We often listen to music without taking note of where it’s coming from, or how it came to be in the background, adding a much-needed layer of beauty and meaning to our days. Life would certainly be very dull without music — without the warmth of the company it offers us in lonely or turbulent times.
That is not to say that background music is always welcome, though. Sometimes it’s intrusive, almost oppressive: for example, when it takes the form of the patriotic songs we’re force-fed in times of national “distress” or mourning, or the blaring promotional music constantly playing in malls and hyper-markets, invading our shopping experiences. However, sometimes — rarely, we admit — you’re in an Uber and the driver is playing just the right kind of music for your mood, or you’re home at night and an Umm Kolthoum song drifts in from the street as you’re reading and you barely notice it, yet it changes the entire energy of the room. However, the best kind of background music is that of our own choosing, and luckily we live in a time when streaming apps have made it easy for such music to be playing at all times — as we cook, as we work, as we shower even.
This is what this week’s issue is about: our relationship with the music in the background. We’ve divided it — in cassette lingo — into two sides: Side A, an examination of the “track” as a musical unit, and Side B, a tribute to the concept of the “playlist,” namely our monthly Tafneeta, of which we offer you a new version this weekend (we strongly recommend that you play it in the background as you read).
However, let us start with a story that takes us back to the older days of music production, as an intro to the newer forms we delve into later:
I don’t bother collecting music for my library anymore; “owning” albums is no longer relevant, because music has become available for everyone. All it takes is typing a few letters (you don’t even have to complete the name; the autocomplete on your search engine does that for you) and a click. There is no longer a need to pursue discovering music; new discoveries come to us all the time, in the form of playlists tailored to our taste, as estimated by our previous searches on the apps or websites on which we listen to music. It may seem like positive progress, and it is, but the infinite choices and endless worlds that keep unfolding sometimes make me anxious — “The crowning risk involved lies in the possession of choice,” as Kierkegaard says — and so I always go back to what I’m familiar with, what I’ve been listening to for years. However, one day an Egyptian friend living in Germany asked me about cassette tapes, a question which took me decades back in time.
My friend told me that a participant in a writing workshop he was moderating had been facing a bit of a roadblock on his project because he needed a trusted source of information about cassette tapes. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the project this writer — whom I did not know — was working on required information on a medium that is all but obsolete. I buried my curiosity and decided to try to connect said writer with a cassette vendor, but are there any left? Or have they too gone obsolete? I remembered there was a state-owned company that still produced cassettes, but assumed that the writer would rather talk to one of the former “kings” of the cassette trade than a lazy, disinterested government employee. I got excited searching for one such king, and after some research I came across one who had been around since the golden days of the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, the writer gave up on the project altogether after contacting the man, then sent me his thanks and told me he had found an alternative to the information the so-called King of Cassette could provide him with.
I didn’t really understand what had gone wrong, but I had become invested in my quest for other reasons. I remembered the shops I used to frequent to buy these tapes, and after paying a few visits to some it became clear that I was standing upon ruins; all of these shops had since reopened as other businesses, and some of them had even been torn down and replaced by residential towers. It appeared that the cassette business had gone forever — no cassette vendor or retailer, no matter how powerful they once were, could ever go up against the real estate business when their trade was pretty much extinct. People need places to live, and contractors need to work, and no one needs cassette tapes anymore.
Changes in the music industry have always been inextricably interlinked with advancement in technology; today we are overwhelmed with an onslaught of endless tracks raining down on us from virtual clouds on the internet. I remember a 10-year-old article by Roger Ebert where the late film critic describes his experience with social media platforms as a new user: his exposure to a huge number of headlines and tiny fragments of information per minute, and how he could feel his brain altering, as though it were being rewired. For example, he could no longer focus long enough to finish a long novel, even though he’d always been an avid reader of Dickens, Tolstoy, Austin and others. He uses the French word frisson to describe what these flashes of information do to us — a rush, so to say — and he believes that we now subconsciously yearn for this rush as opposed to any actual substance.
A part of me agrees; I feel this rush whenever I stumble upon a song I don’t know and find myself reacting to it, but then another song comes on and I move along. Can this rush compare — for example — to the thrill and pleasure of listening to Mohamed Mounir’s Shababeek (Windows) in full and in one sitting after years of only listening to its songs separately, uprooted and replanted in different playlists? How I anticipate the guitar solo in “Crescendo,” for instance, or how I note the difference in the lyrics of “El Leila Ya Samra” as opposed to the version sung by Ahmed Mounib, or picture the poet Magdi Naguib in the prison cell that inspired him to write the titular song, or compare between Baligh Hamdy — who composed one of the album’s tracks — and Mohamed Abdelwahab, who once said “that ‘Shababeek’ song” was a “sad excuse for art”? This is an album I know; I know the context it was produced in, I know who wrote the songs, who composed them, who arranged them. I listened to it for so long, until it practically became a part of me. It was never just a background to suit a certain mood — it was a full experience, one that demanded you to stop whatever you were doing and listen.
