by Raghav Raj
art by Martina Taylor
[originally published June 3, 2022]
Of all the numerous treasures unearthed by Habibi Funk, a German imprint that’s been specializing in reissues of 1960’s-1980’s Middle Eastern and North African contemporary music since 2012, Libyan musician Hamid El Shaeri’s glimmering “Ayonha” still stands out.
On the label’s defining 2017 compilation, An Eclectic Selection of Music From the Arab World (Habibi Funk 007), El Shaeri’s airy, deathless voice was the crown jewel. Though the selection’s country-hopping array of strutting Moroccan funk, choppy Algerian disco, and skronking Sudanese surf-rock never fails to delight, there’s never anything more immediately arresting than “Ayonha,” a sun-drenched gem where El Shaeri’s singing glides through buoyant drum machines, flickering guitars, and delicate synths. It’s a perfect little incantation, a pure nugget of pop music transcendence that’s both familiar and distinct, fortunately unearthed from relative obscurity. As Habibi Funk’s latest release proves, there’s more where that came from.
“Ayonha” is just one of many tracks on The SLAM! Years: 1983-1988 (Habibi Funk 018), a compilation that highlights El Shaeri’s prolific output through the mid-1980’s on the popular Egyptian cassette label SLAM! Focusing on the era of music he released before ascending to superstar status in Egypt, The SLAM! Years is an 11-song primer on El Shaeri’s pioneering work in Al Jeel music, the genre he’d help bring to national prominence in Egypt through the 90’s as a homegrown alternative to the foreign sounds of rock & roll, dance-pop, and reggae.
Arguably, there’s no one who embodies Al Jeel’s cross-cultural spirit more than Hamid El Shaeri. Born and raised in neighboring Libya, El Shaeri was regularly performing and recording music in Benghazi with his band, Abnaa Afriqia, by the age of 19. When Gadaffi’s regime ramped up enforcement of their ban on non-Arabic music, El Shaeri left for England in 1980, where he spent three years eagerly soaking up the sounds of popular music before his relocation to Egypt.
London also gave El Shaeri more access to the synthesizers that continue to animate so much of his work today. As he remarks in the liner notes of The SLAM! Years, “whenever a new [synthesizer] would come out, we would have to buy it immediately, otherwise someone else would get their hands on that sound.” That sort of cultural, sonic omnivorousness is characteristic of Al Jeel, and you can hear it throughout the compilation.
On “Reet,” disco licks collide with kawala flute, for a slow-burning gem that’s helmed by El Shaeri’s honeyed delivery. There’s the mirrorball pulse of “Git Ya Sheta,” which cleverly veils a shaking, polyrhythmic core with four-on-the-floor rhythms. It’s never more overt than on the mechanical drum-machine funk of “Oyoun Houriyat,” a song as eager to employ subtle chicken-scratch guitar slickness as it is to bang out some fantastically virtuosic piano bar filigrees. It’s a song that unabashedly wears its influences on its sleeve, as informed by Michael Jackson as it is by Freddie Mercury — two artists El Shaeri fondly reminisces about seeing live in London in the liner notes.
Still, what’s most enduring about El Shaeri’s music is the way all these ideas are combined together. You can hear the Arabic melodies and rollicking hand-claps on “Weyn Ayamak Weyn,” but it’s bolstered by creeping synths and anchored by a funky bassline that everything seems to orbit around. “Maktoub Aleina” is animated by a techno throb, but also launches into a siren-like synth solo that seems to mimic the North African zurna.
Best of all is the jubilant “Yekfini Nesma Sotak,” which locks itself into a tight funk groove for one of the stickiest earworms here, caught in a web of squiggling synths and distinctly Middle Eastern arpeggios. It’s an immaculate intersection of musical languages, the sort that makes The SLAM! Years such a rich documentation of El Shaeri’s work. His masterful synthesis is what rings clearest throughout the compilation, soaking in the foreign sounds, and transforming them into something that’s distinctly Egyptian and utterly sublime.