The Rise and Fall of Sawt el-Qahira, the Arab World’s First Record Label

The story of the company, which owns the catalog of the legendary singer Umm Kulthum, mirrors Egypt’s complex and troubled past

The Rise and Fall of Sawt el-Qahira, the Arab World’s First Record Label
Egyptians at the Kawkab al-Sharq coffee shop named after Umm Kulthum. (Mohammed al-Sehiti/AFP via Getty Images)

Nestled at the heart of Egypt’s bustling capital lies a vibrant and enchanting district known as Wust el-Balad — in English, downtown Cairo. Suffused with a symphony of artistic expression and architectural marvels, its streets weave a splendid historical tapestry, seamlessly blending influences from various epochs. With each step, one can witness a captivating fusion of Islamic, European and Art Deco styles, monuments to the city’s diverse past.

Venturing deeper into the labyrinthine alleyways, one discovers hidden art studios, artisan workshops and sidewalk cafes, where the lingering aroma of fresh-brewed coffee welcomes writers and thinkers to gather, exchange ideas and fuel their creative endeavors. Even the residential streets, like Champollion Street, are alive with the hum of car mechanics, bakeries and miscellaneous workshops, interspersed with essential eateries such as the renowned Abou Tarek koshary joint.

Yet tucked away discreetly on a serene side street at the end of Champollion Street lies a hidden gem: Sawt el-Qahira (literally “the sound of Cairo,” self-identified in Latin characters as SonoCairo), a retail store belonging to the state-owned Egyptian record label that emerged as the most prominent music label in the Arab world from the 1960s to the 1980s, which has become a testament to the city’s forgotten cultural heritage.

The entrance to the store is unmistakable, adorned with a bright blue banner proudly displaying the iconic Sawt el-Qahira logo. Flanking the entrance are captivating photographs of Egypt’s legendary musicians, with the illustrious figure of Umm Kulthum, also known as Kawkab el-Sharq (Star of the East), taking center stage. As one steps inside, the store reveals a modest collection primarily dedicated to Umm Kulthum’s timeless music. Amid the shelves are CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes and a select few remastered vinyl records. While Umm Kulthum shines as the most prominent figure, the quaint space also pays homage to other luminaries from Egypt’s golden age of art and culture, including Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, Sayed Darwish and many more.

But the relentless march of time has left its mark on Sawt el-Qahira. The store exudes an air of neglect, as if lost under shifting tides. Even though Sawt el-Qahira was the first Arab-owned record label in the Middle East and played a crucial role in empowering local artists and spreading Egyptian music across the Arab world, the once-vibrant space marks the absence of its storied past. Now all that remains are forlorn products of nostalgia, their presence veiled beneath a thin layer of dust. So how was it that Sawt el-Qahira managed to fade out of history? The story of the company’s troubled history and slow demise interweaves with that of the warring political agendas that transformed Egypt.

It begins in July 1952, when a group of Egyptian army officers known as “al-dubbat al-ahrar” — the Free Officers — removed King Farouk from power, with popular support from the masses. The coup d’etat, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, ushered in a period of profound sociopolitical and economic change that included agrarian reforms, massive urbanization and an unprecedented industrialization drive that transformed Egypt from a colonized kingdom into a modern republic.

The new revolutionary government embraced an anti-imperialist agenda, which manifested through Arab nationalism and international nonalignment. In 1954, Nasser became prime minister of the new republic, and quickly began nationalizing key industries, starting with the British- and French-owned Suez Canal Company in 1956. By October 1961, Nasser had embarked on a major nationalization campaign that targeted, among other things, foreign-owned businesses, foreign trade, banking and large-scale industry. Among the lesser-known victims of Nasser’s nationalization drive was Egypt’s private sector record manufacturing company.

During the early to mid-1950s (the precise date is difficult to confirm, due to discrepancies) the Egyptian singer-songwriter Mohamed Fawzi founded Misrphon, a music production company intended to support his musical film work. At the time, Fawzi was one of the country’s seminal composers, having worked with such eminent singers as Shadia, Sabah and Leila Mourad. He was celebrated for the originality of his music, as well as his role in developing a modern Egyptian musical style. Fawzi was both prolific and patriotic, having produced Egyptian and Arab nationalist music (including a liberation song for Algeria that became that country’s national anthem following independence). His nationalism was even apparent in his choice of the name Misrphon — “Misr” is Arabic for Egypt, making his chosen name, effectively, the “sound of Egypt.”

