He's a living legend, a Grammy award-winning musician who's worked with the Jazz greats, revolutionized Egyptian pop and molded generations of young Egyptian talent. The one and only Fathy Salama graces our offices for a signature Scene Session...
Sitting down with Fathy Salama is intimidating. Not because he is the only Egyptian to have ever won a Grammy, but because his musical morality is so pure it puts into question your own relationship with the culture surrounding you. In a world where playlists maketh the artist and hooks make the money, Salama represents the foundation of the soundscapes we hear today and should still be listening to. He is the Miyagi of modern Egyptian Pop as well, having produced or mentored an astounding amount of the famous Arabic stars that the masses adorn today.
Of all the music interviews we’ve conducted, he genuinely seems like the only person who knows what he’s talking about in the true sense and time spent in his company is peppered with delightful little tidbits and insights into the music scene today. Despite the fact that a younger generation in Egypt is starting to claim their own underground scene, Salama has the wisdom and experience to see that most are still just copying something that has already happened in the west. Hence why it’s been Salama’s lifelong mission to educate and substantiate the country's musical roots into everything he does whether it’s through his award winning music, his performances with Sharikat or through his workshops. It's a sense of originality that he believes everyone should be striving to achieve.
We take a journey through his illustrious career…
What was it like working with Sun Ra and is he as crazy as he seems?
I didn't work with Sun Ra, I learnt from Sun Ra. But getting to know Sun Ra in itself is something very special because he's very isolated somehow. I know him through Salah Ragab, who passed away. He was here in the 80s, I met him here in Cairo a few times and I met him in New York also.
Was he in character when you met him, did you believe he was from a different planet?
Yeah, that was his entire concept and beliefs and the band was focused on being different and had an interesting personality.
So what did you take from him and apply to yourself?
Freedom, actually. Freedom of expression more than anything else, not exactly information or musical information as much as how to express yourself. But in this respect I have to say, that in order to express yourself you need information. Which I had to begin with. But from him I learnt the concept in itself.
And what of the next generation of young Egyptian musicians? They at least seem to have truly embraced the idea of freedom of expression…
I don't think they're missing freedom of expression but education; they're missing education and information. Because the freedom that comes from ignorance is not freedom, it's chaos. There's a guy for example picking up a guitar and he plays for a couple of months with absolutely no information, no capability whatsoever - he doesn't know his instruments, he doesn't know music, he is only rushed to be on stage to just play any bullshit in my opinion. And this is not freedom of expression, this is ignorance.
When would you say Egypt was musically and creatively ‘freest’...
I cannot judge upon the entire history of Egypt, but I can tell you there was more freedom before the 1952 revolution. Cairo was a totally different city. You had many different nationalities, and people. Young people think that fusion is happening right now which is totally wrong. If you hear old songs by Mohamed Fawzy or watch old Arabic movies with Ismail Yassin - he had his own Brass section playing behind him. There was this kind of mix in society; it wasn't all through the internet and anything like this. So I know if you go back, back and back it'd be much different than it is now.
You were once quotes as saying you created Arabic Pop music...
I'll tell you something, during the 80s I made many songs including Mohamed Mounir, Amr Diab, Taymour Couta and Delta Sounds’ first works. During that decade I created almost every pop hit.
What was your first memory of playing an instrument?
That dates back to when I was six years-old when I started playing piano. Nasser was in power at the time. We had many Russian musicians and experts in the country. Russians are known to be of the best in classical music and that is what I learnt when I was six... very, very young. Later on, I played lots of pop music of that time - The Beatles, that kind of thing.
And then came Jazz…
Yeah, I passed through many phases but then I became interested in Jazz, before evening knowing it was Jazz. I was listening to Jazz on the radio on an American channel that was broadcasting here at the time, and then I started learning. Later on I travelled to New York and studied with people.
Do you think the move to New York helped make your career?
Going to New York, I was lucky that I studied with great people like Berry Harris, Hal Galper and different people at that time. And through this, I learnt a lot and if you compare New York to Cairo there is no comparison.
You've mentioned a few names there, but if you could choose one person, who was your greatest influence at that time?
I don't think I have one, greatest influence personally because even up until this very second I'm interested in different things at one time that vary from Pop music to Jazz to Classical music to traditional music not only from Egypt. I'm very much into Indian music, Chinese music, into very different kinds of music.
Let’s talk about the ‘underground’ music scene in Egypt…
Underground music, I don't think should be called underground, first of all. Underground means someone who experiments with a new form and isn't looking for fame and money. They don't seek to be on a big stage and prefer to play in smaller places, yet these factors don't seem to apply at all to underground music. But a lot of underground musicians now lack a lot of information and education and want to be famous tomorrow and can't put up with the fact that pop music is far more famous.
