and Farid Al-Atrash, and singer Oum Kalthoum, who led a "renaissance" of Arab music in the mid-20th century, combining classical music genres and poetry with colloquial lyrics, large orchestras, and Western-influenced compositions. The colloquial "folk" poetry referred to here includes that of Ahmed Fouad Nigm, Bayram Al-Tonsi, and Fouad Haddad, considered "national" poets who express the people's sentiment and whose verse is often critical of the Egyptian government and/or external threats such as the colonial powers or Israel and the United States.
 Oum Kalthoum (d. 1975) remains until today the utmost exemplar of Egyptian, and indeed Arab, singing and the modern classicist musical tradition. See Danielson, Virginia (1997) The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
 Hani Shenuda composed for Ahmed 'Adawiya and had his own band Al-Masriyin (The Egyptians). Ahmed 'Adawiya is a singer considered the father of urban sha'bi style.
Armbrust, Walter (1992) "The National Vernacular: Folklore and Egyptian Popular Culture." Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, Issue 4, p. 525-542, citation on p. 533. See also Armbrust, Walter (1996) Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and specifically part of the chapter "Vulgarity", p. 180-190.
 Interview in Shubra Al-Kheima, 18 April 2007. The sha'bi song "al-'aynab" (Grape) and its variants and spins including "al-balah" (Date) and "al-samak" (Fish), highly popular since 2006 and still hits at the time of writing, are also explained as stemming from "folklore" and "heritage", even as detractors scoff at the perceived "meaningless" of their lyrics. "Al-'aynab" is said to have been first borrowed in the sha'bi genre by singer Shafiqa in the 1980s, and sha'bi mulid singer Mahmoud Al-Leithy recorded a version of it on his 2005 debut album, 'asfourayn.
 Interview in Imbaba, 25 April 2007.
 Van Nieuwkerk, Karin (1996) “A Trade Like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p.59.
 See Danielson's section on Oum Kalthoum's childhood, "Min al-Mashāyikh" (reared among the shaykhs) (1997: 21-28). Another example is provided by composer Sayyid Makkawi, who began his career as a munshid and Qur'an reciter (Schielke, 2007: 181).
 This saying was originally attributed to Ahmed Fouad Hassan, who was conductor of the "classical" Arab orchestra Al-Firqa Al-Massiya (which often played for another 20th century "great" – the heartthrob singer Abdel Halim Hafiz), and who previously worked as a musician at mulids.
 See also Puig, Nicolas (2006) "Egypt’s Pop-Music Clashes and the ‘World Crossing’ Destinies of Muhammad ‘Ali Street Musicians." In Diane Singerman/Paul Amar (eds.) Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 513-536, specifically p. 523, 527, 529.
 Al Hussein is an area in "Islamic" or "Fatimid" Cairo that hosts the city's largest mulid each year in honor of its namesake, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. "Bey", or "Bek", is an Egyptian title of Turkish origin once used to address the aristocratic class and used today as a form of respect. In the original Arabic, these rap lyrics are "fa-ya-fandim ahandim hadumi l-min, Starmaker wa-l-fananin, insa wa ul li al-fann feen, ena kunt zaman 'ala l-mulid aruh, asma' fih tawashih al-suf, asma' wa aliff fil-hussein, huwa da al-fann ya bey."
 Conversation and interview in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar on 22 and 27 April 2007. One of many material elements closely connecting mulids and weddings is the fairground entertainment provided by sha'bi musicians, singers and dancers who have traditionally performed in both contexts, what van Nieuwkerk calls the "circuit of saint’s day celebrations and weddings" (1996: 59).
 Conversation in Imbaba, 28 April 2007. Darawish is the plural of darwish, often given an English language equivalent of "dervish". In the Egyptian context, a darwish is a Sufi who devotes a great deal of time to visiting saints' shrines and attending mulids and dhikr sessions, and whose love for the Prophet and the saints is effusive.
 Conversation with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Bayoumi at the mulid of Sheikh Mustafa Abdel Salam, Edfu, 1 April 2007.
 On tarab, see Racy, A.J. (2003) Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Frishkopf, 2001.
 On the expression of joy and its relationship to both the Sufi context and mulid dance music, see Peterson (forthcoming 2008).
 Interview in Al-Muqattam, 18 July 2007.
 Interview in Imbaba, 25 April 2007. This song was included on Al-Leithy's debut album 'asfourayn, which he says sold a million copies. Mahmoud Al-Leithy (2005) 'asfourayn. Imbaba: Sawt Al-Tarab for Acoustics.
 Frishkopf (2001), p. 246.
 Danielson (1996), p. 309.
 Racy, Ali Jihad (1982) "Musical Aesthetics in Present-Day Cairo." Ethnomusicology 26/3, p. 391-406. Other terms he uses to imply the same quality are "tradition" and "genuineness".
 Authenticity here implies being "original" and "native". Authenticity in the sense of "pure" is not intended, although it is an essential criterion for some in judging music. An example concerning Sufi inshad and sha'bi music is provided by the comment of a fruit vendor from Sohag, made at the mulid of Sidi Abu Ikhlas in Alexandria on 12 April 2007. Of the Sufi munshid performing he said, "Next he’s going to sing al-hantour (a popular sha'bi dance song about an outing in a horse-drawn carriage)" because the munshid was "mixing up his words" by inserting Oum Kalthoum into his performance, a practice in fact highly common among munshidin and sha'bi singers alike, and one not typically criticized.
 On the religious-cultural framework of mulid dance tracks, see Peterson (forthcoming 2008). Relations between religiosity and pop and rai music are discussed respectively in Varzi, Roxanne (2006) Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 21,133, 136, and Schade-Poulsen, Marc (1999) Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Rai, Austin: University of Texas Press, both cited in Swedenberg, Ted (2007) "Imagined Youths." In Middle East Report 245, accessed online at http://www.merip.org/mer/mer245/swedenburg.html.
