Musical Performance: The Poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm and Compositions of Sheikh Imam

Fri, May 14, 2010 9:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

(View all musical performances »)


Azza Balba - Vocals (U.S. Debut)
George Ziadeh
- Oud and Vocals

and featuring

Sami Abu Shumays
- Violin
Amir ElSaffar - Trumpet
Johnny Farraj
- Percussion
Zafer Tawil
- Qanun

Tickets: $20, available at the door or online here.
(A surcharge applies; use printout as your ticket.)

$15 student tickets available at the door only.
Doors open at 8:30 p.m.

Listen and watch Sheikh Imam perform Ahmed Fouad Negm's Kelmeteen Le Masr

About Ahmed Fouad Negm

One has to speak of the poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm in grand terms: if the Internationale were to have been written in Arabic, its author would likely have been Ahmed Fouad Negm. The vernacular poet. born in the province of Sharqia in 1929, is well-known for his work with Egyptian composer Sheikh Imam, as well as for his patriotic and revolutionary poetry that gives voice to the Egyptian and Arab underclass - the poet of the poor.

Like many poets and writers of his generation, he received his education at the religious Kutaab schools managed by Al-Azhar. After his father died, he was placed in an orphanage in 1936 where he first met the famous singer Abdel Halim Hafez. In 1945, at the age of 16 he left the orphanage to return to his village to work in an English camp while aiding guerilla operations against the British occupation. He was later imprisoned for 3 years for counterfeiting, a period in which he seriously took up writing, winning first place in a writing competition organized by the Supreme Council for the Arts and subsequently publishing his first collection “Pictures from Life and Prison” After his release, Ahmed Fouad Negm became a clerk in the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization. He also became a regular poet on Egyptian radio.

In 1962, he met singer and composer Sheikh Imam and started their famous collaboration that would endure 18 years of political imprisonment for both of them and the ire of the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak regimes. The pressures ended in a bitter rift between them in the early nineties. Sheikh Imam died in 1995 after a long illness

The Poetry

Ahmed Fouad Negm is deeply influenced by the work of Lorca, Maxim Gorky and Nâzım Hikmet, and owes much to their revolutionary romanticism, conceptual form and stylistic devices. Still, he is uniquely embedded in the Egyptian vernacular, especially in terms of specific syntheses he makes of iconoclasms and lyricism, of ideology and poetic diction. The verse is at once tenderly melancholic, acerbically humorous and irreverent, unrelentingly vigorous, and hopeful.

Ahmed Fouad Negm's poetry "bets" on the future, youthfully contemptuous of the present and totally irreconcilable with the past. Whether it is in “She Palestine,”Rise-up Egypt,” or the legendary “Nixon Baba,” Negm’s turn of phrase is surprisingly novel. It rhymes and flows in ways that have never been heard before, yet, formed within the idiom of Egyptian colloquial language, it is, nonetheless, perfectly understood.

While Sadat received, perhaps, the most of Ahmed Fouad Negm's lacerating mockery, Negm believes that he, albeit to a far lesser extent than Nasser, at least had the virtue of pursuing a project. Unlike them, however, Mubarak seems to offer nothing and is, consequently, ridiculed mercilessly by Negm. The following poem, shocking in its candid irreverence, illustrates this last point brilliantly. It satirizes Mubarak's peace policy, using sexual puns and mixed metaphors to equate it with an impotent president, all the while belittling Mubarak’s manhood through a disparaging invective.

