In Western countries, when we speak about exotica, we think about the likes of Martin Denny, Lex Baxter or Arthur Lyman. Musicians who created an exotic dream world by incorporating instruments and rhythms from other cultures in their compositions. The musical influences from Oceania, Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Orient provided a way for the listeners to wander off to an imaginary paradise and escape from their grey, daily routine.
In the late 50’s and the 60’s, it was not only in the West that people felt the need to flee from their regular life. In quite some countries that were considered to be ‘exotic’ from a Western point of view, you can find examples of composers who approached music in a similar way as their Western counterparts. They created their own imaginary paradise by adopting musical influences from other cultures.
We went through the archives of Sono Cairo, Disques Sharara and Misrphon to introduce the world to the exciting world of Egyptian exotica. You will hear Jazz, bolero, mambo, twist, … but with a different, unexpected feeling. What makes it interesting is that the Egyptian interpretations of the music from other ‘exotic’ countries are very similar in sound, then again very far from the musical traditions of the original country. Crossover styles in an early stage are always unique because different strong traditions can clash abominably but can also blend in a most harmonious way.
The first Egyptian composer who brought striking elements from other cultures into his music was Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahab. Since the 1930’s his work was punctuated with Western classical music as well as rumba, bolero and tango. Many later composers in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Lebanon, followed his example.
As Cairo and Beirut were flourishing metropoles and beating hearts of cultural life, it’s needless to say that those places boosted the music and record industry. Since more than a century ago European record companies began to collaborate with the Arab music scene to press records, build top notch recording studios and invest in new record labels such as Baidaphon, Cairophon, Misrphon… The latter, which had a partnership with Philips, became nationalised around 1960 and a colonel of the Nasr regime occupied founder Mohamed Fawzy’s chair. Suddenly Fawzy became an employee of the Egyptian state and his salary decreased with 90%.
Sono Cairo, governmental institution, was the country’s national proud and during more than a decade they recorded hundreds of famous Egyptian singers but also artists of varied origin like French, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, African etc.. This big boom of cultural crossover and a sparkling nightlife called for new dancing rhythms and innovative styles. Egyptian movies were hyper popular throughout the Arab world and featured foxtrot, twist and cha-cha-cha. Talented composers were affected by the same craze and started to mix eastern themes and oriental makam with latin rhythms and jazz harmonies. We tracked down a few Sono Cairo recordings by the great Cuban pianist Luis Varona (Tito Puente Orchestra) playing Exotica sounds à la Yma Sumac and we stumbled on a pair of massive mambo jazz instrumentals composed by Salah Ragab’s tenor sax player Sayed Salamah (tracklist).
We tried very hard to find information about the music and artists in the tracklist but most of the band members who played during those sessions are long gone and many tracks we selected from 45rpm records seemed to be difficult to identify by several old musicians and producers we interviewed. When we talk about the Sono Cairo archives we are mainly referring to the collection of records we build up during our travels to Cairo in the past 5 years. Upon consulting the digital catalog provided by the staff of Sono Cairo, we couldn’t find any of the selected track titles.
We especially want to use the term ‘Exotica’ because this type of music is so obscure and mysterious in a way to let your mind drift off to wherever it takes you, far away from the normal, the average, off to your own Shangri-la.
The songs on this compilation were licensed from the legendary Sono Cairo label, founded by Mohamed Fawzy during the late 50’s and later taken over by the Egyptian state. Sono Cairo was one of the most important record labels in the Arab world, producing records for many artists, amongst them, the biggest star of the Middle East, Oum Kalthoum. The heritage of this label is enormous and we’re working on several projects to reissue music from this wealthy catalogue.