Egypt at Ramadan time. There Are Ads in My Pop!

When some brands partner with stars for unreleased songs, what is happening in Egypt has a unique scope, where advertising itself is bringing out a new pop aesthetic. With all the contradictions of such a marriage.

Abbas Momani/AFP

It is 1 a.m. on Ahmed Tarek Yahya’s rooftop in Cairo, and the workday is just about to start in this trendy home studio. Incredibly dexterous, hopping on his chair with a contagious energy, he goes from one part of the song to the other and intervenes in a few seconds on each musical snippet that he makes the derbakeh player record on the other side of the glass.

Two hours later, the song is almost finished. Son of a superstar football player, this producer has made it only through half of a work session; he has already produced many of last years’ hits – like ‘al ghazaleh ray’a’ and maybe in a near future ‘Beraha Ya Sheekha’ – and other gems that are less famous, such as this song, as catchy as it can be, but aiming to make you forget its author: an ad.

Commercial spots like this one are everywhere during the month of Ramadan, a season when families often gather around the television and musalsalât. These soap operas especially designed for this month are not only full of songs, but also packed with the most expensive advertising breaks of the year, meant to be equally unforgettable.

Carefully designed and produced, these advertising productions have evolved from simple jingles to addictive songs and hits in the past few years. They have even reached the top charts on YouTube and Tiktok. In 2018, an Etisalat ad, ‘Aqwa Cart fi Misr’, featuring actor Mohammed Ramadan, reached several tens of millions of views, enough to make him shift his career. It was a milestone in this business.

Requested Jingles and Celebrity Songs

Music in advertisements is not new and is even part of the Egyptian pop culture . Similarly, YouTube is full of nostalgic videos of jingles and advertisements from other Arab countries from 1980 to 2000, the years of satellite and television. One can find short spots with jingles revolving around a brand name, mostly linked to Tarek Nour’s agency, one of the biggest advertising agencies in the country, or collaborations between a brand and a celebrity to fund the production of a new song and have it exclusively for them , a trend of which Amr Diab is the best-known face.

In fact, the Egyptian star and Pepsi have recently celebrated 20 years of advertising campaigns ; today, Amr Diab is even making more commercials than clips. However, the golden years are far behind. The star is currently facing a series of scandals and criticism: the computer-generated images of his face in his latest Pepsi ad that caused a stir, the commercial he made for Citroën in which he follows a woman almost like a stalker , or his rumoured salary of 15 million EGP for the Egyptian post office ad. It was one of the few numbers ever made public in these collaborations where advertising agencies remain evasive and amounts are always rumoured, exaggerated by celebrities claiming extravagant incomes that they are far from receiving in reality .

Fifteen million EGP? The equivalent of $650,000. Compared to local economy with an average salary 25 times lower than in the United States, it is equivalent to $16 million, the scale of partnerships with Rihanna or Beyoncé. At a time of major economic crisis in Egypt, the fact that a public body spends such a large amount of money has not failed to cause a scandal. More importantly, it shows that Amr Diab and his generation are no longer in the spotlight – it is long past the time when the biggest advertisements were reserved for them, including those of luxury brands, as in 2008 when Elissa, the Lebanese singer, was featured in ads for Corum watches, Vogue sunglasses, Lazurde jewelry and Samsung phones in the same year. In fact, Arab pop music of the 2000s, the music style that he pioneered, has also become outdated. He does not shine the way he used to since the new emerging songs are full of excitement and senseless, the perfect reflection of Ramadan’s sugar overdoses, which have become more and more frequent now with other faces: musalsalât and television actors, influencers or mahragan singers.

Advertising Apprentices

In order to understand it, we have to start from an underlying phenomenon: in the history of the advertising/music relations, these very lucrative celebrity partnerships are only a part of a wider regional phenomenon that also concerns artists from the rock, rap and electro independent scenes. As marketing, graphic design or advertising graduates, many artists are asked to make music for advertisements, which are often all-purpose ads and different from their own music. In a particularly difficult music industry, advertising is an additional source of income, or even the main source of income for many artists and some advertising artists.

Saudi Majed Aissa for example, author of the 2016 buzz – Barbs – combining a good clip, dance steps, and a catchy tune, has since made advertising his main career, occasionally interspersed with personal productions on the side. The same goes for Egyptian musicians and video directors Hesham Afifi and Wael Alaa with his ‘Dr Alfons’ character. For others, advertising codes are mixed with music to the extent that it is impossible to distinguish between them (some music is not available apart from the clip): it is the case in Lebanon for example with the exuberant Remie Akl. This Creative Director/Conceptual Content Creator/Artist (according to her Linkedin account) seems to apply an advertising science of sharp messages and tense editing to her feminist and hard-hitting productions.

