Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 2A

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 2A

Every year, during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, television stations across the Middle East and North Africa broadcast lavishly-produced, high profile drama and comedy series. The cream of the Arabic-speaking world is involved in their creation – directors, writers, actors, and composers – and the resulting shows play to audiences of millions across the region. Many of the best series come from Egypt, and this article takes a look at the music from three of the most high profile Egyptian-made Ramadan dramas of 2021, featuring music by composers Khaled Hammad and Mohamed Elashey. Also included in this article as a bonus is a review of the Pharoahs’ Golden Parade, a wondrous extravaganza of music, dance, and Egyptian culture featuring music by composer Hisham Nazih, written for a special live TV event back in April.

EL TAWOOS [THE PEACOCK] – Khaled Hammad

El Tawoos – translated from Arabic as ‘The Peacock’ – is one of 2021’s prestigious Ramadan drama series, which premiered on Egyptian TV in April. The show stars Syrian actor Gamal Soliman as veteran lawyer Kamal El Ostoul, who specializes in compensation cases, but whose life is turned upside down when he is drawn into the investigation of a rape at a prestigious hotel. The show is loosely based on the infamous real life Fairmont case, in which a group of men were accused of drugging a girl and raping her as she lay unconscious in a suite at the five-star Fairmont Nile City hotel in Cairo in 2014.

The score for El Tawoos is by the talented Ukrainian-Egyptian composer Khaled Hammad, who previously impressed me enormously with his score for Awalem Khafia [Hidden Worlds] in 2018. For El Tawoos, the composer wrote a large symphonic score – recorded remotely with both the Macedonia Symphonic Orchestra and the Moscow Bow Tie Orchestra – augmented with a number of regional specialty instruments ranging from ouds and accordions to the qanun Arabic zither and kawala flute, plus traditional Arabic percussion.

The score is mostly monothematic, but the theme is terrific, building out of its primary performance in the opening “El Tawoos Intro”. The theme has an air of mystery and suspense, and reminds me a little of John Williams’s Presumed Innocent, with soft string chords and woodwind accents intoning above a delicate, dancing piano motif underneath. It swells to several superb crescendos as it develops, and maintains its darkly romantic tone throughout. Variations on theme featuring the Arab regional instruments give the whole thing a vivacious flair, exotic to Western ears, and the way Hammad combines them with the fuller sound of the western orchestras is outstanding.

Later cues arrange the theme for a variety of instrumental soloists, including one superb variation for a hauntingly lyrical cello, evocative versions for qanun and kawala, and one that features a percussion undercurrent and is the closest thing the score has to an action cue. There is also one notable one where the qanun combines with a faraway and dream-like synth melody that is just gorgeous. The accordion variation is perhaps less successful than the others, but it still offers an interesting timbre to the score, and highlights Hammad’s skill at arranging for vastly different instruments. The cello writing continues throughout much the score, and appears to be a lament for the victim of the terrible crime at the center of the story; Hammad’s writing weeps for her in the most tragically beautiful of ways. There is also one unusually playful piece for pizzicato strings and light, twittering woodwinds, that offers a slightly more lighthearted tone, before the orchestra comes in and layers the main theme underneath it, this time arranged as a waltz.

Some people may be a little frustrated by the fact that Hammad bases the entire score around a single theme – if you don’t like it, then you’re screwed because there’s literally nothing else other than the instrumental variations thereof – but I did. It’s rare these days to hear a composer really focusing in on a strong thematic core in a score, and I found it and its different instrumental versions to be wonderfully entertaining.

Unfortunately the score for El Tawoos is not available for commercial purchase – this release is a promo produced by Hammad for awards consideration purposes – but selections of it are available for streaming through the composer’s SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/khaled_hammad. As usual, consider this review a plea to soundtrack specialist labels for them to release it.

Track Listing: 17 Unnamed Cues. Promo, 39 minutes 27 seconds.

NAGIB ZAHI ZARKASH – Khaled Hammad

Nagib Zahi Zarkash is an Egyptian Ramadan TV series, a comedy-drama about family and fatherhood. Yehia El-Fakharani stars as the titular character, Nagib Zahi, a wealthy Cairo businessman who discovers a shocking secret after 30 years: that he has a son he knew nothing about. Setting out on a journey with his friend to find his son, he eventually comes upon four young men, any one of whom could be his own flesh and blood. In order to identify the one who is his actual son, he begins to get to know all four of them, which initiates a life-changing experience for all of them. The show is directed by Shady El-Fakharani, and has a score by Khaled Hammad.

Nagib Zahi Zarkash offers a new side to Hammad that haven’t heard before – broad comedy. The main theme for the character is a wonderfully upbeat, jovial, catchy theme that moves around between various instrumental textures, comprising especially notable sequences for saxophone, accordion, clarinet, a qanun Arabic zither, an oud, and a kawala flute, all backed by the strings of the Macedonia Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Oleg Kondratenko. There’s as touch of Nino Rota’s music for Federici Fellini in some of the chord progressions and stylings, the flourishes and accents Hammad adorns the score with are superbly flamboyant, and the whole thing has a wonderfully positive disposition that will slap an immediate smile on your face.

