Music of Egypt

The three musicians, Tomb of Nakht, Thebes. Th...
The three musicians, Tomb of Nakht, Thebes. The colour plate in the book was scanned at 600 dpi, and so the print-screen dots become visible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Music of Egypt.

Musicians of Amun, Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Western Thebes.

Egyptian music has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians credited the god Thoth with the invention of music, which Osiris in turn used as part of his effort to civilize the world. The earliest material and representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predyanstic period, but the evidence is more securely attested in the Old Kingdom when harps, flutes and double clarinets were played.  Percussion instruments, lyres and lutes were added to orchestras by the Middle Kingdom. Cymbals frequently accompanied music and dance, much as they still do in Egypt today. Egyptian folk music, including the traditional Sufi zikr rituals, are the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms and instruments.

In general, modern Egyptian music blends these indigenous traditions with Turkish, Arabic, and Western elements. Arabic music is usually said to have begun in the 7th century in Syria during the Umayyad dynasty. Early Arabic music was influenced by Byzantine, Indian and Persian forms, which were themselves heavily influenced by earlier Greek, Semitic, and ancient Egyptian music. The tonal structure of Arabic music is defined by the Maqamat, loosely similar to Western modes, while the rhythm of Arabic music is governed by the awzan (wazn, sing.), formed by combinations of accented and unaccented beats and rests.

Front and rear views of the Oud.

Since the 1970s, Egyptian pop music has become increasingly important in Egyptian culture, particularly among the large youth population of Egypt. Egyptian folk music continues to be played during weddings and other traditional festivities. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Egyptian music was a way to communicate social and class issues. Among some of the most popular Egyptian pop singers today are Mohamed Mounir and Amr Diab.

Religious music remains an essential part of traditional Muslim and Coptic celebrations called mulids.  Mulids are held in Egypt to celebrate the saint of a particular mosque or church. Muslim mulids are related to the Sufi Zikr ritual. The Egyptian flute, called the Ney, is commonly played at mulids. The liturgical music of the Coptic Church also constitutes an important element of Egyptian music and is said to have preserved many features of ancient Egyptian music.

Modern popular and folk traditions

Lute and double pipe players from a painting found in the Theban tomb of Nebamun, a nobleman of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, c. 1350 BC

Contemporary Egyptian music traces its beginnings to the creative work of luminaries such as Abdu-Al Hamuli, Almaz and Mahmud Osman, who were all patronized by Khedive Ismail, and who influenced the later work of Seyyid Darwich, Um Kulthoum, Mohammed Abdilwahhab, Abdel Halim Hafez, Zakariyya Ahmad and other Egyptian music giants.

Egyptian music began its recorded history in the 1910s, around the time composers such as Seyyid Darwich were incorporating western musical forms into their work. Some of the Middle East’s biggest musical stars have been Egyptian. Um Kalthoum was especially popular, and is considered the most successful Egyptian recording artist in history. Most of these stars, including Um Kulthoum, were part of the classical Egyptian and Arabic music tradition. Some, like Abdilhaleem Hafez, were associated with the Egyptian nationalist movement in 1952.

Folk and roots revival

The 20th century has seen Cairo become associated with a roots revival. Musicians from across Egypt are keeping folk traditions alive, such as those of rural Egyptians (fellahin), the Nubians, and the Arab and Berber Bedouins. Mixtures of folk and pop have also risen from the Cairo hit factory.

Sawahli (coastal) music is a type of popular music from the northern coast, and is based around the simsimaya, an indigenous stringed instrument. Well-known singers include Abdo’l Iskandrani and Aid el-Gannirni.


Coptic music is the liturgical music of the Coptic Church. It consists mainly of chanted hymns in rhythm with instruments such as cymbals (hand and large size) and the triangle. It has preserved some features of ancient Egyptian music, and few of its melodies are identified and labeled as Syrian (called Shamy in the Coptic Church) or Byzantine (called Roumy or Roman in the Coptic Church).


Bedouin music is found in the deserts of the west, near Libya, and the eastern Sinai area. The Mizmar, a twin-pipe clarinet, is the most popular folk instrument, and popular singers include Awad e’Medic.

Saidi (Upper Egyptian)

Egyptian musicians from Upper Egypt play a form of folk music called Saidi (Upper Egyptian). Metqal Qenawi’s Les Musiciens du Nil are the most popular saidi group, and were chosen by the government to represent Egyptian folk music abroad. Other performers include Shoukoukou, Ahmad Ismail, Omar Gharzawi, Sohar Magdy and Ahmed Mougahid.


Nubians are native to the south of Egypt and northern Sudan, though many live in Cairo and other cities. Nubian folk music can still be heard, but migration and intercultural contact with Egyptian and other musical genres have produced new innovations. Ali Hassan Kuban’s jazz fusions had made him a regular on the world music scene, while Mohamed Mounir’s social criticism and sophisticated pop have made him a star among Nubians, Egyptians, and other people worldwide. Ahmed Mounib, Mohamed Mounir’s mentor, was by far the most notable Nubian singer to hit the Egyptian music scene, singing in both Egyptian Arabic and his native Nobiin. Hamza El Din is another popular Nubian artist, well-known on the world music scene and has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet.

