At a time of tension between Muslims and the West, when pundits talk of a conflict of civilizations, the voice of Egyptian pop singer Mohamed Mounir calls for peace. Originally from the southern Egyptian region of Nubia, Mounir pioneered the introduction of Nubian artists and influences in Egypt's Arab-dominated music scene, becoming a national voice known both for his music and his acting roles in more than a dozen Egyptian films. Already the king of politicized pop in his own country, he won recognition in the West after his post-September 11, 2001, religious quest culminated in a musical call for reason and religious tolerance.
Mohamed Mounir was born in the mid-1950s to an affluent Nubian family in Aswan, a city the southern part of Egypt. Nubians, a dark-skinned people of mixed Arab and African descent, are a culturally endangered minority in both Egypt and Sudan. Nubian music is characterized by soft, distinctive rhythms, melodies, chants, and intonation, which Mounir absorbed from an early age. As a teenager in the early 1970s, after Nubia was flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, he and his family were forced to join other Nubians in an exodus to Cairo.
While studying art at Cairo University, Mounir began his musical career, and continued to sing during his military service in the 1970s. His distinctive voice, musical sensibility, and ethnicity, however, made him an outsider, setting him apart from the Arabic sounds that dominated Egyptian pop music. For example, while Arab singers usually dressed in suits and performed with orchestras, Mounir appeared on stage in jeans, and startled his audiences by jumping, swaying, and dancing while he sang. He was an odd and eccentric artist who didn't even hold a microphone like everyone else. Nonetheless, the Egyptian public eventually accepted his individuality and made him a national star, opening the door for other aspiring Nubian artists. Thanks in part to Mounir, Nubian chanting styles and intonation have won remarkable acceptance among non-Nubian Egyptians and Sudanese.
In the 1980s the mild-mannered Mounir worked with jazz drummer Yehia Khalil on four albums released on the Sonar label: Shababeek, Etkalimi, Bareeq, and West El Dayra. According to Khalil, the idea was to mix American jazz, Nubian music, Western instruments, and Arabic and Nubian lyrics to create a new sound, and Mohamed Mounir's voice was just what he needed. Their musical mixture was an immediate success, as was Mounir's adoption of Western musical technology, such as synthesizers, and Occidental rhythms.
"Technology has, to an extent, blocked the expression of musical instruments and helped the creativity of the Eastern music industry. However, this has resulted in much of music becoming barren," Mounir told the magazine Carnival Arabia. "There needs to be a balance between technology and the natural sound of music. That is what I aim to produce." Since 1978, he has released close to 20 albums, including Mohamed Mounir, Mishwar, Ana Albi Maskin Sha'biya, Iftah Albak, Fi Ishik El Banat, Madad, and Ahmar Shafayif.
Mounir's song "Hadouta Masreyya" (An Egyptian Tale) has become something of an anthem for ordinary Egyptians. The ballad, which talks of a country gone awry, stifled by political and cultural restraints, appeared in a film by master Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. Mounir's work with Chahine gave him a chance to appear in television series, plays and films (many of which had patriotic themes). He also contributed to nine soundtracks.
"For lack of an easier defintion, his music is often slotted into mainstream pop. More than any other star, perhaps, he has become the voice of all Egyptians, regardless of—or perhaps due to—his Nubian heritage—using his music to reflect major cultural political and religious issues," said Carnival Arabia. "He has managed to touch the hearts of all Arabic-speaking nations. He's gained the respect of people who many not appreciate his music, but understand his message. This is especially the case where he discusses political and cultural issues which all Egyptians, regardless of religion or cultural background, feel strongly about."
Mounir, long a musical defender of secularism, underwent a religious quest following September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. In the ensuing climate, in which many Westerners increasingly viewed Islam as a religion of intolerant, fanatical terrorists, the singer decided to perform the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca prescribed as a religious duty for Muslims. The journey led him to criticize both Muslims, whom he considered uninterested in seeking the true meaning of their religion, and the West for not understanding it.
"My role, and the role of any Arab who cherishes his nation, dignity and honor is to reconstruct ourselves and ideas. We should fight backward fundamentalist thought because Islam is not just a message from a prophet, but rather a full-fledged civilization of beautiful values," Mounir said in an interview quoted by the Associated Press. "I saw that after the attacks, the Arab world has become more scared and lost confidence in itself." At the same time, Westerners, he said, failed to differentiate "between a human Muslim and a terrorist, between an extremist and an artist, and between a moderate citizen and a reactionary."
The musical outcome of that new understanding was the album Earth … Peace, inspired by Sufic (mystical Islamic) chanting. The song "Give Me Strength, O Messenger of God," was cowritten with Kawthar Mustafa. Based on an ancient chant from the Shazili sect (a centuries-old Sufi order from North Africa), it proclaimed that "the spilling of any blood is deemed sinful by God."
While some in the Arab world found the album a religious departure from an otherwise secular repertoire, the song's video was reportedly banned from satellite channels for his use of a double entendre that might offend strict Muslims. Other songs on the album are based on the singing style of the Mirghani Sufi (a Sudanese sect) and use the Sudanese musical scale. These, noted a critic for Egypt Today, "are more African than Arabic, which is a disappointment since Egyptian Sufi music dates much further back in history … Still Mounir's experiment remains a unique and important one. He had the courage to introduce something different at a time when most Egyptian singers have jumped on the bandwagon of ready-made formulas hoping to take the fastest route to success."
The decision to release a religious album was a calculated risk for the label, Africana Records, which worried about its commercial viability. Nonetheless, sales were good, despite some critics fears that Western audiences would not listen to songs sung in Arabic. In the summer of 2003, the artist joined Austrian artist Hubert von Goisern on a concert tour dedicated to peace and cross-cultural dialogue through music. After releasing the dance/pop album, Ahmar Shafayif (Red Lipstick) in 2003, Mounir embarked on other international collaborations, appearing on the Genetic Drugs & Jasmon rock album Spacecake, released in 2004.
For the Record …
Born Mohamed Mounir in the mid-1950s to an affluent family in Aswan, Egypt; served in the Egyp tian military in the mid-1970s. Education: Graduated from the Faculty of Applied Arts, Cairo University.
Began singing as a student in Cairo, 1970s; released four experimental fusion albums—Shababeek, Etkalimi, Bareeq, and West El Dayra —with jazz drummer Yehia Khalil, 1980s; released close to 20 records by 2003 and composed the soundtracks for nine films of Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine; acted in seven other films, as well as plays and television series. Released Earth … Peace for an international audience in 2002.
Addresses: Record company— Mondo Melodia, 14724 Ventura Blvd., Penthouse Ste., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, website: http://www.mondomelodia.com. Website— Mohamed Mounir Official Website: http://www.mohamedmounir.net/.
West El Dayra, 1987.
El Tool We Lon Wel Horreya, 1992.
Men Awel Lamsa, 1996.
Fi Ishk el Banat, EMI, 2001.
Earth … Peace, Mondo Melodia/Just Records Babelsberg, 2002.
Ahmer Shafayif, Africana/Just Records Babelsberg, 2003.
Associated Press, February 6, 2003.
Carnival Arabia, October 2003.
Salt Lake Tribune, February 2, 2003.
"A Message of Love," Egypt Today, http://www.egypttoday.com/main/Sl_Message.htm (March 6, 2004)
"Mohamed Mounir," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 6, 2004).
"Mohamed Mounir," World Music Net, http://www.worldmusicnet.com/artists/mohamedmounir_comment.html (March 8, 2004).
Mohamed Mounir Official Website, http://www.mohamedmounir.net (May 11, 2004).
—Brett Allan King
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