Metkal Kanowi and Hallah al Safi – Sa’idi singer and dancer – Part I
I remember when I was learning Middle Eastern Dance in California in the early 1980’s “Egyptian Folklore” basically meant Sa’idi and the only Sa’idi musical artist we knew by name was Metkal Kenawi. We learned “Farowla” “Binti Beida” and “Tfarrak al Halawa“ from his cassettes.
Then a video became available, of course it was a copy of a copy of a copy, but we were happy to see the charismatic Metkal sing, play rababa, and occasionally do a few steps. In addition, we were blessed to view the sweet face and bouncy dance of Hala al Safy, the wife of Metkal. The many times I have seen actual Sa’idi women dance, whether professional performers or just for fun, I have never seen any women dance in the same style as Hala. The more I learned, the more I wondered who she was and where she was from. And why were they working together?
Metkal Kenwi and Hala al Safi in “Farowla” (Strawberry)
Who is Metkal Kenowi?
I could find more information about Metkal Kanowi than Hala al Safi. Metkal started as a local singer/rababa singer from Luxor, Upper Egypt. He was born into an entertainment family that is still going strong today. What is unusual about Metkal was that he gained singular international fame.
According to the Arabic Wikipedia; Metkal Kenawy, famous folk singer, was born in Luxor, Upper Egypt, passing away in 2004 at the age of 75 years. He was married 9 times and had 25 children, including his son, folk singer Hijazi Metkal.
Metkal was famous for his singing and folk rababa with both Egyptian and European audiences, the tone of his voice was distinctive, and Art critics were dazzled with his songs on the rababa. He began his entertaining way of playing the rebec when he was 9 years old. At first he played in a small band with his brothers and then joined the national squad for the Folk Art.
He went to Cairo and “attended the mass culture”, after which he traveled to Paris, where his singing success drew the attention of the press both French and Arabic.¹
Who is Hala al Safi?
Understanding Hala was more difficult. My inquires about her in the Sa’id were usually answered “she was Metkal’s wife.” But as I learned more about Sa’idi dance forms and Ghawazee movement, I became more and more convinced this was not her background. Sa’idi Ghawazee style which has a stomping aspect to it, often their hip movements and general earthy attention to the beat is generated by stomping the foot, usually the right one.
Hala has more of a Cairo-film style light use of her steps, bringing attention to movement in the shoulder shimmies. She also did not use sagat as Luxor Ghawazee would do, and used her hand movements in a more Cairo-film way.
But, other movements of hers were not Cairo (not film nor baladi) her movement where she leans forward with bouncy steps was different, and dancing with her right arm up is Sa’idi. Her signature style of fitted bodice, full closed skirt, fully covered in sequin designs, was hard to regionally place. I just knew that her dance had to be a fusion of regions and styles. And it wasn’t until the last 3 days while writing this blog that I learned so much more about her – from American dancers.
Years ago I had asked Shareen al Safy about Hala, she had taken classes with Hala and had a warm friendship which had inspired Shareen’s name. But Shareen said she didn’t remember where Hala said she was from. So her origins remained a mystery to me compounded by my discovery of a Cairo film made in 1974 where Hala was dancing in a Cairo-film style in both movement and fashion, wearing the bedlah with the narrow skirt front in the fashion of so many early video of Soheir Zaki.
Uploaded by CaroVan, the caption says: From the 1974 film ‘Al Muhim al hob‘ which starred Adel Imam, Nahid Sherif and Samir Ghanem.
In a caption for a different YouTube video CaroVan writes: “Here’s Egyptian dancer Hala al Safy performing with her husband Metkal Kanawi and his baladi music group. In 1986 Hala al Safy, whose real name is Suhayr Hasan Abdeen, renounced dance and performing. She now considers it haram (forbidden) and describes her career as a dancer as a time when “…I left my life in the hands of the Devil to play with…”
If you’re interested in knowing more about her transition from Hala to Suhayr I’d recommend the book ‘Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World: Performance, Politics and Piety’…”²
While trying to find this book through Facebook groups (the book is expensive to buy, but portions are available to read on Google Books) I received accounts by several American dancers of meeting her and seeing her show in Cairo.
In Part 2 of this blog I will continue understanding Hala al Safy through follow-through questions with our dancer/traveler/researcher friends as well as looking at insights in Hala’s story from “Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World: Performance, Politics and Piety”.
To help the research:
If you want to help my research on this subject here are a few questions and invitations to add to the body of knowledge:
1.Have you ever met either Metkal Kanowi or Hala al Safi? Where? What year? In social or performance situation? What was said?
2.We know she danced in the Cairo film in 1974. What years did she dance with Metkal Kanowi? What years was she married to him?
3. When was Metkal Kenowi in a regional governorate troupe, aka “Task Force” (in online translators), aka “Culture Palace” – was it in Luxor?
4. When Metkal moved to Cairo to perform, did he live there? Did he work with any of the National groups?
5. When Metkal performed internationally, what group did he perform with? A non-government group? Did Hala dance with him on the tours?
6. Did Metkal return to Europe by himself to work? Did he retire in Luxor?
7. Do you know of any good quality photos of either Metkal or Hala?
You can leave the answers in the comments below, e-mail them to info@JourneyThroughEgypt.com or post to the facebook group.
¹Arabic Wikipedia, arz.Wiki/MetkalKenowiMetkal
²Music, Culture and Identity in the Muslim World: Performance, Politics and Piety‘ edited by Kamal Salhi from the University of Leeds in the UK
Links in this post are affiliate links. If you purchase through any of these links we recieve a small commission, but it does not affect your pricing at all. If you would rather not support us in this way, just copy and paste the name of the book into Amazon, or your favorite bookseller. Thanks!