There is no new form or anything, they take old songs and replay them on drums, guitar and bass and think that this is good to be played in clubs. Or they take American forms like Country music or totally shallow Rock music and put some Arabic lyrics on top with no originality behind it. If you ask about 'Mahraganat' for me, I love it, but they're starting to become the same thing over and over because they fell into the same problem of others; trying to be famous, wanting to make money quick and wanting to change nothing.
You've been in the music industry for a long time how do you view the emergence of the music video…
It depends if you have a cool video clip with some idea and something new. If you have some girls trying to be sexy and repeating the same scenes over and over, it isn't interesting and doesn't help. The video clip thing is going down.
Speaking of the sexy music thing... Miley Cyrus, discuss:
You don't know Miley Cyrus?!
She's sings naked in her video on a huge wrecking ball. It's probably better that you don't know her. Don't watch that video, it'll scar you forever. What about Beyonce and Jay Z? Discuss.
I wouldn't discuss them. But let’s take someone like Prince as an example and his song Sexy Mother Fucker. At one point he had at least 10 video clips and different arrangements of the same song - it was very sexy but at the same time very interesting and artistic. That's what I'm saying, new things should be made and people shouldn't try to endlessly copy because you get nothing.
OK, House/ Trance / Techno, discuss…
You know this kind of music actually originally comes from the Army.
Really, what's the story?
That’s where it comes from for real, because of the ongoing rhythm like in a march, that’s the reality of it. I'm not making up a story. That's where it comes from, like people who have no brains whatsoever, people normally go for Trance with drugs and I understand that they'd jump and hump but even if you're not on drugs and you do this, then you're an idiot - nothing but an idiot.
Okay so nowadays if a kid wants to make music, they’ll go to their laptop and make jump and hump music. So how to you keep traditional music alive with a young generation and will it eventually die out this way?
I could give you a very good example such as during the 2011 revolution and until now, in the last three years because of what's happening in Egypt especially in the beginning like the first year or two years, in the Barbican Center in London for example they did an Egyptian night once with Ramy Ossama and people like this, I think the night was called 'Tahrir' or something. They wanted exactly what they saw on Youtube and the very same people and that was very much connected to the event. What I'm trying to tell you, if you think about it, what is the future of this kind of music? Do you think somebody will take it abroad or will it become international? I'm sure nobody is interested in this, because every kid in every alley in the world plays this. If it's done in the exactly same way, what is the point, just think about it. Another example, is when you think about all of these songs which happened during the revolution, what do you think the most famous one was? Teslam Al Ayady. Despite it being a stolen melody and everything, it's a melody coming from tradition, a melody that a woman from Sayeda Zeinab can dance to. A guy from El Aryaf, can sing to. It is something regarding freedom, with lyrics that connect to the time.
How do you feel about musicians who profit off the Revolution?
Nasty. They claim that they're doing well for the revolution and everything, but in fact they're not. The revolution doesn't mean to just go and shout and try to use of it to make money, it means fixing everything, like being good in your job. People revolt and go on demonstrations and then do what? God is not going to make Egypt rain gold, it's bullshit. You have to work and you have to learn! To be a musician, you need to learn. If you feed people shit, you get back shit. It's always give and take, you give them this and people will not understand shit and it'll be worse than it was from the beginning and everything goes down the drain.
On the flipside of the negative side of the revolution, what positives have come out of the revolution in terms of music?
The only good thing is that people are actually trying. That's what I think, I hope that these people learn and go on with learning. But from my experience, and I've been given workshops here, in Europe and in the states and the subjects are different everywhere. Here from my experience I could tell you different names, Cairokee were in my workshop. Wust El Balad was in my workshop, Massar Egbari and many other artists. I'm not saying that my workshops got these groups somewhere but I found out that young people don't want to learn, they want to but they don't understand how long it takes. I had a guy once in one of these workshops; I was trying to explain how theory and harmony work and the guy said if he could ask a question so I said sure, he asked if ‘Amr Diab knows these things'. I said no, he said bye bye.
Speaking of upcoming music talent, how do you feel about reality TV contests like the X factor that offer a fast track to success?
I don't think it's a fast track to success; yes you get to know these people on TV but tell me one name that got really famous and when I say famous... I wish people could understand that when you get to know about all these underground scenes, there's a few thousands that listen to everything in that entire scene, I'm talking about getting famous for millions, which is a different issue. They don't get famous, it's just a show that people watch on TV for entertainment and I am not at all happy about the whole formula, all of these programs are just commercial and do not lead to anything. Yes if you have a good voice; that is something that many people are missing. This is only a start, what you do with this good voice - what song are you going to sing? What direction? What lyrics are you going to talk about? Because they all have them, sometimes singing in English which is a joke in my opinion because they're praised for having a good voice then they repeat the same thing over and over again, the whole Pop music thing.
You won a Grammy, and Fathy Salama when heard is always associated with a Grammy. Are you bored of hearing that, does it mean anything to you now? Where is the Grammy right now?
