This article was recently published in Discord Magazine.
I’m particularly happy about the title of this article already. Not only because it’s about Mohammed Ali of the band Salalem – named after the stairs where the band practiced at university – but also because Mo Ali (aka Walkman) was my first step into the band’s inner workings.
Walkman is a few heads taller than yours truly, but because he bends his tall and lanky frame as he smiles, he does not appear to tower above. He is all humility and modesty. Like the band’s name, his own moniker comes from his university days. “I used to listen to music through my walkman device. My colleagues started to call me Mohammed Walkman, and that’s it ! Very cliché!”
It was only in 2005 when the band was to perform in El Sawy Culture Wheel, that they had to think of a name. “Since we were jamming on the stairs of the faculty’s building, we decided that we will name it Salalem, which means stairs in Arabic.”
Even when they had no stairs to name them, the group had jammed together singing covers of Gypsy Kings. In 2005 as a bunch of university colleagues, they coalesced on the factulty stairs, with Mo Ali (guitars, vocals) joining Amr Geuoishy (guitars) and Osama Saad (guitars, vocals). As you can tell they were a guitar-heavy band. Later Mohamed Jamal the lead vocalist , Ezz Shahwan the bassist and Sherif Nabil the drummer joined the group, and the rest as they say, is music. (You weren’t expecting that twist, were you?)
The musical powers that be in university were not very inclined towards Salalem. “[They] were only interested in Classical Arabic music, the type of music we couldn’t produce on that time because we only had guitars!” says Mo Ali.
And with characteristic honesty he adds, “We wanted to do our own music. Classical Arabic music…was boring for us.”
The title track of their debut album released in 2011 is also about a man bored out of his mind. Kelma Abee7a (A Nasty Word) is “about an individual stuck in his daily living, bored of the daily system.” It sounds like he may be giving up, says Ali, and is wondering what to do to the extent he is about to say a nasty word.
“…In a funny way,” adds Mo Ali, who has composed the lyrics for this and most songs for Salalem. He keeps his lyrics light, but with a slight hint of sarcasm.
“Most of the songs are about social criticism. We sing for the individual and we criticize whatever is going wrong with a sense of sarcasm. We really do believe that we as Egyptian can make jokes , so why don’t we make people smile while listening to us , even if we are tackling a problem within the song! We should laugh!”
If anything, the band keeps it interesting. Often they appear onstage toted in hats and sunglasses with colorful frames. “Sometimes we have to be like clowns,” says the Walkman, “because we do believe we are on stage to entertain our audience, as if they are watching a feel good movie.”
In fact, the Hakuna Matata is not just a put-on, it goes into a deeper philosophy. “I really do believe that we should be positive,” says the singer-songwriter. “We never know what will happen in the future , we only have the present time and the plans of the future are not guaranteed.”
“Change is the key, and I wrote – along with Mohammed Fayez – a song about that called, “El Donya Ooda” (Life is a Room.) It says, if life is a room, just change its decoration, you will feel positive. The song is to be released in Salalem’s second album next summer
His pen has turned not only towards lyrics but also to poetry, and Mo Ali has already finished writing his first book. The collection of poems called “Ana Sa3eed” (I’m Happy) includes most of Salalem’s songs and a few more, and is slated to be published soon
“I don’t see myself as a poet,” says an ever-modest Mo. “I am just a songwriter who is trying to deliver some choruses and bridges in Salalem’s tunes.” And in line with his humility, he does not have a grand message to deliver through his work. “It is just a product of what I have experienced in my life and how I see things as an individual. I just want to keep it simple,” says Mo, “When you listen to my lyrics, you can create your own philosophy about them.”
But we will wrangle one secret out of him yet. When not playing with the band, you will often find Mo Ali lurking in Al Kotob Khan in the shape of a bookworm.
“Of course, it’s hard always to make a living out of music only , thats why I wanted to have another income . By coincidence it was the book shop!”
“It was the only place where I could go and work. My boss was always aware of the fact that I am a musician and my band is my priority.”
But books do come to a close second. “I do love books, and I can’t deny that working at the bookshop put me in contact with the cultural life in town. It helped me understand what people are looking for, what are their interests and what do they read. At a certain point, I could understand someone’s personality through the book he is asking for.”
Just for kicks, I’ll be at the bookstore soon, asking for a new release, “Ana Sa3eed.”
Special thanks to Rachel Adams for the picture.