The crossovers between advertising and music are therefore multiple, but there is something extra going on in Egypt at the moment. A new generation of artists has used advertising as a musical playground, twisting in the process a very contemporary Egyptian music type, the mahragan. While local electro music is subject to a ban on public performances by the very politicised Artist Union , it is reappearing in every household. This genre is getting polished and enhanced with a professional production, mixed with a catchy pop tune and above all stripped of its sometimes sexual or politicised lyrics; this is exactly what the disliked but discreetly listened to singer/actor Mohammed Ramadan is already doing.

The phenomenon was in fact immediately noticeable among mahragan artists in the early 2010s. Oka & Ortega, who split for a while, were then working on ads for Royal Gel, Meatland, GtiDEmobile and Mobinil. For an expert of the Egyptian scene, there is nothing out of the ordinary in a context where the challenge of earning money has always been part of the ordinary, a fact that an often overly politicised analysis (making it a music of the proletariat) makes one forget: ‘They all came from the same social class … and from day one, they asked for money to perform at weddings.’ Only a very particular minority in the music industry, which is more privileged, refuses to go into advertising: ‘This refusal stems from alternative music […] where most of these bands came from the city centre [of Cairo, as opposed to mahragan artists from outlying districts] with this communist vibe.’

Producers’ Era and the Spread of Home Studios

Since then, behind these catchy new tracks, other ramifications of the world of music, media and advertising are revealed: the key actor of this production is not so much the traditional duet of melody maker and lyrics writer, but the producer. A new generation of the like of Ahmad Tarek Yahya, Ahmed King Wahid, Mostafa el Halawany, King Denzel (Mafdaagya) works closely with new types of stars – video directors, influencers and occasional singers, like Tameem Youness, author of the addictive ‘Track Al Moussem’ this year.

The advertising format has become a playground compared to other rigid music formats, as explains King Wahid – author of ‘Setto Ana,’ another hit of the year by TV presenter Akram Hosny. King started composing when working for an Egyptian TV show: ‘It used to be music for mutribin [singers with vocal skills], the advertising market was not as big as it is today, but I did not really enjoy it.’ However, it is a fast-paced domain where ‘we had 5 days to prepare everything, my role was to make two music tracks each week.’

This necessary speed has remained one of the most crucial skills in advertising production: ‘we have to film the shot the next day and the song is not even written yet. We have to write it, compose it and edit it in 24 hours.’ If Ramadan season speeds up the pace of advertising even more and implies a certain ‘Ramadanish’ spirit (‘somehow more emotional’ as summed up by an advertiser), the overall process is already constantly achieved just-in-time.

Therefore, one thing leading to another, professionalisation has increased, with young producers also equipping their studios with state-of-the-art equipment. Henceforth, these parodic tunes have their own logic: the era is no longer one of fan commercials starring the actress Hala Fakher, nor of SNL-style TV shows (such as the Melon City Show in Iraq) with hits’ lyrics rewritten in a satirical format. Another universe has emerged: social networks have been added to the usual visual means and home studio kids have reshuffled the cards.

Today, when the influencer Khaled Mokhtar makes a music video Akado Min in 2020 in honour of a mythical drink in Egypt, the sugarcane juice of street shops, the result is so convincing that it blurs the record. In a parody spiral starting with songs for soda brands in Egypt (the most important advertisements along with those for telecom operators), a recognisable style was created.

The era of Pepsi-sponsored celebrity songs is over, as is the era of the jingle with its DIY aesthetic and half-sung by movie stars rather than singers from the 1990s and 2000s – a shaky character further underlined by the only remaining sources, VHS excerpts made available on YouTube. Back then, none of the well-known Arab pop producers (Hamid el Shaeri, Tarek Madkour or Tarek Akef) worked on these jingles, which were left to the in-house musicians within Tarek Nour’s agency, or even to the founder himself.

Tarek Nour, the founder of this group with the iconic logo in Egypt, highly introduced in political milieus and spin doctor of the 2014 referendum, had a musical background. He was spotted in a creative frenzy on the piano in a portrait for Ricardo Karam’s show Hadisson Akhar  – a rare skill and sensitivity in the world of advertising that has subsequently become his trademark. ‘All Egyptians know Tarek Nour’s voice, his voice is featured in many advertisements and to have his voice was an extra cost,’ said Ahmed Tarek Yahya, who started his career at home as well.

The Advertising Market

This songs’ boom is also justified by the interest of advertisers themselves in this market estimated at almost $400 million in Egypt, where television remains the most important media . Music is a distinctive marker in a competitive market, witnessing new sounds that promise to bring novelty, and be accessible to certain (young) audiences and certain media: this has become the niche of Mohammed Wasfy, founder of the Bubblegum agency.

