He’s been dubbed the Arab World’s hit-maker. As a singer, composer and producer he’s worked with some of the region’s biggest stars, has three albums to his name, and is currently working with Ace of Base on their big comeback. Enigma’s Omnia Zaied talks to Amr Mostafa, the future face of Middle Eastern music.
t was a perfect setting for a shoot: the heart of Cairo and the heart of the Mosque and School of Sultan Hassan. The moment we stepped into the serene space there was a palpable change in the demeanor of Amr Mostafa; singer, songwriter and composer of some of the most successful Arabic songs of the past decade. He slowly removed his Ray Bans and the somewhat preening behind-the-scenes star was no longer the “Arab World’s hit-maker” (as he’s often dubbed), or the talent behind blockbuster albums Ayami, Alama Fi Hayatek and El Kebeer Kebeer. He was no longer the in-demand talent who has worked with everyone from Amr Diab to Samira Saeed (a Timbaland for the Arab World) and most recently Ace of Base on their upcoming single All my Life. The father of two became, albeit briefly, a regular 30-year-old hanging out with newly made friends.
With one hand he salutes his fans and with a guitar in the other he guides us through the mosque, showing us places we never knew existed. “It’s only by going deep into our music and history that we’ll ever get to be international,” he says as we wander. “Just like when A.R. Rahman won an Academy Award for the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack last year. Why can’t we win an Oscar for an Arabic song next year?”
This crossing of international boundaries – fame, riches and accolades beyond the confines of the region – is a lofty ambition Mostafa has been harboring since he entered the industry in 1999. When Adel Omar, the famous lyricist and professor at the Faculty of Applied Arts at Cairo University, listened to a song Mustafa created as a student at Cairo’s Faculty of Law, he instantly gave him the lyrics of Khalik Fakerny to work on.
The song ended up being a massive hit for Amr Diab and turned the album Amareen into one of his biggest selling albums. That was the beginning of a journey that took Mostafa around the world and back to Cairo, with over 180 hits translated into Turkish, Indian, Russian and even Serbian.
It all started when Mostafa was at school and saved four pounds to buy a toy guitar. Back then, he couldn’t study without listening to music. “I used to listen to classical music and had a great admiration for Frank Sinatra,” he recalls. Mostafa put his musical prowess on the shelf until he went to college and started composing songs using nothing but his lips voice, as he couldn’t play any musical instrument.
Recognizing that he had a knack for composing, he bought a real guitar and set out to conquer the music world. “All I had were a couple of Gipsy King CDs, which I used to teach myself how to play music, even though I couldn’t even read a note,” says Mostafa.
Incredibly, he soon started working with superstars like Nawal El Zoghbi, Samira Saeed, Cheb Mami and Ragheb Allama, all while working with Amr Diab on one smash hit after another. But being a composer to the stars wasn’t enough. Like anyone with talent he wanted more, and felt trapped in certain music styles. “In the Arab world, if a certain genre of music proves successful, singers stick to it and are afraid to do anything new. That deprives Arab audiences from having the chance to become musically educated,” says Mostafa. “I wanted to make music the coming generation could identify with and feel proud of.”
Instead of waiting for artists to see the light, he decided to do it himself. In 2007 he released his debut album Ayami, which was a huge hit. It also led to his duet Law Fi Hayati with Hungarian singer Orshi Pflum, who had picked up his debut album in Dubai and contacted him. The song was big in 2008 and was followed by Mostafa’s second album Alamaa Fi Hayatak, which he worked on in four different countries. “Awel Maool was completely recorder in Spain, and the rest of the songs in Budapest, London and Turkey. I wanted to give the album an international feel and achieve the best quality possible,” says Mostafa. “In Egypt, even though we have some of the best studios, we don’t have people who can handle the equipment to their full potential. That was one of the reasons I started my Amr Academy eight years ago; to help unearth new talent and give them an opportunity. The academy has had great success so far, unearthing some great lyricists who have gone on to work with Amr Diab and Sherine.”
The hard work paid off with Awel Maool becoming the first Arabic song to land on Caribbean 2009, an annual CD featuring the top 30 hits in Spain produced by Universal Music. Mostafa went on to participate in a huge EMI project in the United States, together with uber-producer Rob Hoffman who has worked with stars like Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Timbaland. The project aims to bring together the best musicians from all over the world to produce an international sound and turn music into an international language.
Through the project Mostafa came face to face with the famous Swedish band Ace of Base, who were preparing for a comeback album to be released in September 2010. They went on to choose Mostafa for their mission. At the same time he produced his third album El Kebeer Kebeer, collaborating with Mostafa Sandal, the Turkish singer who made the Turkish version of the single El Kebeer Kebeer.
Now Mostafa is jet setting between Cairo and various other glamorous locations to prepare his fourth album. This one, he promises, will set the standards for quality and diversity. Every song will be recorded in a different country, created in collaboration with the best producers and infused with each country’s specific feel and culture. He is also preparing a daily TV show, Music Today, which he will co-host with the lyricist Ayman Bahgat Amaar, to shed light on the problems facing the music industry.
As our interview comes to a close, we wander back onto the streets of Cairo, he slips his Ray Bans back on and is a superstar in the making once again. A Middle Eastern maverick on a musical mission that’s about to go global.