Music of Egypt

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Musicians of Amun, Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Western Thebes.

Music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since antiquity. The Bible documents the instruments played by the ancient Hebrews, all of which are correlated in Egyptian archaeology.[citation needed] Egyptian music probably had a significant impact on the development of ancient Greek music[citation needed], and via the Greeks was important to early European music well into the Middle Ages. The modern music of Egypt is considered Arabic music as it has been a source for or influence on other regional styles. The tonal structure of Arabic music is defined by the maqamat, loosely similar to Western modes, while the rhythm of Arabic music is governed by the iqa'at, standard rhythmic modes formed by combinations of accented and unaccented beats and rests.

Ancient Egypt[edit]

The ancient Egyptians credited the goddess Bat with the invention of music. The cult of Bat was eventually syncretised into that of Hathor because both were depicted as cows. Hathor's music was believed to have been used by Osiris as part of his effort to civilize the world. The lion-goddess Bastet was also considered a goddess of music.

The earliest material and representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predynastic period, but the evidence is more securely attested in the Old Kingdom when harps, flutes and double clarinets were played.[1] Percussion instruments,and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Cymbals[2] frequently accompanied music and dance, much as they still do in Egypt today.

Typically ancient Egyptian music was composed from the phrygian dominant scale, phrygian scale, Double harmonic scale (Arabic scale) or lydian scale. The phrygian dominant scale may often feature an altered note or two in parts to create tension. For instance the music could typically be in the key of E phrygian dominant using the notes E, F, G sharp, A, B, C, D and then have an A sharp, B, A sharp, G natural and E to create tension.

Medieval Music[edit]

Arabic music is usually said to have begun in the 7th century in Syria during the Umayyad dynasty. Early Arabic music was influenced by Byzantine, Indian and Persian forms, which were themselves heavily influenced by earlier Greek, Semitic, and ancient Egyptian music.

Egyptians in Medieval Cairo believed that music exercised "too powerful an effect upon the passions, and leading men into gaiety, dissipation and vice.".[3] However, Egyptians generally were very fond of music. Though, according to E.W. Lane, no "man of sense" would ever become a musician, music was a key part of society. Tradesmen of every occupation used music during work and schools taught the Quran by chanting.[4]

The music of Medieval Egypt was derived from Greek, Persian and Indian traditions. Lane said that "the most remarkable peculiarity of the Arab system of music is the division of tones into thirds," although today Western musicologists prefer to say that Arabic music's tones are divided into quarters. The songs of this period were similar in sound and simple, within a small range of tones. Egyptian song, though simple in form, is embellished by the singer. Distinct enunciation and a quavering voice are also characteristics of Egyptian singing.[5]

Male professional musicians during this period were called Alateeyeh (pl), or Alatee (singular), which means "a player upon an instrument". However, this name applies to both vocalists as well as instrumentalists. This position was considered disreputable and lowly. However, musicians found work singing or playing at parties to entertain the company. They generally made three shillings a night, but earned more by the guests giving more.

Female professional musicians were called Alawim (pl) or Al’meh, which means a learned female. These singers were often hired on the occasion of a celebration in the harem of a wealthy person. They were not with the harem, but in an elevated room that was concealed by a screen so as not to be seen by either the harem or the master of the house. The female Alawim were more highly paid than male performers and more highly regarded than the Alateeyeh as well. Lane relates an instance of a female performer who so enraptured her audience that she earned to fifty guineas for one night’s performance from the guests and host, who were not considered wealthy.

Religious Music in Egypt[edit]

Religious music remains an essential part of traditional Muslim and Coptic celebrations called mulids. Mulids are held in Egypt to celebrate the saint of a particular church. Muslim mulids are related to the Sufi zikr ritual. The Egyptian flute, called the ney, is commonly played at mulids. The liturgical music of the Alexandrian Rite also constitutes an important element of Egyptian music and is said to have preserved many features of ancient Egyptian music.

