Fathy Salama on Music, Arts, Culture and All that Jazz

Known for his smooth musical infusions, Fathy Salama has emerged as a groundbreaking strike and an icon of profound and uplifting grasp of jazz music. He is the first artist in the Arab world to win a Grammy and a BBC Award, and as he hunts down his grooves, he heats them slowly to come up with a palpable rapport that is full of innovation and flair. We met with the lyricist, composer producer, musician and pianist to talk about 70’s punk music, why he doesn’t have a single guru, why he’s really pissed off and from where the roots of his originality stem.


He started playing the piano when he was no more than six years old, and at 13, he began performing in public places. “I learned music from Russian teachers who were available at that time in Egypt. I also travelled the world; I learned Jazz in New York and other types of music in Europe. I played with bands overseas and performed Punk music in England in the 70’s when Punk was at its zenith. All my travelling built my very own musical identity” he says. Although many, musicians nowadays tend to westernize their Arabic music, Fathy believes that westernization as a label is a myth that he never believes in “I don’t believe in this word! The concept of ‘Music’ in Egypt is obviously misunderstood by Egyptians. If we go back before the revolution in the 50’s and watch old movies, we’ll find that there was a fusion between Arabic and Western arts as various cultures used to live in Egypt, and they all used to collaborate in making audio. In my opinion, music doesn’t have a compass, it’s either good or bad, there are the educated and there are the illiterate”, he says.


With the fascinating tendency of an artist’s struggle to ‘make it’ without compromising his musical dreams, Fathy Salama didn’t become an icon from nowhere, he ushered in the birth of ‘Sharkiat’ a band that blends Arabic music and Jazz. He also came up with the magnificent project ‘Kochary’, the first produced Multi-Media show, in which traditional instruments are used in a manner of visual materials. ‘Kochary’ was performed in several European countries, “Kochary from its name means a mixture and the project was meant to be a mixture of cultures and music in one performance”, he tells us.


When Al Sawy Cultural Wheel was established, bands started to find a platform to perform and the phenomena of the ‘Sakia’ started right away with fresh blood streaming on its stages, “you’re right, the Sakia is phenomenal, and bands found a place to perform as not every one could perform at the Opera. We’re the only country by the way that doesn’t have enough places for stage performances, and we’re talking here the only country amongst poor nations like India or Eastern Europe. Most of fresh talents in the scene, know really nothing about music. No one wants to learn anything and no one wants to know anything. They just want to be part of it, get money out of it. Every human wants to make money, but you have to really make something and then get money out of it. However, the Sakia initiated a new development, but an artificial one! Yes artificial, a guy who just spent two years of his life playing the guitar and you call him a musician isn’t really a true one. 90% of Sakia performers are amateurs; you could play the guitar and be an amateur but not to be named a professional guitarist. You should spend years and years of practice before coming on stage in front of an audience as a professional”.


Floods of satellite channels and new theatres are opening every few months; however; media, cinema, music is still commercially abused, “Abroad, Shakira’s music is commercial, and there is no problem with this, because simply, there are more than 700 types of music in the scene, but in our scene, 95% of the Arab world’s music is commercial!”, he adds. With our Golden Age cinematic history and artists who stood on the international scene, yet we don’t have any Egyptian musicals “We don’t have a cinematic history, that’s a lie! We carry history of movies that were made in collaboration with lots of other nations. We call commercial movies a success, although in my opinion most of these aren’t movies at all. You are telling me ‘musicals’? What musicals exactly? We don’t have movies or music to make musicals”.


So any place where the grass is greener? “There are lots of really great talents in Egypt but they’re not that famous. If you want to do something, you can do it, even if you’re in an environment that doesn’t help, but you could at least learn. I did lots of workshops, 15 of them in Alexandria, in which we collect young talents, but people who already play any instruments we don’t teach from scratch, as that would be a school not a workshop. I teach in the U.S and Europe as well and there is no comparison between local talents and talents I see abroad. In Austria, there is an initiative to ban music illiteracy, can you imagine? They don’t want a single musically ignorant in their society”. Fathy also gave lectures at the Institute “Rhythmic Music Conservatory” in Copenhagen and in 2008, and he became the Technical Advisor for “Jazz Factory”, the first international Jazz Festival in Egypt, which was organized and financed by the European Union and a number of European embassies and cultural resources. It coincided with the annual music workshop for young Arabs “Remix”.


Fathy worked on the soundtrack of Al Mosafer starring the legendary Omar El Sherif and other respectable films, “I don’t mind working on a movie by Tamer Hosny, even if it was commercial, but what I do mind is the lack of knowledge and hard work. Producers here come up with 5 or 10 TV channels in a very tight timeline and that’s not how it works for me, at the end, I seek professional techniques and good production”.


So how did he achieve originality? “I’m always in search for myself. If you want to be original, don’t do something and wonder if people would like it or not, just be yourself and do what you really like to do, that’s if you want to be original. I don’t have a single guru; I have many of them, as I have gurus in jazz music besides Indian and Chinese musical gurus”.


What Fathy said and blew us away:


“We are the only country that has a bunch of amateurs called a ‘band’ and invite their friends and perform at venues, calling it concerts”.


“We have a huge percentage of illiteracy, and to provide people with unprofessional music makes them more illiterate. Whoever tells you to give them the chance to be professional and just jump on stage with no musical background, this chance is there ‘3and beit mama’”.


“You can’t close your eyes and listen to a foreign movie and understand anything, but you could do this with our films, and these aren’t supposed to be called films, call them plays or anything else”.


“All of the time we have this obsession that we’re the best, I can’t tell where this obsession came from. Roam the streets of Egypt and monitor people’s behavior and morals that are definitely what is reflected on our culture”.


“I don’t have any wrong vibes towards Tamer Hosny, I think that he’s not different from anyone else in the scene, people think that there are better artists, but I think they just have hate towards him”.


“I don’t respect anyone who goes up on stage and isn’t ready”.


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