This main theme appears frequently throughout the rest of the score, often focusing on one or more specific instrumental variations, including one especially enchanting one where the clarinet is backed by delicious Middle Eastern percussion rhythms. Thankfully, though, Hammad takes the time to develop other ideas too. Several cues showcase a gorgeous duet for cello and piano that has a raw emotional core, while other cues offer pleasant, sentimental string textures; both these ideas comment on the ‘fatherhood’ part of the story and Nagib’s desire to connect with the son he never knew he had. Elsewhere, some of the light prancing textures for strings and woodwinds remind me of the light comedy caper scores Rachel Portman was writing in the 1990s, and there is even one moment of tension and high drama featuring a raft of tremolo strings.

Like the score for El Tawoos, unfortunately the score for Nagib Zahi Zarkash is not available for commercial purchase – this release is a promo produced by Hammad for awards consideration purposes – but select cues are available for streaming through the composer’s SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/khaled_hammad.

Track Listing: 21 Unnamed Cues. Promo, 44 minutes 37 seconds.

NASL AL AGHRAB [OFFSPRING OF STRANGERS] – Mohamed Elashey

Nasl Al Aghrab – translated from Arabic as ‘Offspring of Strangers’ – is an Egyptian Ramadan TV series about revenge and betrayal. It investigates the long-standing feud between the families of two wealthy Cairo businessmen, Ghefran (Amir Karara) and Assaf (Ahmed El Saka). When a fight between them leaves several family members dead, Assaf is sent to prison, while Ghefran goes free. After serving a long prison sentence, Assaf is finally released, only to find that Ghefran has married his ex-wife and raised his son as his own; feeling betrayal, Assaf plots revenge. The series was directed by Mohamed Sany, and has a score by an Egyptian composer previously unknown to me: Mohamed Elashey.

Elashey’s score is a multi-thematic work performed by a sampled orchestra spotlighting several instrumental textures including violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet, plus regional specialties such as a qanun Arabic zither, a ney flute, and a rababa Arabic guitar. The first theme relates to Assaf, the wronged husband whose revenge drives the plot of the show; it is usually carried by a lilting, swooning violin, and has a sense of bittersweet tragedy to it, especially in its first appearance in “Finding Hope.” The texture of the piece is stereotypically Middle Eastern, with a massively heavy vibrato, giving it a wholly unique sound. Later performance of Assaf’s theme appear later, in the more dramatic and percussive “Strangers,” and in the moving “The Lonely One,” which renders theme as a rich duet for cello and piano, again with the heavy lilt and vibrato giving it its unique timbre.

The theme for Ghefran, the antagonist of the show who conspired to send Assaf to prison and then moves in on his family, first appears in “Ghefran”, and is a much darker and dominant theme, with a brooding but memorable melody for brass and strings underpinned with imposing percussion ideas. Occasionally Elashey transfers the melody to a solo trumpet, while in “Monsters Have Heart” the theme is given haunting, and more approachable, variation for the ney flute. “Tension” buries the theme under a bank of contemporary electronic sound design, while the version heard in “No Absolution” has a sound almost in the vein of a Hans Zimmer power anthem.

The third theme represents the tragedy at the center of the story, the familial rivalry that tears generations apart. This is actually the most prominent theme in terms of the sheer number of its variations, and its initial performance in “Broken Hearts” again has that weeping, poignant quality that comes from the string phrasing. Elashey passes the melody around numerous different instruments, often lingering significantly on the qanun and the rababa, while later statements include the striking and brass-heavy “Grudges,” the similarly imposing “Lie in Wait,” the evocative flute-led “Sad Memories,” and the sweeping “Tears and Pride,” each offering a variety of emotional textures.

The final theme represents the Jalilah, the wife whose love is at the center of the feud between Assaf and Ghefran, and is a gorgeous piece filled with tragic longing, often carried by solo violin. Its two main statements come in “Hidden Love,” where it juxtaposes against Assaf’s theme, and “Jalilah,” which is heavier on the piano, and has a lamenting, yearning quality, before it adopts some contemporary percussion licks during its conclusion, including some notably prominent cymbals.

Unfortunately the score for Nasl Al Aghrab is not available for commercial purchase – this release is a promo produced by Elashey for awards consideration purposes – although a handful of cues are available to stream via Elashey’s personal Youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/Elashey/playlists. Nasl Al Aghrab is a superb score – thematically rich, dramatically potent, and aesthetically appealing, and is a superb advertisement for the quality of contemporary Egyptian film music. As usual, consider this review a plea to soundtrack specialist labels for them to release it.