Lute and double pipe players from a painting found in the Theban tomb of Nebamun, a nobleman of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, c. 1350 BC

Modern Egyptian Classical & Pop Music[edit]

Egyptian music began to be recorded in the 1910s, when Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The cosmopolitan Ottomans encouraged the development of the arts, encouraging women and minorities to develop their musical abilities. By the fall of the Empire, Egypt's classical musical tradition was already thriving, centered around the city of Cairo. In general, modern Egyptian music blends its indigenous traditions with Turkish, Arabic, and Western elements.

Since the end of World War I, some of the Middle East's biggest musical stars have been Egyptian. Contemporary Egyptian music traces its beginnings to the creative work of luminaries such as Abdu-l Hamuli, Almaz and Mahmud Osman, who were all patronized by the Ottoman Khedive Ismail, and who influenced the later work of the 20th century's most important Egyptian composers: Sayed Darwish, Umm Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Zakariyya Ahmad. Most of these stars, including Umm Kulthum and Najat Al Saghira, were part of the classical Egyptian and Arabic music tradition. Some, like Abd el-Halim Hafez, were associated with the Egyptian nationalist movement from 1952 onward.

Folkloric Music[edit]

Egyptian folk music, including the traditional Sufi dhikr rituals, are the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms and instruments.[6][7]

Folk and roots revival[edit]

The Egyptians even used their own teeth as instruments they would make tapping noises and would use special plucks to make interesting noises with their teeth. The 20th century has seen Cairo become associated with a roots revival. Musicians from across Egypt are keeping folk traditions alive, such as those of rural Egyptians (fellahin), the Nubians, the Arabs, the Berbers, the Gypsies and the Bedouins. Mixtures of folk and pop have also risen from the Cairo hit factory.

Since the Nasser era, Egyptian pop music has become increasingly important in Egyptian culture, particularly among the large youth population of Egypt. Egyptian folk music continues to be played during weddings and other traditional festivities. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Egyptian music was a way to communicate social and class issues. Among some of the most popular Egyptian pop singers today are Mohamed Mounir and Amr Diab.

Sawahli (coastal) music is a type of popular music from the northern coast, and is based around the simsimiyya, an indigenous stringed instrument. Well-known singers include Abdo'l Iskandrani and Aid el-Gannirni.

Saidi (Upper Egyptian)[edit]

Egyptian musicians from Upper Egypt play a form of folk music called saidi (Upper Egyptian). Metqal Qenawi's Les Musiciens du Nil are the most popular saidi group, and were chosen by the government to represent Egyptian folk music abroad. Other performers include Shoukoukou, Ahmad Ismail, Omar Gharzawi, Sohar Magdy and Ahmed Mougahid.


Nubians are native to the south of Egypt and northern Sudan, though many live in Cairo and other cities. Nubian folk music can still be heard, but migration and intercultural contact with Egyptian and other musical genres have produced new innovations. Ali Hassan Kuban's efforts had made him a regular on the world music scene, while Mohamed Mounir's social criticism and sophisticated pop have made him a star among Nubians, Egyptians, and other people worldwide. Ahmed Mounib, Mohamed Mounir's mentor, was by far the most notable Nubian singer to hit the Egyptian music scene, singing in both Egyptian Arabic his native Nobiin. Hamza El Din is another popular Nubian artist, well-known on the world music scene and has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet.

Kelsely Abaza's work is a recent critically acclaimed example of Egyptian classical music that retains reference to Arabic tonalities. His work was hailed as "very special , very distinctive, very daring and very unusual".[8]

Western classical music[edit]

Western classical music was introduced to Egypt, and, in the middle of the 18th century, instruments such as the piano and violin were gradually adopted by Egyptians. Opera also became increasingly popular during the 18th century, and Giuseppe Verdi's Egyptian-themed Aida was premiered in Cairo on December 24, 1871.