At the time, there were very few music production facilities in Egypt, especially ones that were Egyptian-owned. Records were pressed in Europe before being imported to Egypt, an economically taxing process that increased shipping costs and raised retail prices significantly. Fawzi sought to eliminate this inequality in music production by building a modern, Arab-owned record factory in Egypt — the first of its kind in the Arab world and Africa. Fawzi then lured Egypt’s leading singers of the day to record at his facility by appealing to their nationalism and offering artists a share of royalties rather than a lump-sum payment. He managed to sign a number of important artists, including Shadia, Sabah and, most importantly, Umm Kulthum. By 1959, Fawzi had expanded his company to include a state-of-the-art recording studio and a retail outlet. He also rented his studios and factory to other music recording companies in the Arab world.

By 1960, Misrphon had begun to turn a profit. Adverts for the music production company were regularly published in magazines and periodicals, alerting readers that “Misrphon presents the most famous female and male singers performing their latest songs.” Fawzi had achieved his dream. He had established the Arab world’s first record factory and had brought the country’s top stars into his vision for Egypt’s musical future. He had cemented his status as a visionary and, having secured his musical legacy, dedicated himself to the continued growth of his beloved company.

Unbeknownst to him, in a matter of months, he would become the latest victim of Nasser’s growing political ambitions.

In 1961, Nasser issued a wide array of socialist decrees in his attempt to transform Egypt’s socioeconomic structure. One of his measures was Law 117, which nationalized the remaining banks and large-scale industry. Another was Law 118, which allowed the Egyptian government to assume partnership in certain companies and foundations.

Philips Orient, a Dutch manufacturing company that owned 50% of Fawzi’s Misrphon, was among the entities targeted by the Egyptian government. After nationalizing Philips Orient, the Egyptian government placed Misrphon under the administrative supervision of the Egyptian General Institution for Theater and Music. Though Fawzi still held 50% of Misrphon shares and, on paper, the position of managing partner with full administrative control and liability, he had effectively lost control of Misrphon. Even his personal villa, which contained a recording studio, was seized by the government.

Fawzi was offered the position of artistic advisor to the (de facto state-owned) Misrphon, which came with a small office and a modest salary for his labors. Understandably, he chose to turn down the offer. He eventually sold his remaining shares for a pittance to Sawt el-Qahira, the state-run company founded on the ashes of Misrphon in 1964.

Robbed of his company and passion, Fawzi fell into a depression and died from a rare disease in 1966, aged 48. He had produced what would be his final composition eight months earlier, a patriotic song titled “Umm el-Balad” (“Mother of the Country”).

In the meantime, Sawt el-Qahira continued to grow. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, it established a second manufacturing company and began constructing gramophones to sell at a modest price to boost record sales. The company also expanded its operations to include a wider range of cultural, educational and religious recordings.

In its takeover of Misrphon, the Egyptian government had retained a significant catalog of recorded music, as well as contracts with important artists. This cultural capital played a pivotal role in Nasser’s strategy of using soft power to further Arab nationalism. Recognizing that Sawt el-Qahira provided him with cultural as well as economic resources, the president used the likes of Umm Kulthum — who happened to be under contract with Misrphon — to galvanize support for his nationalist agenda. Sawt el-Qahira even worked in tandem with Egyptian state radio to export Egyptian music and culture across the Arab world, and Nasser often broadcast his political speeches following Umm Kulthum’s performances.

Umm Kulthum was especially important to Sawt el-Qahira. Her contract with Misrphon, which included exclusive rights to her earlier works, essentially gave the state monopolistic control of one of Egypt’s most important cultural assets. In 1964, the same year that the Egyptian state assumed full control of Misrphon and transformed it into Sawt el-Qahira, Umm Kulthum and her longtime rival and fellow sensation Mohammed Abdel Wahab collaborated to release “Enta Omry” (“You Are My Life”) — a seminal song that helped establish Sawt el-Qahira and distracted from Nasser’s political failings and growing totalitarian policies.

As a symbol of pan-Arabism and source of Egyptian pride, exclusivity over Umm Kulthum’s oeuvre would remain Sawt el-Qahira’s greatest achievement. It would also be the source of long-standing litigation regarding the rights to her work, even after Nasser himself left the political scene.

Nasser’s sudden passing in September 1970, at the age of 52, marked the beginning of a turbulent period in Egypt’s history. Following Nasser’s death, his vice president Anwar Sadat assumed the presidency and embarked on a path that diverged from Nasser’s ideology.

Sadat’s rise to power brought about a new era characterized by a series of transformative policies and reforms. One of the most notable changes came in 1971, when Sadat launched the Corrective Revolution, purging prominent figures associated with Nasser’s regime. This marked a shift in leadership and a departure from Nasser’s populist approach. However, it was Sadat’s “Infitah” (Open Door) policies that had the most far-reaching implications for Egypt. The Infitah aimed to liberalize the economy, attract foreign investment and encourage private enterprise. It marked a significant departure from the socialist policies pursued by Nasser, as Sadat sought to integrate Egypt into the global economy and foster economic growth.

