The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab: homage to a major mid 20th-century Egyptian singer / composer filled with mystery and intrigue

Simon Shaheen, The Music of Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Germany, Zehra, zehra008 vinyl LP (reissued 2022)

This work of love and tribute to a major 20th-century Middle Eastern music icon by US-based Israeli-Palestinian oud player / violinist Simon Shaheen is enjoying a new lease of life through German label Zehra some 30+ years after its original vinyl LP release on US bassist / record producer Bill Laswell’s Axiom label in 1990. Mohamed Abdel Wahab (1902 – 1991) is one of the greats of mid 20th-century classical Arabic music as a singer and highly prolific composer combining Western rhythms with Egyptian and classical Arabic forms and structures. He started singing while still in his teens and branched out into film acting and composing film music and songs in the early 1930s; he later left the film industry altogether to concentrate on singing and music composition. Abdel Wahab ended up writing over 1,800 songs for himself and other singers – the Egyptian icon Umm Kulthum and later Lebanese icon Fayrouz among them – and wrote national anthems for several Arab countries, including a re-written version of the Egyptian national anthem.

Abdel Wahab was also a noted oud player and Shaheen’s compilation brings together seven pieces of oud music that Abdel Wahab composed. On all seven tracks Shaheen and his brother Najib, also an oud player (and a maker of ouds as well), are joined by no fewer than twenty other musicians and singers in interpreting Abdel Wahab’s work for new audiences in both the West and the Middle East. The performances are very lively and animated. Though an air of exotic languor may linger over some of the instruments in their winding melodies and jewelled sparkle, the rhythms and music are usually very brisk, and all or nearly all instruments stick together quite closely in their performance. The music can be quite emotional as well, especially on a track like “Hanid Widd” which features considerable solo violin playing against a background of orchestral music that sounds as if it is commenting on the violin’s undulating melody. Track 5 “Theme and Variations” sounds a bit like film soundtrack music in miniature; it does have its schmaltzy Hollywood musical moments and it might not sit well with modern audiences for whom Hollywood-inspired musical films and their genre of film soundtrack music are another universe altogether. There are two tracks (“Sittel Habayeb” and “Bortuqal”) featuring a chorus of male and female singers who may sing together or break into two groups singing to each other in a way akin to call-and-response singing, and while these tracks are sung very well, they don’t feature much virtuoso melismatic singing.

The album offers a very pleasant and even beguiling listening experience, though the music tends to emphasise technical ability on individual musicians’ part and is so busy that sometimes it seems more mechanical than inspired. Even so, after more than 30 years it still sounds fresh, enthusiastic and sparkly, and in parts the music has mystery and intrigue. For 40+ minutes, Western audiences attuned to Western pop music modes and harmonies will be immersed in a very different and fascinating music world that may no longer exist even in its country and region of origin.