I must mention, however, that this recent, rewarding listening session of Shababeek that I refer to took place on Spotify. The way we listen to music has changed, and consequently music itself has changed, and there really is no harm in that. Our experiences remain with us, and nothing can take them away. And there lies a considerable pleasure in the easy musical discoveries attainable today, one that sometimes grows to become a lot more than a rush.
I ended my journey among the ruins of the fallen Cassette Kingdom with a vague feeling of longing to my childhood — back when the release of an album used to be a celebration in and around any of these old shops, and you had to make your way amongst an endless sea of people just to buy a copy of the new Samira Said or Amr Diab or Mohamed Mounir. Back when the source of Cairo’s buzz used to be the huge speakers placed in front of these stores, playing the newest music. This is not a nostalgic ode to the old days, however. For weeks after my visit to his store, one of the former kings kept calling me, offering a rare collection of cassettes for a ridiculously high price as though they were some sort of antique, and when I told him I was merely a journalist who was trying to help a friend with a project he still wasn’t convinced. To this day he keeps calling me, every now and then, offering me bargains on old Alaa Abdelkhalek and Mohamed Mohie tapes.
But, you see, my fallen king, I can listen to everything now without cassette tapes. I don’t even have anything to play them on. The world will keep on changing, your majesty, and technology will continue to reshape how art is consumed and produced, and there really is no need to worry. There’s no option but to embrace it: adopt the language of the new age and rearrange the terms into phrases that work for us. Or, in other words: Don’t be Abdelwahab, be Baligh Hamdy. You have to succumb to the conquest of time, my friend, and acknowledge that you are a king no more.
A “track,” a word originally meaning a path or a route, is reflected in what we hear when we listen to one. It’s a path chosen by the producers of this work: it is more than lyrics and more than music and more than a combination of both. The difference between a song and a track may be debatable, as a song usually includes actual human vocals, but a track doesn’t necessarily have to. Today, however, because of how different and versatile musical genres are, production and sound-wise, “track” is now the word most commonly used, vocals or not.
At the beginning, the musical recording of each separate instrument was called a track, and the tracks were merged together to create a song. Now, however, we merge them together to make a “track.” It’s all in the layers, says Omar Mostafa, an artist with his own experiments in the world of track-making. “At first, we start with the beat, then we get to building the rest, using different instruments and synthesizers. Sometimes, an artist may simply record a poem using his voice and by the time he’s done he’s produced a track.”
“A track has power,” he elaborates. “I can definitely say that my taste could change entirely because of a single track. I remember a friend of mine once sent me ‘Take This Waltz’ by Leonard Cohen and I listened to it over and over for days. Afterward, I began exploring new tracks of his until Cohen became one of the closest artists to my heart. On the other hand, there are other artists who have just the one track I love but I can’t listen to any of their other tracks.”
There is one distinction that matters when talking about tracks, Mostafa tells us: You can’t “sing” a track; you “make” a track (even if you’re singing in it). And you can, of course, “listen” to a track, and combine it with others to create a larger unit: the playlist.
If a track (or an album) is an extension of its makers’ previous body of work, reflecting a larger artistic vision, the playlist is a new entity where such a track becomes a possibility among others. It is a wave, if you will, or a condensed current of sound that carries you along. When a playlist is put together, a new creation comes to life. Sometimes listening to a track in a different context from that intended by the artist imbues it with a new meaning, one that we couldn’t have imagined otherwise.
There are many things to say about playlists — what drives one to make them, what makes a good one, how they’ve altered the way we listen to and appreciate music — but here we want to talk about our own monthly playlist, Tafneeta.
With unwavering dedication, Ahmed al-Sabbagh has worked on curating this playlist, creating a new version at the start of every month. He doesn’t tell us much about his process: all we get is “I’m almost done,” and then we have a playlist, and we shuffle away, and it makes us think of this unit of listening that has come to define the current musical age — that host of tracks that allows our minds to wander as we listen, transporting us somewhere else. A playlist is momentum, it colors the hours or eats them away, depending on what state of mind we’re in.
And while Tafneeta is a selection of recent tracks, Sabbagh doesn’t merely add in what’s trending that month — his personal preferences often play a role in the curation process, or so we assume; he won’t tell us his secret or what his other criteria are, but we know they exist. Sabbagh is, after all, one half of Schwift Bank, a Cairo-based duo who have their share of experience when it comes to creating musical sets that get people going.
Tafneeta remains available throughout the month, and then, like a musical Sysiphus, Sabbagh goes on to remove what he’d built to create a new list — an alternative plane of time, hours of music.
For this edition we relied on stories from Omar Mostafa, Ahmed al-Sabbagh, Ahmed Wael and Yasmine Zohdi.