mon 30/01/2023

Music Reissues Weekly: Maha - Orkos | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: Maha - Orkos

Music Reissues Weekly: Maha - Orkos

Terrific but previously little-known Egyptian gem from 1979 resurfaces

Maha: ‘the promotion for the album Orkos was pretty limited’

Orkos was originally released in 1979 on cassette. The only album by Egyptian singer Maha seems to have been little known. The liner notes for its first-ever reissue say “it was not a success when it was originally released. While nobody remembers the exact numbers, sales must have been very limited and the project was quickly forgotten about and no follow up release was produced.”

Elsewhere, the text recounts how a copy was found in 2019 in a “very dusty plastic box on a shelf” in a shop in Cairo’s Zamalek district.

Maha_ OrkosHowever, Maha hadn’t been a shadowy presence. She was in her brother's band Star Light in 1967. The next year, she represented Egypt at the Barcelona Festival For Songs. Her arranger there, Andre Rider, also worked with Oum Khalthoum. After this and spell away from Egypt over 1970 to 1972, Maha sang with various hotel nightclub bands from 1974 onwards: Bell Boys, Diamond Band, the Petit Chats. She also sang with the Cairo Jazz Band and Ugo Armani, an Italian band booked to play in Egypt. In her interview for the reissue, she says “the promotion for the album Orkos was pretty limited.”

She goes on to say “originally, they [the label] told me they were going to release the tape in September of 1979 but then plans were changed and the release was delayed for three months or something like that. I told them it would not fit, because the sky and stars then were not favourable for the timing of this album. And as I predicted, they were not. Apart from the astrology, the album also sounded like nothing else at the time in Egypt. It was very different. The music was simple, straight, expressive, clear but ahead of its time.” Before being approached about this reissue, she had not listened to the album for around 20 years. She dropped out of music in the mid-Eighties.

The album includes seven tracks, all with lyrics by the poet Omar Batisha. There are three arrangers/composers: Ezzat Abo Ouf, Hany Shenouda and Mohamed El Sheikh. All four are integral to the Egyptian music business, and also to the country's culture in general (in television and acting). On the face of it, and notwithstanding any issues about a delay to its release, Maha’s album ought to have clicked.

Maha _Orkos_cassetteThis rediscovery is remarkable, but the impact of its reappearance is strengthened by what’s heard. Orkos opens with its title track. There’s a lot of percussion, but it’s subtle. Backing vocals inject chants, and there are stabs of a groovy sounding organ. Maha dominates though. Bebel Gilberto comes to mind as a comparison – Maha used to sing “Girl From Ipanema” with the Cairo Jazz Band. Next up, the dreamy “Kabl Ma Nessallem We Nemshy” is built around a motif from a harpsichord-like instrument, cascading bells and what sounds like a Mellotron. Again, the focus is Maha’s voice. (pictured left, the original cassette release of Orkos)

As the album progresses, there are song-dramas nodding towards Dalida and steps into mysterious dream-like terrain. The possible Mellotron crops up again on “Ala Shat El Nesyn.” “Law Laffeina El Ard” is aimed at the dance floor. Overall, Orkos is assured and fully formed. Arresting too.

But it went missing. Maha says that when she re-listened to the album it was “as if I was listening to it for the first time. And I was so impressed. I’m usually very critical of myself and anybody. But this time, I was really wowed: “That’s me?!” Wow sums it up.

@MrKieronTyler

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