The agency produced one of the biggest hits of recent advertising, Zahra; it garnered 80 million views on YouTube, and became a song ‘that is even played in weddings.’ The song’s success had an unexpected magnitude, especially that it has a rather classic style, not pop-maharagan. Zahra was one of the titles that marked this new phenomenon, where songs have replaced jingles, and must be very original. This new trend is also confirmed by Yasmin Rassekh’s team working within the agency AB/TBWA in Cairo; she states: ‘We are moving away from the era when we used to choose an old famous song and change its lyrics, or create a jingle by simply singing the name of the brand.’

For both the client and the agency, using a song has several advantages: first, ‘Chances of “going viral” are bigger, and from clients’ point of view it is a less risky bet,’ according to Wasfy. The songs are adapted to the agencies’ new global strategies, with campaigns on several platforms at the same time: billboards, television, YouTube and Tiktok where you can redo the choreography. These songs are also a good tool to measure the success of a campaign; indeed, Yasmin Rassekh explains: ‘we read the comments, how people use the jingles and songs in their stories. Tiktok has become essential to see if something is going viral.’

Second, in the very process of going back and forth between the client and the agency, it is a practical step that will make it easier to form a strategy: compared to a classic filmed advertisement, ‘When you present the idea to the client, it is simpler for them to evaluate, we can already have the song before heading into production’, says Wasfy. Finally, the price is another essential reason. In fact, making a song is not expensive compared to the enormous budgets of certain ads, and producers, composers, and lyricists are not paid much compared to the stars. Moreover, making a new song costs a ridiculously low amount of money compared to the substantial prices of ‘synchronising’ a famous song.

The lyrics of the songs are written in the agency, and a producer is hired to compose the music (the latter often keep songs under their sleeve in anticipation). Yasmin Rassekh stresses on the order of things: ‘First the lyrics, then comes the decision of who sings them.’ Everything is designed for a certain segment of the population – classes A, B, C, D in the advertising jargon – and/or different regions of Egypt.

The last step, when applicable, is choosing the star who will be the face of the song. Mohammed Wasfy thinks, ‘The celebrity must correspond to the brand.’ These stars must also be convinced, both by an appropriate cachet and an interesting project for their career. Wasfy describes, for example, how he managed to convince actor Mohamed Saad of a counter-intuitive role, that ended up becoming a hit and a way for him to revive his career: ‘We had a vision he did not expect, but we brought him on board.’ This clearly shows that advertisements are not just about buying the sole presence of a star anymore, nor about putting money on the table to have the exclusivity of their latest song. Now, these stars also proudly display their ads in a dedicated section on their YouTube accounts, as an assumed part of their career.

Old Phenomenon/Phenomenon of the Future

These advertisements recall elements of the Egyptian identity and history, beyond the Tarek Nour jingles that Ahmed King Wahid ‘memorised them all’ and are among the first melodies he practised on his first instrument, ‘a small piano for children.’ Back in the days, the stars have always had affinities with advertising, first in print – Oum Kalthoum herself for perfume  – , then in films or on the radio. Today’s advertisements also recall a particular tradition of short, comic songs, interludes in plays: the monologât (monologues).

It is by immersing himself in this heritage that Ahmad King Wahid, for example, finds a certain inspiration ‘I could listen to a nouba, or music from Aswan as well as the monologues of Ismaïl Yassine or the sketches of Choukoukou.’ The tendency to create and listen to ditties, to something full of irony or even absurdity, rather than to serious and dignified musical frescoes, has in fact never ceased to be an essential part of Egypt, just like the famous songs from the movie Kaboria (1990).

In the same context, a few months ago, Lebanon mourned the death of Elias Rahbani, the third of the Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour, the two craftsmen of the modern Lebanese music canon and the singer Fairuz. Elias, the business-oriented member of the family, distinguished himself by specialising in less noble music, in Arabic, French and English; so much so that one of the resonant memories that surfaced on social media to celebrate his legacy after his passing was one of his advertisements for Barilla.

This so popular jingle then became a song for Sabah; a story that repeated itself with a Coca-Cola ad that became legendary in the United States in 1971 . It was also in Lebanon that a new type of career appeared in the 1990s, in the persona of the singer Haifa Wehbe, who became a singing star after appearing in ads.

Today, a new page is being written in Egypt in the special relation that the Arab world has with music and advertising. While the Barilla brand now offers playlists on Spotify for the exact duration of cooking each of its pasta types, in the Arab world the brands have already taken things to another level. They have their own songs on Spotify. While certain brands sometimes partner with stars for original news songs , what is happening in Egypt takes unique proportions and logic, for advertising itself creates a new pop aesthetic.

It is now spreading to full-fledged songs, such as the recent Onsa La Tonsa by Sola Omar, characterised by an ironic voice typical of advertising, and some are already getting ready for the next step. Ahmed Tarek Yahya now dreams of ‘being able to export these productions,’ have their musical type recognised and release long versions. This will mean an access to streaming platforms which would grant them copyright for these hits that have millions of lost views – because they are already advertisements and therefore cannot be ‘monetised’ by the interpolation of other ads on social media.