CAIRO Antique dealers, second-hand markets, auction showrooms, music lovers and historians are the cornerstones of the wondrous world of vintage vinyl records in Egypt, just as they are in similar dusty corners around the world.

Egypt's phonographic history is particularly rich in oriental music, with record labels running from the end of the 19th century until the mid 1950s, through companies such as Gramophone, Odeon, Baidaphone, Meshian, and Polyphon. There were vernacular free verse, couplets, odes, Koran recitation, religious chanting and more. And when the competition between the companies came to an end, the floor was yielded to fierce competition between amateur record-collecting music aficionados, record dealers and Gulfie moneybags.

Zein is an antiques dealer in downtown Cairo who has a fondness for collecting vintage records and a good knowledge of Egyptian musical heritage. He sees vintage record collecting as a trap. Once sucked into this treasure-filled world, it's impossible not to plumb the depths in search of gem-like tunes and performances.

Music historians, aficionados, record dealers and amateur collectors from various countries come to Zein, who roams villages, markets and auctions in search of rare records to complete his valuable collection. His store is stacked with all the record varieties and phonograph labels that have ever existed in Egypt. He also owns a large number of recording devices, including deck recorders and cassette recorders, and innumerable cassette tapes.

Photo: Hussein Alazaat

He believes that genuine music aficionados are virtually extinct, recounting stories about Abdel Aziz al-Anany, Mohamed al-Bann, Saeed al-Masry, Am Gerger al-Tarzy, Mostafa Abul Oyoun and Mahmoud Kamel, who composed music for old Egyptian radio show Alhan Zaman. They were his companions and masters, the bond between them forged through love for genuine old music and record collecting, despite their diverse professions and social backgrounds.

Zein says his customers can be divided into three groups. The first are those who are very knowledgeable about music, and their number has dropped sharply to almost 10 people, including some Gulfie Arabs. Kuwaitis in particular are considered the best music aficionados in the Gulf region, he adds, such as the manager of Kuwait Music Academy, his most important customer.

The second group consists of researchers, and the third group is collectors, mostly Gulfies. Usually they request Oum Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab records and have no interest in older music icons. Zein is not alarmed by Gulf money buying out Egyptian heritage, saying that Egypt still swarms with countless undiscovered gems despite centuries of plunder and robbery.

Zein owns a copy of the record archive at the Egyptian National Library and Archives, and uses it in his ardent search for old recordings to complete his collection.

Making it available to all

Zagazig physician Essmat al-Nemr is one of the old amateur record collectors, founder of online music portal Misrfone and a member of the online oriental music heritage forum Sama3y. He says the amount of this heritage — collected by music amateurs — available on online forums and other websites isn't much above 20%. The number of members of Sama3y, launched in 2005, has reached 726,517. Nemr meets his fellow amateurs at what he calls "the music aficionados' sanctuary," the residence of Mohamed al-Baz, who with more than 3,000 records and 20 gramophone devices, owns one of Egypt's most vast vinyl libraries.

Photo: Romina Campos

"These markets still surprise us with many more rare records," Nemr says. "I bought a valuable Oum Kalthoum record from the Tuesday market in Zagazig, while Dr. Baz got hold of a number of records by Seliman Abu Dawoud, a Jewish Egyptian singer, a music icon of the early 20th century and a descendant of an elite Assiut family. So the old and rare aren't just found in metropolises like Cairo and Alexandria."

The tiny group of record dealers is well known to music aficionados. At the Friday market at Sayyeda Aisha, for example, street vendors spread merchandise on the ground and you can dig for a rare, well-preserved recording or two. Such gems can also be found at antique shops that still sell gramophones and records. Sur al-Azbakeyya's old booksellers also buy complete record libraries.

"Egypt has a trove of rare recordings going back to the beginning of the 20th century," Nemr adds. "For example, you can find very early and first recordings by female Koran reciters. There is a record of the female reciter Mabrouka in 1905, and records by Sekeena Hassan and Munira Abdo. But around 1920, a religious fatwa was issued that women's voices shouldn't be heard, so female reciters were banned from radio broadcast and recording their own records." 

Photo: Hussein Alazaat

In general, the documentation of Egyptian music heritage is deficient in drawing links between it and Egypt's remarkable social changes. For example, couplets and other illicit songs prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century up until World War I are worth analyzing, for most music studies have focused on musical notes and artists' histories. A paradox of the time was the appointment of Sheik Younes al-Qady — famous for writing illicit songs like "Draw the Curtains Around Us" — to head the Arts Censorship Authority after the new arts censorship law following the 1919 revolution.

Government archived, badly maintained

There is an immense record library at the Egyptian National Library and Archives — owing to a law that obligates artistic companies to deposit a copy of all productions there — but the library's condition is deteriorating. To search for what you want, you need the mediation of an acquaintance who works for the Culture Ministry. The broadcast radio archive, of course, had the biggest record library in the country, but much of it has been stolen and smuggled out of the country. Records are easily broken, and some can be played a maximum of 30 times. They therefore need maintenance by experts in record restoration.

"Online music heritage forums like Sama3y, Masrphone Radio, Samaa al-Molouk and Zamaan al-Wasl have not only helped bring about a new generation of music aficionados, they also manage to aggregate important music research," Nemr says. "It's always delightful to see the notable contribution of young people in Masrphone Radio, and I always receive a number of thank you messages for making heritage available."

Photo: Hussein Alazaat

Masrphone is a self-sustaining project supported by funds from two Egyptian friends of Nemr's living abroad who are genuinely concerned about making the monumental material of oriental music heritage available to the public. "Another friend volunteered to design the website and technically support it, while I prepare lists of productions for streaming," he says. "To make this heritage available online, we first need to make a copy of each record by playing it on a deck recorder, then send it through a cable to a computer and finally upload it to the online music forums."

Nemr claims that the Israeli radio broadcast archive also owns a massive library of oriental music that he believes is collected from American and European record companies. He is alarmed by the impact of Gulf money on Egyptian musical heritage. "They only buy them for the sake of stacking them in their houses as antiques, not to share them!" he says.

Amgad Naguib, an amateur antiques collector and owner of a vintage record library, disagrees. He believes we should drop the old stereotype of the wealthy Gulfie as ignorant nouveau riche, as they have come a long way in education and culture. While recognizing that they live in countries with arguably less heritage, Gulfies see Egypt as a country in which history has accumulated a remarkable amount of heritage, yet remains completely neglectful of it. In Naguib's view, they value highly what they possess of Egypt's heritage. He adds that they don't just request vintage records, but anything that is old and rare, and that they have their own Egyptian brokers who are experts in old and valuable items. He adds that exaggerated fears over the loss of our heritage is a mere delusion, especially as there are remarkable efforts to make it publicly available online.

*Translated by Nahla Osman