The Infitah resulted in the relaxation of state control over various sectors, the privatization of some industries and the encouragement of foreign investment. However, it also resulted in devastating socioeconomic disparities that widened the already significant wealth gap. It also decimated social welfare, public education and the health care sector. By the late 1970s, even Sawt el-Qahira was facing the challenges of a new market.

In 1973, the state-controlled company began manufacturing cassettes to meet the growing demand for a more convenient, portable and cost-effective way of listening to music. While Sawt el-Qahira had maintained monopolistic control of Egypt’s vinyl market — and thus the music industry as a whole — for more than a decade, Sadat’s Infitah policies meant that privately owned cassette companies were beginning to emerge within Egypt, flooding the market with products outside state control. What resulted was a significant shift in Egypt’s music scene, with the state no longer dominating the country’s cultural output. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government attempted to exert control in other areas, mainly through influencing what was considered permissible music.

“Glossy photographs, accompanying the Ministry of Information’s history of Sawt al-Qahira, show Egyptian employees working diligently in the company’s state-of-the-art facilities in Alexandria,” writes Andrew Simon in his acclaimed book, “Media of the Masses: Cassette Culture in Modern Egypt.” He adds: “Women manage master recordings, while men handle packaging, the creation of cassette cases, and the printing of cassette sleeves and posters. If examined together, these images convey a clear message. Sawt al-Qahira’s cassette division shared nothing in common with the so-called ‘companies’ blasted by critics for producing ‘vulgar’ tapes. For one, the label was not limited to a single room or a sidewalk kiosk. It operated out of not one, but two, well-lit, technologically advanced factories.”

In 1977, the Egyptian government issued a decree renaming Sawt el-Qahira Record Company to Sawt el-Qahira for Audio and Visuals — a change that emphasized the company’s shifting priorities. Within a matter of years, Sawt el-Qahira would stop manufacturing records entirely.

Unable to compete against the onslaught of private labels and bootleg tapes, Sawt el-Qahira traded in golden-age nostalgia and religious recitations, which had risen in popularity as Islamic conservatism took hold in Egypt during the 1970s and ’80s. This trend continued following Sadat’s assassination at the hands of an Islamist fundamentalist army officer in 1981 and throughout his successor Hosni Mubarak’s tenure as president.

Today, Sawt el-Qahira’s religious catalog continues to enjoy a prominent place on the company’s official website — a catalog that includes Quranic recitations and the teachings of the controversial Muslim scholar Metwali el-Sharawi. The company also produces an array of religious television programming, including popular Ramadan shows such as “Muhammad: The Prophet of God.”

Sawt el-Qahira’s website does not appear to have been updated in several years. The most recent post available on the site, dated 2021, consists of a news release announcing a significant legal victory for the company. The announcement highlights that Cairo’s Economic Court ruled in favor of Sawt el-Qahira, affirming its exclusive rights to Umm Kulthum’s catalog. This ruling came as a result of a highly publicized lawsuit initiated by the family of the late star.

While Sawt el-Qahira no longer resembled the vision of its late founder, it continued to maintain an iron grip over one of the country’s most lucrative assets.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the world, Egypt hosted the 51st Cairo International Book Fair. Amid the bustling maze of stalls stood a modest booth adorned with the distinctive Sawt el-Qahira banner, and within this unassuming space a myriad of products lay on display: dusty cassettes, CDs and a collection of religious teachings. Among the array of relics sat a cheaply constructed gramophone equipped with built-in USB and Bluetooth connections.

When asked about the strange display by a journalist in attendance, a Sawt el-Qahira official revealed that the products were nostalgic and were meant to be viewed as “antiques.” He also stressed that once the company’s remaining stock of cassettes runs out, it is unlikely they will ever produce more, since the machines that manufacture them no longer work.

While Sawt el-Qahira hoped to capitalize on its latest attempt at nostalgic marketing, its participation in the book fair ended up showcasing the hollowed remains of a decayed industrial giant.

As the vinyl spins and the echoes of history reverberate through the grooves, Sawt el-Qahira is a musical map of Egypt’s complex and troubled past. Founded by a visionary artist, the record label’s journey has been a reflection of the nation’s trajectory over the past few decades. From its roots as a passion project empowering Egyptian musicians, through its evolution into a tool for propaganda under state control, to its current role as a peddler of nostalgia and religious teachings, Sawt el-Qahira stands as a vivid reflection of the country’s leaders over the second half of the 20th century and the visions that each had for Egypt: a culturally and politically independent state, a socialist republic, a modern player on the international field. And now, perhaps, Sawt el-Qahira mirrors the Egyptian government: a military dictatorship that relies on a bygone era of Egyptian culture to legitimize its rule, while actively repressing expression and activities that lead to cultural production.

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