Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jan 22nd 2008 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
It started on New Year's Eve in an urban hotel, old part of town, a bit more faded than glory at this stage but still with charms. The dinner's kind of bland, disappointing, and the DJ is, well, a DJ. The music's loud, the beat obliterating pretty much all conversation (a request to turn it down was misinterpreted, leading to an even further increase in ear-bleeding intensity), and the sounds were what you might expect in the setting: a mix of rock, hip-hop and Abba. Except this was in Cairo, where those of us who had just hours before landed to start a tour of Egypt had if not expected, at least hoped for something of real local character. But even when a belly dancer entered, the sounds still had Western beats underpinning the Middle Eastern modes, and the event veered toward tame bachelor party in tone rather than a welcome to North Africa.
Were the people in charge, though, giving us what they thought we wanted to see and hear? Or could it be that this is what they would want to experience? People all over the world were enjoying similar entertainment this evening. They have no obligation to conform to our admittedly skewed image of "authentic." All those McDonald's and KFCs around Cairo are not there for tourists. They're supported by locals for the exact same reasons they're popular everywhere. But as the beat thumped on, we left the celebration before even midnight.
And with that, a pattern was set. There was dinner at a Luxor hotel buffet -- not Vegas, but it might as well have been for the guy warbling 'Yesterday' in the karaoke bar. Much preferable, sonically speaking, were the Nile-side songs of the local bird population.
A few days later, a young acquaintance who lives part-time in Cairo (her Somali mother, a former diplomat who runs a highly lauded nongovernmental organization addressing violence against women throughout Africa, had hosted our group for a terrific dinner at her flat overlooking the Nile) offered to take us to dinner away from the hotel. "Somewhere really Egyptian," we requested. She ferried us to a tony part of town, escorting us into Abou El Sid. The food was terrific and authentic (when one diner inquired about hummus, the waiter sniffed that they didn't serve Lebanese dishes). I had a quite-good koshari (a very-traditional mix of rice, pasta, lentils and chickpeas with a garlicky tomato sauce) despite the try-too-hard menu come-on that with this meal one could "feel like a real Egyptian." But the aesthetic sense was a bit like Beverly Hills barbecue, real but removed from the source, polished and safe, with the exotic tempered with the familiar and trendy (smoldering sheesha pipes and free-flowing Western brand-name booze), most dramatically in the music being played: Edith Piaf and Buena Vista-style Cuban, just as you'd hear in Manhattan.
But relief was to come in an unexpected form, through a much-storied setting. It was on Mt. Sinai, where in the second week of our journey some from our group joined the nightly pilgrimage for an ascent starting at 2 a.m. with the intent of being at the summit in time to watch the sunrise. Hiring a guide, Hamid (at first we thought his name was Mohammed, which led to the inevitable "bring Mohammed to the mountain" quip ... well, inevitable if one of the people involved is yours truly), we headed up from St. Catherine's Monastery by flashlight. About two kilometers into the strenuous seven-kilometer hike (a rocky path topped by a series of 750 very tough steps with a fairly steep rise from 4,000 ft. at the base to the 7,000 ft. peak), Hamid -- who had explained that he has done this trip five times a week for 25 years! -- noticed I was fiddling with an electronic device. "MP3?" he asked? No, I explained, it was a recorder with which I was capturing on-site audio and commentary.
A few minutes later, he came alongside me, looked at the MiniDisc recorder and started to sing. At first I feared I was in for an installment of 'Burning Bush Idol.' However, rather than 'My Heart Will Go On,' he offered a lovely melody in Arabic, with a steady, sweet, understated voice. Initially I thought it might be a religious song, as there was a reverent tone to it. But then he got to a chorus, repeating the word habibi ("sweetheart"). After being interrupted by having to dodge passing camels, he offered an equally charming second song. "That's beautiful," I panted as we rose in elevation. "What's the song?" "Bedouin song," he replied, not panting one bit, of course. "What's it about?" I asked. "The song called 'Life.' My life." [Hear Hamid's song, below.]
And there you go. One spontaneous moment, one person seeming to intuit exactly what I wanted to hear, or at least to have no thought that I wouldn't want to hear it, and everything was right.
A hike down, tour of the monastery and long bus ride around to the west side of the Red Sea later, comes some serious culture shock. We check into our final Egypt locale, a beach "resort," bedraggledly walking into the lobby to be greeted, via an omnipresent audio system, with 'We Are the World.' Oh, are we, really?
Listen to Hamid's song