By the early 20th century, the first generation of Egyptian composers, including Yusef Greiss, Abu Bakr Khairat, and Hasan Rashid, began writing for Western instruments. The second generation of Egyptian composers included notable artists such as Gamal Abdelrahim. Representative composers of the third generation are Ahmed El-Saedi and Rageh Daoud. In the early 21st century, even fourth generation composers such as Mohamed Abdelwahab Abdelfattah (of the Cairo Conservatory) have gained international attention.

Reconstruction of Ancient Egyptian Music[edit]

In the early 21st century, interest in the music of the pharaonic period began to grow, inspired by the research of such foreign-born musicologists as Hans Hickmann. By the early 21st century, Egyptian musicians and musicologists led by the musicology professor Khairy El-Malt at Helwan University in Cairo had begun to reconstruct musical instruments of Ancient Egypt, a project that is ongoing.[9]

Egyptian Center for Culture & Arts – Makan[edit]

At Makan We Have a Dream…

To encourage the diversity, specificity and vibrancy of Egypt's cultural scene as a strategy to counter cultural uniformity, the mainstream media showbiz, consumerism and an increasing intolerance for the irregular.

The Egyptian Center for Culture & Art (ECCA) was founded in 2002 with the initial aim to record and promote traditional music in Egypt, increasingly in danger of being relegated to the status of an exotic and de-contextualised tourist curiosity or to a place on the shelves of academic archives far from the daily lives of its dwindling practitioners. ECCA documents and presents traditional music in Egypt as a vibrant and renewable resource, a multi-layered point of reference to the cultural richness of Egyptian music and arts. To support these aims, ECCA employs numerous different activities and strategies:

It participates in safeguarding Egyptian cultural memory through the systematic recording, documenting and archiving of current practices so as to make it available to scholars, musicians and to an increasingly broad-based audience. So far, ECCA has managed to record over 35 terabytes of video and audio material.

It promotes an audio aesthetic that respects the integrity of the instruments and voices, an alternative to the aesthetic of the "trash" commercial products dominating the popular market.

It expands the audience for this tradition, renews the lively performer-audience-venue relationship and increases opportunities for financial self sustainability. ECCA presents Egyptian oral and traditional arts rarely practiced today in the closest way possible in its venue MakAn, unplugged, creating a simple and intimate but very powerful atmosphere.

It renews the music, as a third step after recording and presenting it, through the creation of Nass Makan, which combines the different Egyptian music cultures in a new and unique sound. Furthermore, it contributes to dialogue among people from different cultures through an intense process of artistic workshops and exchange.

It keeps expanding its already substantial network of contacts in order to further cooperation and the establishment of partnerships with a wide range of cultural organizations, international institutions and academies from all over the world.

It runs a music instruments school to encourage the new generation by teaching them to play the traditional instruments and styles.

‘If we continue to allow the erosion of our cultural forms, soon there will be no place to visit and no place to truly call home.’ -Alan Lomax

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Music of Ancient Egypt, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan.
  2. ^ image
  3. ^ Lane, Edward William, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, American University in Cairo Press, p. 359
  4. ^ ibid, p. 359
  5. ^ ibid, pp. 360-361
  6. ^ Hickmann, Hans. "Un Zikr Dans le Mastaba de Debhen, Guîzah (IVème Dynastie)." Journal of the International Folk Music Council. Vol. 9. (1957), pp. 59-62.
  7. ^ ______. "Rythme, mètre et mesure de la musique instrumentale et vocale des anciens Egyptiens." Acta Musicologica, Vol. 32, Fasc. 1. (Jan. - Mar., 1960), pp. 11-22.
  8. ^ "Article". 
  9. ^ Ancient Egyptian Music Symposium

Further reading[edit]

  • Lodge, David and Bill Badley. "Partner of Poetry". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 323–331. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (2007) by Scott L. Marcus, Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-514645-X (paper)

External links[edit]