MARYAM SALEH and ZEID HAMDAN
Zeid Hamdan and Maryam Saleh are two of the most important figures in contemporary Middle Eastern alternative music.
Saleh, an Egyptian singer and composer, is often associated with the country’s underground music scene. This movement played a role in the 2011 to 2012 protests that resulted in Hosni Mubarak’s removal. However, her activities in the performing arts are much broader.
Lebanese producer Zeid Hamdan, meanwhile, has a long list of musical enterprises. The most legendary being Soap Kills, with singer Yasmine Hamdan. Their 2002 album Cheftak was a sort of Portishead meets the music of Lebanese singer Fairuz, but entirely in their own style. The album remains one of the most consistent achievements in Arabic music. See it as a Sgt Pepper’s, or maybe an Abbey Road, as Soap Kills effectively broke up soon after.
The first time Hamdan and Saleh teamed up was in 2010, under the name ShiftZ (Zeid Hamdan) feat Maryam. The song, Esla7at, composed by Saleh, stood out because of its angst-laden atmosphere. The accompanying video was just as gripping, showing the singer restlessly roaming the streets of Alexandria. The mood of the song seemed like a prelude to the political turmoil that followed.
Now the duo have released their first album together, Halawella. It contains several covers of songs by Sheikh Imam, an acclaimed Egyptian political singer who died in 1995. Sheikh Iman is known for his satirical songs in favour of the poor and the working classes. He was a friend of Saleh’s father, sang at her birthday parties when she was a child and now she is the main interpreter of his music.
Other songs in the album include words by various young Egyptian authors and the venerated poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, who died two years ago.
Throughout the album, Hamdan hits a harder note than he does with other collaborators. We hear colder technical sounds, in line with the sharp mood of the texts and Saleh’s frantic voice. Known for his love of vintage synthesisers and early drum machines, Hamdan applies harsher beats and sharper beeps than in other works.
The title Halawella means clown. Saleh once stated that in her early acting career, she was always supposed to play the clown. That, perhaps, explains the title. And although many of the songs originate from anger and indignation, the title also expresses the prevailing mood of the album, which is that messages are more effective when they are embedded in a certain layer of humour.
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