I met Essam El Haggar at a guitar store near my house just after moving to Cairo, Egypt in August of 2015. We became fast friends after talking about guitars and music. Essam was a student at an Arabic music academy in Giza, and a member of the famed El-Haggar music family of Egypt.
I was interested in buying an oud, something nicer than the average tourist souvenir found in the bazaar. Essam made some calls and found Kareem and Mohamed Azooz who have a shop near Fostat Park in Old Cairo. After a couple of trips to their shop I bought a nice oud (which was played on this record) and started to meet several Egyptian musicians.
Egypt is a musical and artistic country. The sounds of old songs and recordings of Umm Kalsoum emerge from almost every cafe and taxi cab in the country. Many Egyptians seem to know every word and oudists play the familiar old songs all around Cairo. It was impossible not to become enamored with the music, and Essam was a great curator for me. He taught me several pieces of Egyptian music, and I taught him some American folk songs. Somehow we found a common ground.
In June of 2017, I was getting ready to leave Egypt and return to the USA, but I wanted to record some of the pieces Essam and I had worked out so I asked him about going in to the studio before I left. He suggested Eslam Elabaty play on the record rather than himself. Eslam, Essam and myself got together and worked out some music one evening after eating molikhaya at a local cafe. One rehearsal revealed, what I thought was, a unique sound.
We scheduled some time at Ali El-Haggar's studio in the Mokkatum neighborhood of Cairo. Ali El-Haggar is a well known singer in Egypt and is also Essam's uncle. It was Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and it was June, so it was hot. So I scheduled recording to start at 9pm, well after the breaking of the daily fast (Iftar).
Eslam and I sat in the same room across form each other and recorded these six songs, intermittently taking a break to drink tea. we finished up around 1:30am and raced to go eat the morning meal of Ramadan (Sohor) before the sun came up.
This album includes both traditional Egyptian and American tunes. "Longa Yorro" is a traditional Turkish piece played in an Egyptian/Greek style. "Salley in the Garden" is a traditional American tune that lent itself particularly well to the oud.
I chose one of my favorite songs of social consciousness (that just happens to mention Egypt in the lyrics) "Pride of Man" written by the incomparable Hamilton Camp.
There are three original pieces on the record. "Bahariya" is an instrumental piece that brings to mind the beautiful oasis out in the western desert of Egypt. "Mokkatum" gets it's name from the cliffs bordering the eastern edge of the old Islamic area of Cairo. The cliffs loom over the great citadel of Salah El-Din (Saladin) and also provided stone for many of the ancient mosques and madrasa's of Cairo, as well as for the Great pyramids at Giza.
The song "Hadji Ali" was written about a legendary figure in the American west who was of Arabic origin. In the 1850s, the US Army purchased several camels from various Arab nations to use in the Mojave desert of the southwest United States. Along with those camels they hired camel drivers, and one of the most famous was Hadji Ali. Through either misunderstanding, mispronunciation or just plain humor, the soldiers started to call Hadji Ali, "Hi Jolly" and the name stuck. This is a song about him and his camels.
The soundscapes come from some of my most favorite places in Egypt. The record opens with a recording from the balcony of my home in the neighborhood of Maadi. The second from the site of the ancient lighthouse in Alexandria. The final one comes from a cafe (ahwa) in old Islamic Cairo, one of the most beautiful and dynamic neighborhoods I have ever been to.
Egypt is a beautiful and complicated place. It's deep history and culture are inspiring and overwhelming. It was a challenge to find our common ground to make this record. Eslam speaks very little English and I speak very very little Arabic, but we found our way. His playing brought new life to many of these tunes, and our collaboration was a wonderful adventure.
Essam El-Haggar and I once had a conversation about American Folk music and Arabic Folk music. We were talking about what the songs were about and found out that there were a lot of similarities between the two genres. They are songs of the people, and after all, that's what we all are.