Dueling musical trends, as best I can tell, rule in Egypt. The first, I'm not so fond of.
There is a thriving pop music industry here that has successfully penetrated deep into the culture. Walk into a cafe, any cafe, and you'll find at least one flat screen blasting the latest music videos. At the bottom of each screen is a rotating list of phone numbers, depending on your Middle East country, through which you can send in messages that scroll at the very bottom of the screen (a la breaking news ticker on any cable news channel). "Samir hearts Ranya," "Doha International School," etc. seem to be the norm.
For my ears, the music is kept far too loud. It makes conversation tough and reading a book even worse. Yeah, I'm in a cafe now, conveniently with my back to the tv, but the volume is near-suffocating. The Egyptians, though, love it. And I'm not really in a position to complain since these "music video cafes" are so much a part of the culture.
The other track, and the far more appealing one, is the deep and pervasive love of the old singers, revered by all age groups. Take singer Umm Kalthoum, for example. She was once dubbed the unofficial First Lady of Egypt, using her star power to ease diplomatic tensions between Egypt and Libya. She's long since dead, but her music is everywhere but Egyptians still speak of her with tremendous affection. In modern terms, she's a lounge singer, crooning about love lost and found. She heads a list of old-timers that even the teeny-bopper generation here appreciates in a way that our own Britney-loving kids in the States don't express admiration for our bygone singers. It's this affection for the past that makes me love this group of singers and their enduring legacy.
The music scene in Beirut, by contrast, is far more rock-based. The hot bands there, for the most part, tear through songs with a sort of reckless abandon that has come to represent the country as a whole. They've got a classic rock sound with a 21st-century Lebanese message. That type of music also works well in a country that loves its live music and loves to party.
I'll never forget my first trip to Beirut's Music Hall. It's an old cinema that was transformed by a young guy with a passion for music into one of Beirut's hippest clubs. I had made a reservation with friends weeks ahead and walked to the Hall with a great deal of anticipation. Arriving at midnight (early by Music Hall and Beirut standards), I walked past tanks and barbed wire on my way. Hezbollah had been protesting in the city on and off for weeks and the government had put the capital on lockdown. Sitting at the table inside, my friends and I ordered a bottle of Johnny Walker and a round of cigars. The height of sophistication. And then, with an uneasy truce holding on the streets, the program in the Music Hall began. Though this would be my first of many evenings at the Music Hall, the first, for all its novelty, was the best.
The routine there was twenty minutes of live music on the stage, followed by twenty minutes of DJ music, followed by twenty more minutes of live music, etc. The evening started slowly. A couple of lounge singers, belting Sinatra and the like, while the DJ led things off with slow rock. But the well-coordinated production began to take off, with performers and DJ alike building an arc of intensity. At one point, a Queen cover singer came on and rocked through the requisite greatest hits before closing with "We are the champions." This song elicited the requisite eye-roll from this American who had long grown tired with the over-played number. But my attitude quickly changed as everyone in the audience rose from their seats, some with tears in their eyes (no kidding), threw their arms around each other, and sang every word.
As the evening progressed, the tempo of the music and, no doubt, the booze turned the place into an full-out dance club — a mass of people jumping and dancing in unison.
As the curtain went up for the final act, I groaned. On stage was a band of traditional Palestinian musicians, dressed in traditional clothes, sporting beards turbans, and mandolins to boot. This, I complained to myself, was how the night was slated to end? But little did I know. Moments later, the band launched into a rousing rendition of the Pulp Fiction theme song, their signature, and the place went ballistic. As they raced through songs in both English and Arabic, they played like a rock band on a mission. It was a fitting, and thrilling, end to a terrific evening that encompassed the full spectrum of the Lebanese music scene — a scene, I'd argue, unmatched in its passion anywhere in the world.