عليا الحرنكش يا ريس مبارك
فى عصرمزركش ملون بنارك
لابايعك وأبايع حكومة حمارك
ملعون أبو اللى يقدريقاطع قرارك
نهاره مقندل وليله مبارك
فهمبك وهجص وطلع فى ديننا
أكيد هو طالع يشاهد جمالك
جمالك مبارك سوزانك سوزاننا
يا محلا حصارك لمصر اللى جالنا
نسيمها فى عصرك بيشوى ف بدنا
أؤيد وأبايع فخامة جلالتك
وأيد أى واحد بيمسح ريالتك
ولأنك سر باتع هاننسى هبالتك
فأقعد يا ريس ودلدل حمامتك
حمامة السلام حمامتك ياريس
سلامة الحمامة وسلامتك ياريس
ياريس حمامة ياريس كويس
على تل مصر ياريتك تهيص
خرابة فسيحة عليها تمتيس
وأأمر تطاع فشعبك مفيص

The poetry of Negm is never a poetry of praise and celebration, no friend to power. Like the man himself it resides with the downtrodden. It lives where he lives, in one of the poorest sections of Cairo on the top floor of a five-story tenement. It gains its form from the content of the lived, happy and revolting, experiences of many and countless millions of the oppressed.

Sheikh Imam

Imam Mohammad Ahmad Eissa or Sheikh Imam (July 2, 1918 – June 7, 1995) was a famous Egyptian composer and singer. For most of his life, he formed a duo with the colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. Together, they were known for their political songs that favored the poor and the working classes. Imam was born to a poor family in the Egyptian village of Abul Numrus in Giza. He lost his sight when he was a child. At the age of five he joined a recitation class, where he memorized the Qur’an. He later moved to Cairo where he met Sheikh Darwish el-Hareery who taught him the fundamentals of music and muwashahaat . Later, Imam worked with the Egyptian composer Zakariyya Ahmad and studied Egyptian folk songs, especially those by Sayed Darwish and Abdou el-Hamouly.

In 1962 he met the Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. For many years, they formed a duo composing and singing political songs. Though their songs were banned on Egyptian radio and television stations, they were popular among ordinary people in the 1960s and 1970s. Their revolutionary songs criticizing Arab regimes, particularly after their spectacular defeat in the 1967 war led to their imprisonment and detention on many occasions. In the mid-1980s, Imam performed several concerts in France, Britain, Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.

The music of Sheikh Imam is marked by a form of totality that allowed his political songs to travel beyond the geographical location of its origin. Sheikh Imam's music appealed to non-Arab and Arab symbols such as Palestine or his tribute to Che Guevara. Although he studied Quranic recitation at an early age, Imam came to be known for his magnificent classical Arab musical composition and as a rebellious folk singer. He also rejuvenated, modernized and developed the art of the political song in the Arab world. Musically, his instrument of choice was the Oud, and the compositions, anchored in tradition, are rather streamlined in their development and orchestration, but emotive of Tarab in an intimate setting.

About the Musicians

Azza Balba (Vocals)

Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, Azza Balba graduated from the faculty of commerce. While a student she won an award for best singer in a university competition which resulted in a scholarship at the Conservatoire. She joined various local ensembles and became politically active in the student movement in the late 1970s. Imprisoned twice for her political activism. she was later released and traveled to Lebanon in 1982 to live in Sabra and Shatila, doing so during, and in the aftermath, of the massacres. For her efforts she was honored by Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Azza Balba performed the work of many great composers: Kamel Tawil, Mohamed El Mogy, Sid Meckawy and of course Sheikh Imam. She also performed in many musicals, television series and films. Although she frequently sings in concert in Europe and the Arab world, this is her first visit to the United States.

George Ziadeh (Oud and Vocals)

George Ziadeh was born and raised in Birzeit, Palestine, and pursued music from a young age. In 1986 he moved to the United States, where he studied ‘oud with Simon Shaheen and classical singing and voice with Youssef Kassab, with whom he has toured extensively across the country.George has performed and lectured with such ensembles and institutions as the University of Chicago’s Middle East Music Ensemble with Issa Boulos, the University of Colorado (Boulder), Alwan for the Arts, the United Nations (invited by Kofi Annan), and annually at the Columbia University Department of Ethnomusicology. In 2008, George was a featured solo and ensemble performer in the “Brooklyn Maqam” Festival of Arab Music. From 1995 to 1997 George taught at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah and at Birzeit University. George is considered an authority in maqam and Arab classical repertoire.