Popular music

Until the late 1970s, classical singers like Um Kulthoum were Egypt’s biggest pop stars. By the middle of the 1990s, though, Al Jeel and al shaabi music had taken over, especially among young audiences.

Starting in the late 1960s, light song emerged as the first modern Egyptian pop tradition. Often nationalist in tone, light songs were humorous and sometimes risqué. It was dominated by singers like Aida el-Shah and Leila Nazmi, who were popular in middle-class communities. The working class youth of Egypt reacted against light songs and shaabi music evolved out of Cairo’s poorest districts. Shaabi began entering the mainstream of Egyptian society in 1971, with the breakthrough success of Ahmed Adaweyah.


Adaweyah, by far the most popular Egyptian sha’abi singer in the history of Egyptian music, initially gained controversy for his lyrics, which were often humorous, salacious and highly critical of social rules and respectable society. By the 1980s, shaabi was being influenced by music from the United Kingdom and United States, as well as other Egyptian pop stars. Electric guitars, synthesizers, and later beat boxes, were integrated into the music, which is now highly-polished and meant for mainstream consumption. Today, the most popular shaabi stars are Hakeem and Shaaban Abdel Rahim.

Al Jeel

Al Jeel music genre arose in the 70s. It was dance-pop modeled after foreign rock and roll and pop music with a background rhythm similar to reggae, and it included distinctively Egyptian characteristics. Hamid el Shaery, a Libyan living in Egypt, was the most influential of Al-Jeel‘s early performers.


The start

After the second millennium, a music revolution was started in Egypt as bands started to become more popular and more famous year after year. It began with bands like Eftekasat and Wust El Balad with the help of El Sawy Cutlurewheel, Cairo Jazz Club, multiple cultural centers like the French Culture Centre. As a result, people started to become more aware of the different genres that could be presented by the different bands as the bigger Egyptian taste was more of pop artists like Amr Diab, Mohamed Mounir and Tamer Hosny. Other factors like the Metal Accord concert series which was quite a revolution in itself as metal-heads were labeled as satanists 10 years ago

Release of albums

The movement wasn’t there yet as occasional concerts weren’t enough for neither the bands nor the audience and the bands began to start thinking about making and releasing albums. Perhaps the first professional album was Mirror of Vibrations by ODIOUS.  Although it wasn’t a huge success it opened the door for other bands like Eftekasat to release their debut album Mouled Sidi El-Latini which was a hugh success and was covered relatively heavily by the media which covered mainly pop artists. The track “Mouled Sidi El-Latini” became very popular even among the fans of pop music. This started to raise questions and light up the dreams of several bands like Redeemers, Anoxia and of course Wust El Balad. Redeemers, a Symphonic Metal band, has already reached some notability as a result of their multiple concerts and recorded a promo CD which can be downloaded from their official website. Anoxia also became quite famous and received multiple underground awards that they are even preparing at the current time to release an album possibly next year. However, the major step was taken by Wust El Balad as they were the third band  after Eftekasat to release a debut album. It came out in February 2008, 2 years after the release of Mouled Sidi El-Latini.


Concerts became more and more popular and easier to be organized with the opening and the fame of several places, most notably El Sawy Culture wheel. Metal Accord and S.O.S. are probably the most famous and the most attended in Egypt together with the nearly daily presentations of both new and old bands at El Sawy Culture wheel. These major 3 helped present many new artists and bands like Nagham Masry, Shara, Asphalt, Hate Suffocation, Idle Mind, The Riff Band, etc… to the public, youth and adults alike of different genders and backgrounds. The revolution even reached the point to present the Christian band Better Life in S.O.S. 7! This very strong introduction became supported with the presentation of professional bands like The Scorpions in 2006 and the 2008 concert which was supposed to feature the first death metal band ever to perform in Egypt, Vader. The concert was supposed to feature Nerve cell and the Egyptian bands Worm and Dark Philosophy in order to support Vader. After the tickets were sold, the concert was cancelled due to security reasons and the pressure applied by the government as people starting protesting against bringing a satanic band into an Islamic country after the lyrics of Halleluiah!!! (God is Dead)” were posted on a Face book group with the Arabic translation.

Western classical music

Western classical music was introduced to Egypt by Europeans, and, beginning in the 19th century, instruments such as the piano and violin were gradually adopted by Egyptians. Opera also became increasingly popular during this period, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Egyptian-themed Aida was premiered in Cairo on December 24, 1871.

By the early 20th century, the first generation of Egyptian composers, including Yusef Greiss, Abu Bakr Khairat, and Hasan Rashid, began writing for Western instruments. The second generation of Egyptian composers included notable artists such as Gamal Abdelrahim. Representative composers of the third generation are Ahmed El-Saidi and Rageh Daoud. In the early 21st century, even fourth generation composers such as Mohamed Abdilwahhab Abdilfattah (of the Cairo Conservatory) have gained international attention.

Revival of Ancient Egyptian music

In the early 20th century, interest in the music of the pharaonic period began to grow, inspired by the research of such foreign-born musicologists as Hans Hickmann. By the early 21st century, Egyptian musicians and musicologists led by the musicology professor Khairy El-Malt at Helwan University in Cairo had begun to reconstruct musical instruments of Ancient Egypt, a project that is ongoing.


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