Younger generations best know Egyptian singer, Talaat Zein, for his '90s hit “Ta’ala” (Come On) and a local rendition of Los del Rio’s one-hit wonder “Macarena," but the music career of Zein, who died at the age of 56 on Sunday, dates back to the early '70s.
Born in 1955 in the coastal city of Alexandria, Zein grew up listening to world music with his parents. He attended local concerts of Western music whenever he could and joined the “The Dreamers” band, which was formed by engineering students at Alexandria University.
But summertime was most exciting for the music aficionado. By the mid-'60s, a group of local bands, playing Western rock, pop and jazz covers began forming, and every summer, the top two bands - Les Petits Chats and Black Coats - played at the Salamlik and Haramlik at King Farouk's former palace in Montazah, Alexandria.
These concerts attracted large crowds of enthusiastic young fans, mostly from Egypt’s middle and upper classes. With their slick looks and fashionable clothes, the young band members became trendsetters.
“Every Friday, my cousins and I would dress up after spending a day at the beach and head as a group to Montazah to see Les Petits Chats perform live. The music was exuberating and we’d never miss a concert,” says Hazem Gamal, a 52-year-old engineer.
Formed in 1968, Les Petits Chats coalesced to include Wagdi Francis as lead singer and bass guitarist, Ezzat Abu Ouf on the keyboard, Omar Khorshed on the guitar and Omar Khairat on drums. One summer, as some of the members left, Zein was called on to sing with Les Petits Chats. In his first performance, he sang covers of James Brown. The dark-skinned young man with a unique voice and charming smile was warmly received by the audience and he was invited to sing with the band at the Cairo Sheraton Hotel.
"Our relationship was very strong and covers many years,” says Francis. “Zein had an imprint in the time he was with us in the band. He was funny, smart and kind. He never harmed anyone."
In 1982, Zein left the band and experimented with a number of ventures. He was the main performer at the Piano Piano Bar. Former Les Petits Chats member Abu Ouf asked Zein to participate in the 1995 music video “Rag’een” (We’re Coming Back) with Amr Diab. This move garnered Zein mass popularity and attracted music producers' attention, as Diab was one of Egypt's top singers.
Nassif Kazman produced three albums for Zein, titled "Tiki Ta," “Rag’een” and "Macarena.". Several songs became hits, including “Ya Mostafa, Ya Mostafa” and "Tiki Ta." Zein, however, was not able to produce his own songs and featured more in films in his latter years, before disappearing due to his illness.
In 1998, he played the role of former President Anwar Sadat in the biopic “Gamal Abdel Nasser” and got a role in the popular adventure film “Africano” in 2001.
"He was a really good singer; as for his roles in cinema, he could have been utilized more with the talent he had,” Francis says.
"I can recount many stories of his time with us, but now is not the time for that. All I'll say is that the scene we're in, that which performs Western music, lost a lot with the passing of Talaat."