Sami Abu Shumays (Violin)

Arab Violinist Sami Abu Shumays was born in the United States of mixed Palestinian and American descent, but returned to the Arab world to develop a richer connection with his cultural heritage. Originally a composer and scholar of Western Classical music, he began studying Arabic violin with renowned Arabic violinist and oud player Simon Shaheen in New York, where he concurrently pursued graduate studies in composition and ethnomusicology at C.U.N.Y. after receiving his B.A. in Music from Harvard. Seeking a deeper immersion in Arab musical culture, Sami studied in Cairo, Egypt on a Fulbright fellowship, with Dr. Alfred Gamil, and continued his studies in Aleppo, Syria, with Mohammed Qasas, Abdel-Basit Bakkar, and Abdel-Minaim Senkary–experiences that led him to devote himself to Arabic music.

Amir ElSaffer (Trumpet)

Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar is an accomplished jazz and classical trumpeter who has collaborated with a variety of artists, including Cecil Taylor, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and Daniel Barenboim. In 2002, ElSaffar put his New York career on hold to immerse himself in the music of his father 's homeland, the Iraqi maqam. He went on a tremendous quest, traveling to Iraq and throughout the Middle East and Europe in urgent pursuit of masters who could impart to him this centuries-old oral tradition. He quickly became versed in maqam, learning to play the santour (Iraqi hammered dulcimer) and to sing, and created new techniques for the trumpet that enable Arabic microtones and ornaments to be played in the rarest of fashion on this instrument. His 2007 release, Two Rivers (Pi Recordings), is a groundbreaking, emotionally charged work that invokes ancient Iraqi musical traditions and frames them in a modern jazz setting. Described by BBC World as "harrowing to absorb; full of as much beauty as pain," and by Downbeat as "hauntingly beautiful," the CD appeared on several top 10 lists of 2007, and was the Village Voice's runner-up debut jazz of that year.

Johnny Farraj (Percussion)

Johnny Farraj studied the riq (Egyptian tambourine) and frame drum with Karim Nagi and Fairuz's percussionist Michel Merhej. He also studied the oud with Simon Shaheen and Bassam Saba, and classical Arabic singing with Rima Khcheich and Youssef Kassab. As a percussionist, he has performed with Simon Shaheen/Qantrara (Symphony Space) and Amir El-Saffar, and recorded on the soundtrack of the play "9 Parts of Desire" by Heather Raffo. Johnny has performed and given lecture demonstrations in universities and museums throughout the US and Canada, and has taken part in several fusion collaborations involving classical Indian, Persian and Jazz. Johnny annually attends the Arabic Music Retreat, and has created the web site to teach classical Arabic music (maqam) theory.

Zafer Tawil (Qanun)

Zafer Tawil is a virtuoso on ‘oud, violin, and qanun, and a master of Arabic percussion. Zafer has performed in concerts across the country, including performances with numerous musicians ranging from Sting to Arab music virtuosos Chab Mami, Simon Shaheen, Bassam Saba and George Ziadeh, to avant-garde composer/performer Elliot Sharpe. He was a featured composer and performer in acclaimed director Jonathan Demme's Oscar-nominated film Rachel Getting Married and is composing and performing for Demme’s next film project, Zeitoun, based on Dave Eggers’ book about Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s post-Hurricane Katrina odyssey. Zafer has worked on many collaboration concerts involving classical Indian and Persian music as well as arab/jazz fusion. He has held workshops on Arab music at many institutions and universities across the United States. A native of East Jerusalem, he resides in New York City.

Last updated: 2010-05-13 02:29:41

Ahmed Fouad Negm & Sheikh Imam
Ahmed Fouad Negm & Sheikh Imam
Azza Balba
Azza Balba

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