Track Listing: 1. Broken Hearts (3:23), 2. Finding Hope (2:04), 3. Ghefran (3:12), 4. Grudges (1:07), 5. Hidden Love (2:40), 6. Jalilah (3:03), 7. Lie in Wait (1:46), 8. Monsters Have Hearts (2:00), 9. Mystery (1:24), 10. No Absolution (1:16), 11. Sad Memories (2:24), 12. Strangers (3:28), 13. Suspense (1:56), 14. Tears and Pride (2:43), 15. Tension (2:08), 16. The Lonely One (1:54). Promo, 36 minutes 33 seconds.

THE PHARAOHS’ GOLDEN PARADE – Hisham Nazih

The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade was an event held in Cairo, Egypt on 3 April 2021, during which twenty-two mummies belonging to Kings and Queens of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt were moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, a few miles away. The mummies moved include some of the most famous ancient Egyptian monarchs, including the legendary Rameses II. Each mummy was housed in a specially-designed sarcophagus filled with nitrogen to protect them, and then placed in a specially-designed vehicle with decoration based on Egyptian funerary boats. The whole thing was a grand, spectacular celebration of Egyptian culture, featuring light and laser displays, and parades of men and women in traditional dress accompanying these ancient rulers to their new resting places.

In addition to the parade, there was a simultaneous concert performed by the United Philharmonic Orchestra led by Egyptian maestro conductor Nader Abbasi, featuring original music composed by Egyptian film composer Hisham Nazih; the music was performed live and streamed to coincide with the visual broadcast of the parade, essentially acting as its soundtrack. The concert, which was attended by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, included chants sung in Ancient Egyptian by soprano Amira Selim, as well as an original song, “A Reverence for Isis,” the lyrics of which were taken from inscriptions on the walls of the Deir el-Shelwit temple in Luxor, and from the Book of the Dead. Two other original songs were performed in Arabic by vocalists Reham Abdel Hakim and Nesma Mahgoub, both of which are gorgeous and exotic and mesmerizing, like something from an ancient time.

However, by far the most impressive part of the concert was the orchestral work by Nazih, which is absolutely immense, filled with themes and drama and powerful orchestral grandeur. The piece contains several passages, beginning with triumphant fully orchestral fanfare overture of great power and emotion. This is followed by a quieter, more contemplative, spiritual sequence led by a ney flute, and then a moving choral anthem which concludes with a wonderful, classically rich string flourish. A flamboyant trumpet voluntary accompanies scenes of Egyptian children running excitedly towards the parade route, and lighting up an immense obelisk. Women dressed in traditional Egyptian garb, carrying bowls of light, exit the Egyptian Museum to a snare drum tattoo, accompanied by members of the Egyptian military, and then a phalanx of charioteers with horses, all bathed in blue light.

Eventually the parade itself begins, and Nazih’s music erupts into spectacular orchestral and choral glory, bold, dramatic, intense, thematically rich, and mesmerizing when combined with the visuals of these long-dead kings and queens making their journey through contemporary Cairo. There are layered vocals with men and women intoning in superb call-and-response fashion, vivid cello ostinato, swirling string figures, bold explosions of brass. The music becomes magical, sweeping, almost operatic, as the convoy of pharaohs circle the obelisk, and rises to a rich and epic version of the theme heard at the beginning of the work as the pharaohs disappear from view. It’s all just utterly magnificent; there are echoes of Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and several others echoing through the work. It’s that good.

After the songs by Reham Abdel Hakim and Nesma Mahgoub, Nazih’s orchestra returns to perform the finale. Many of the thematic nuggets from the beginning of the work return, and Nazih allows them to grow and build, steadily, organically, moving through a crescendo, until eventually the pharaohs arrive at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization to a glorious brass fanfare. There is a passage of intensity and urgency, the choir adds a sense of portent and appropriate reverence, and everything climaxes with a soaring, sweeping, majestic coda for the full orchestra and chorus, a 21-gun salute, a final flourish that a Hollywood epic would have been proud to have.

At the time of writing there is no commercial album for The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, but the entire broadcast from Egyptian TV can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYDzynh5iCY. The musical part begins at around the 1:10.00 mark, and Nazih’s orchestral part begins at 1:14.20. The choral sequence begins at 1:26.30, and then the parade itself – with the most spectacular music – at 1:30.00. The orchestral intro to Reham Abdel Hakim’s song begins at 1:36.40 and then, after a brief interlude focusing on harps and solo violin, Amira Selim’s song begins at 1:43.50. The finale of Selim’s song – which is massive, and features the full orchestra and choir – accompanies footage of Egyptian women dancing hypnotically around the pyramids of Giza, and inside the two museums, dressed in traditional clothes, and moving like hieroglyphs. Eventually all three singers are on stage together, their voices harmonizing with the orchestra. The finale of the orchestral part begins at 1:56.30, with the climax as the pharoahs arrive in their new home beginning at the 2:00.00 mark.

It’s astonishing, and breathtakingly beautiful. Just watch to it. I beg you.

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