 See Hamzawy, Amr (2000) "Processes of local deconstruction of global events, news, and discursive messages: case studies from Egypt." In Bjørn Olav Utvik and Knut S. Vikør (eds.) The Middle East in a Globalized World: Papers from the Fourth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, Oslo 1998, London: Bergen, pp. 130-149, accessed in August 2007 at http://www.smi.uib.no/pao/hamzawy.html, and Napoli, James J. (2002) "Covering Islam in Egypt", posted on Religion in the News, Vol. 5, No.1, accessed in August 2007 at http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/RINVol5No1/covering%20Islam.htm.
 Racy (1982), p. 391.
 Ibid., p. 394-395.
 Gamal Al-Sobky, interview in Shubra Al-Kheima, 18 April 2007. Sheikh Yassin Al-Tuhami is the most well-known munshid in Egypt today – he is featured on Egyptian television, researched by foreign academics, regularly performs overseas, and has a group of devoted fans who attend his performances across Egypt. Sheikh Sharaf (d. approx. 2005) is the most well-known performer of qissas, moral tales interwoven with Sufi inshad and performed at mulids.
 A slick Egyptian pop star.
 Mahmoud Al-Leithy, interview in Imbaba, 25 April 2007.
 On Shaaban Abdel Rahim, see Grippo, James R. (2006) "The Fool Sings a Hero’s Song: Shaaban Abdel Rahim, Egyptian Shaabi, and the Video Clip Phenomenon." Transnational Broadcasting Studies 16, accessed at http://www.tbsjournal.com/Grippo.html.
 Sound bytes from movies are incorporated into some songs, and I once heard an entire cassette tape that interwove mulid and other sha'bi songs with textual excerpts from comedy films and plays.
 See Peterson (forthcoming 2008).
 Mahmoud Al-Leithy (2007) ya rabb. Imbaba: Sawt Al-Tarab for Acoustics.
Al-Leithy himself was 27 years old at the time of this interview.
 Interview in Imbaba, 25 April 2007
As cited in Danielson (1996: 300).
 On the spatial, temporal, metaphorical, and experiential relationships between the mulid dance current and actual mulid festivities, see Peterson (forthcoming 2008).
 Although Madoeuf (2006: 480) and Mustafa (2005: 108) characterize certain manifestations of dhikr as dance, and, below, dance enthusiast Ramy speaks of his experience using this term, the classification of dhikr as dance in strictly religious discourse, among Sufi circles, and among the general populace is debatable. (Madoeuf, Anna (2006) "Mulids of Cairo: Sufi Guilds, Popular Celebrations, and the ‘Roller-Coaster Landscape’ of the Resignified City." In Diane Singerman/Paul Amar (eds.) Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 465-487, and Mustafa, Faruq Ahmed (2005) al-mawalid: dirasa li-l'adat wa-l-taqalid al-sha'biya fi misr, Alexandria: dar al-ma'rifa al-jama'iya.) One issue at stake is the degree to which"ritual" and "entertainment" are differentiated; another is how experiences of rhythmic movement made with various intents differ from each other in the view of practitioners on the one hand, and in the popular imagination on the other. This issue bears some resemblance to the problem of characterizing Qur’anic recitation as singing. For discussion of the so-called sama’ (listening) polemic concerning the permissibility of musical audition of the Qur'an, see Nelson, Kristina (2001) The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 32-51.
 Interview with Ramy “Al-Aqil” ("the rational", so-called because he's "crazy"), Al-Sayyida Zeinab, 27 April 2007.
 I have been told, however, that the distinctive Leithy form of dhikr, which involves highly stylized and synchronized combinations of jumping, turning, stretching and breathing, is similar to traditional dance forms from the region in which it originates, the Aswan governorate of the deep south.
 Interview with DJ 'Alaa in Al-Sayyida Nafisa, 17 July 2007.
 Schielke notes that Sheikh Yassin Al-Tuhami rejects the folklore classification, "stressing that his performance is a religious mission." (2006:175) See also Frishkopf (2001).
 This wonderland was previously created in the children's park of the sha'bi neighborhood Al-Sayyida Zeinab. In 2007, it was instead set up at Al-Fustat Park, another children's park located in a sha'bi area near the site of Cairo's establishment.
 Lorius, Cassandra (1996) "'O Boy You Salt of the Earth': Outwitting Patriarchy in Raqs Baladi." Popular Music, Vol. 15, No.3, p.285-298, citation on p. 289.
 This production was, typically, made for Ramadan viewing, which often focuses on "sha'bi" life. The song, "buss wa shuf" (Look) includes some minor mulid dance instrumentation and yet its performer, Hoba, classifies it only as "sha'bi" and not part of the mulid current. Conversation in Shubra Al-Kheima, 18 April 2007.
 For other treatments of the process of "folklorization", see, regarding Egypt, Harring-Smith, Tori (2001) "El-Warsha: Theatrical Experimentation and Cultural Preservation." In Sherifa Zuhur (ed.) Colors of enchantment: theater, dance, music, and the visual arts of the Middle East, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, p. 77-86, and, regarding Latin America, Canclini, Néstor García (1995) Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Salah Jahin (author) and Sayyid Makkawi (composer) (1972) Oberet al-layla al-kabira. Cairo: Sono Cairo.
Schielke (2006), p. 180-181. For more on representations of mulids, see Schielke (2006) p.174-187.
 Conversation with Muhsin Al-Shabrawi, lyricist for sha'bi star Araby Al-Sughayr, Shubra Al-Kheima, 18 July 2007.
 Istiftah was played by popular actress Abla Kamel, who often assumes baladi roles.