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Contemporary Transcendence of Arab Music: In Conversation with Fathy Salama

The past, present and future of Arab music with Fathy Salama.

Sep 28, 2019

If you passed by the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center on Sept. 26 and heard loud, powerful chants mixed with fine tunes of classical and jazz music, then you missed out on a unique collaboration between two world-class artists: Fathy Salama and Mahmoud Tohamy. Their performance, Sufism vs Modernism, brought together the mystical sounds and rhythms of Sufi chants with more modern jazz tunes, creating a distinctive blend of contemporary Arabic music that left the audience in awe.
Sufism is characterized as a mystical manifestation of Islam. It is sometimes considered a practice of faith which utilizes practices like chanting, singing and body movements, as alternatives to praying. A Sufi Sheikh is vital to the concept of Sufism where they have transcended past normal life to the path of mysticism. The introduction of Sufi Sheikhs gave rise to Sufi poetry, with notable poets such as Rumi, Hafiz and many more paving the path for Sufi music – the devotional music of the practice – to develop and grow.
The Gazelle had the opportunity to sit down with Fathy Salama, one of the artists who performed on Sept. 26. A fuzzy haired man in a black shirt and jeans walked into the room, bringing with him a brown backpack and over 40 years of experience in the Arab world’s music industry. Fathy Salama is a musician, pianist, composer, arranger and producer from Cairo, Egypt. His interest in music sprouted at the age of six when he started learning how to play the piano, despite coming from a family with no background in music. 45 years later, Salama has worked with the likes of Amr Diab, Mohamed Mounir, Ali El-Haggar and other notable Egyptian artists, rising to international recognition.
In 2004, Salama became the first – and only – Arab recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for his work on the collaborative album: Egypt.
"I don't think much about it," explained Salama when asked about how he feels about the award. "I think more about the work and about how I enjoyed [producing] it."
Looking to diversify his footprint in the Arab music industry, Salama is collaborating with the well-known Sufi Islamic chanter, Sheikh Mahmoud Tohamy. The Sheikh started his career by following the footsteps of his father, Sheikh Yassin El Tohamy. Thousands of people now attend his Sufi events across Cairo. The duo have been performing all over Egypt and have come to the UAE for their NYU Abu Dhabi debut performance at the Arts Center.
"Mahmoud and I are excited to be here to introduce a new project we have been sharing together for a while,'' said Salama. "We are trying to create a juxtaposition between both Sufism and Modernism within a contemporary performance."
With different genres emerging across the Arab World – from Arabic rap to Arabic trap to “Shaabi” – the music industry in the region has recently witnessed a lot of growth. What Salama admires about the music scene in the Arab world is the way it transcends into newer, bolder forms.
"The major difference between 15 years ago and now is the introduction of the internet," explained Salama. "[The various platforms on the internet] led to the exchange of information across the globe where music is now accessible from anyone to everyone; shaping how people think and paving the way to the different blends and mixes we have seen."
Salama’s thought process for his blends was widened with the accessibility provided by the internet.
"I became eager to learn more about different genres with the increasing accessibility that came from the internet, I had to study different genres before deciding on how to create a new blend," explained Salama. "It wasn't as simple as randomly selecting different styles and putting them together."
By bridging the gap between classical Arab and modern music, producing a groundbreaking combination that was previously non-existent, Salama managed to receive both his Grammy and BBC awards.
His process of studying different genres with the accessibility provided by the internet allowed Salama to daydream about potential collaborations.
"I would pick many great musicians from all over the world, however, if I were to choose one, it would have to be Stevie Wonder," said Salama when asked to choose one person, dead or alive, to collaborate with. "He is a huge role model for all musicians around the world. His music, originally rooted within Gospel music – a genre of Christian music, has affected millions of people.”
The similarities in style between Gospel music and Sufi music has drawn Salama to consider composing a collaborative piece, bringing two religions in a creative dialogue through music.
If there is one piece of advice Salama would give to Arab youth who seek a career in the music industry, it would be to work hard. "Work, work, and work [until you get where you want to be]," explained Salama. "People nowadays tend to look for shortcuts or the easy way out en route to success. I'm not going to lie, there's a small number of people who become successful with minimal effort. However, you would be naive to think it will always work out."
For decades, the Arab world’s music scene has been constricted to the same style, format and approach. It is through figures like Fathy Salama and his collaborations that we are given the opportunity to explore various sub-genres rooted from classical Arab music.
Leaving his footprint through a different approach to Arab music, Salama stands as a major landmark in the industry, allowing for the transcendence of Arab music to a bolder form.
Check out some of Fathy Salama’s most-prominent work, Sultany, Camel Dance Album and Camel Road Album
Youssef Azzam is a staff writer. Email him at
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