It's in my home, in Rab3a actually! I'm not bored of people talking about this because people don't talk about it anymore. They don't know what a Grammy is, especially here; they don't understand that it takes 12,000 experts to vote for you to win a Grammy. If you go to the states for example, they'll know what it means. When if you walked in the street and say you won a Grammy, they'll know what it means, but here they don't.
What is the biggest compliment that someone could say to you about your music?
Just if they listen to it.
How have you avoided the potential pitfalls of fame having won a Grammy?
I'm trying to be a real musician, and I think that takes a lifetime. And I've said it a lot that I've worked with many big people in my life and I still have my studio if you come, I have a little donkey figurine in front of me - that's what I think, I still need to learn. And this is exactly what young people don't understand. There are guys who are playing the guitar and can’t even tune it, I don't understand in our time and even Pop music in a way, people are very afraid to go on the stage. Even if they know what they're doing, they don't have to be Beethoven they know exactly what they will do but now, it doesn't matter. People go on stage and they cannot tune their guitar and all that is important for them is that they bring their followers and their friends.
Can you give us a few examples of when your music has become multi-disciplinary?
Actually, there was a German photographer who came to the Camel market here and took beautiful shots of the Camel market, I have a song called 'Camel Roads' and he liked it a lot so I was asked if I could put the song on top of his photos. My music is also often used as ringtones too! I get copyrights from this that's how I know.
Do you get money from the ringtones?
Yes! I'm not an idiot by the way, not a lot of money though.
What's your ringtone?
My ringtone? A normal one, I hate these kind of ringtones.
Do you love anything or anyone more than the love you have for music?
No, I love music.
Is that a problem?
Sure, it leads to trouble and problems. If you lead the life of a musician, people think it's all about fame and money, which is a life of commercial things. But if you really want to learn and live the life, you suffer for it. You suffer for it because you need to learn every time and at times you will give your audience things that they will not like; it's a difficult life being a free lancer. I've been a free lancer since forever,
Love is both ecstasy and misery, what is the one piece of music that makes you really happy and one that makes you sad?
What makes me really sad is what I hear here, like Pop music, not everything but I'm not cool with music when it's really repetitive, but some people do really good things. A lot of things make me happy though.
Is there one track or piece of music that makes you happy, that you go back to when you really need to feel a little better?
Not really, no. Maybe silence.
The word legend is used a lot these days, who would you say is a true musical legend these days?
I have many, like these Classical guys - I love Stravinsky and Motzart for example, in Jazz you could say Herbie Hancock, there’s many.
You've toured the world a lot, what is some of the craziest shit that you've ever seen?
Many! One thing for example we were once playing in South of France and it was a big festival with many stages, we sound-checked everything and then it rained liked crazy. Everything was then cancelled because it just wasn't possible.
What was the most memorable gig that you've ever had in your life?
I don't have a favorite honestly, everything is different.
Do you enjoy playing in Cairo now?
Not really. Because people are not really into music right now, they're more into what's happening in the country. So if you sing something that is related to this whether it be comedy or tragedy, that's when they're interested. If you just want to perform music it has nothing to do with this for example, then they're not interested.
How did you find that drugs influence sound in certain era, were they helping it or making it worse?
I think it does, for me it's very personal. My idea is that if getting drunk or drugged helps you, do it. If it doesn't help you, don't do it.
Was there an artist that you couldn't collaborate with because drugs were taking hold of him?
No. And if you think about it people like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and people like this - they were on drugs. Charlie Parker and the others created good music and it's none of our business what drugs they were taking, they have done very good for humanity even, they created new forms and things. And there's also people who don't smoke or drink at all, or even do drugs and have still done very good things. think it's very personal.
Do you ever regret for instance not saying 'Fuck it, I'm gonna start a Rock band' to become famous and get drugs and women?
No. But Jazz musicians do also get the women mind, maybe just a different type!
Valentine's Day is coming up and usually you would play Jazz music to get your partner in the mood, what would you put on? Basically, do you have a sex playlist?!
Haha, no. I was born on Valentine's Day by the way!
From young Egyptian artists emerging today, who do you think will do something special?
I think those 'Mahraganat' people. I'm trying right now with some of them, but the problem is that they're very stuck.
Any specific bands or artists that you can think of now?
I've actually seen a good band called 'Us w Lazq', I really like them actually I saw them at Cairo Jazz Club two or three weeks ago.
Since you've travelled the world, what is the best city for a musician to be in?
New York for sure. But there are many cities, it depends what kind of music, if you're talking about Electronic, it'd be London, also Pop music. World music, it'd be Paris, and Jazz for sure, New York.
Do you have any other hobbies or likes outside of music?
I like animals.
Do you have any animals?
I used to have cats, yes.
Do they like your music?
I don't think cats are into music that much.
What would you want your legacy to be?
I don't believe in legacies in any way!
Do you believe in reincarnation?
I do to some extent, I've been to India a few times and I like aspects of Hinduism.
And what would you come back as if you had the choice?