Wagih Aziz's sharp voice echoed recently through an old theater in the heart of the city, striking a nerve with an audience of hundreds of Egyptians who face an uncertain future in a country overwhelmed by poverty and political disillusionment.
"Speak out loudly and ask seriously with me," he sang, accompanied by his lute. "Are we alive or dead . . . ?"
A counterweight to vacuous pop songs, the acoustic Aziz, 47, probes his nation's repressive conditions with sparse lyrics and simple chord changes. Limning frustration, apathy, alienation and bewilderment, the tall, slim singer delves into the anxiety that gnaws at his countrymen.
"Nobody knows where we are heading. We are all tense," Aziz said after a recent concert. "Egypt comforts neither the rich nor the poor. Corruption affects everybody. . . . The rich may live in better houses than the poor, but at the end of the day they both suffer from similar problems. Even the rich do not know what awaits them on the political or the economic level."
His music is praised by activists and intellectuals who regard him as a champion of the marginalized.
This year, Aziz was invited by the residents of Qorsaya island to perform as part of a protest against government attempts to evict them and turn the island into a tourist site. Such initiatives are rare in the Middle East, where freedom of expression is tenuous and bloggers and Facebook activists can end up in jail.
"If you want to hear a song that expresses your dashed hopes in this country or your boredom with anything in life, you need to listen to Wagih Aziz," read a column in an independent local newspaper after the release of Aziz's latest CD.
The singer's appeal is widening, drawing in youths from different social classes. His new CD's hit song, "A Piece Is Missing," was perceived by critics as a candid portrayal of Egyptians, nearly half of whom live on less than $2 a day.
"Aziz is the only singer who expresses the confusion of the Egyptian citizen now," said Ibrahim Issa, editor of the independent newspaper Al Dustour and a prominent government critic. "This confusion is caused by the political conditions based on oppression and coercion and by poverty and economic deterioration.
"He takes the words that people on the street use in their daily conversations and turns them into songs . . . that reflect the realities of his time in an honest way."
Aziz began lute lessons at age 14 in his hometown in Upper Egypt. "I became confused. I asked myself, 'Is it just a game or a hobby, or could it be taken for a profession?' " he said.
Amid resistance from his parents and his fear of failure, Aziz, an accountant by training with no ties to religious movements or political parties, struggled with whether to become a professional musician.
"Given my culture, I thought I should have a real job and take music as a hobby," he said. "In the beginning, I tried to stay away from music because I was scared of coming to Cairo, as I did not know anyone here. . . .
"So I tried to work in any other field, but I could not. Finally, music pushed me to take the risk and come to Cairo."
In the city, Aziz joined the prestigious Arab Music Institute to study Oriental music. Besides writing songs for himself, Aziz composed about 200 melodies for movie soundtracks, plays and a few prominent Egyptian singers.
Aziz's notes reverberate in an atmosphere thick with fear of social explosion. Despite President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian grip, Egypt has been rocked by protests and labor strikes over skyrocketing inflation and tough living conditions. His music hits these chords, but Aziz denies that his songs stoke passion for revolt, or that he is a political singer.
His lyrics are more metaphorical than invective. In "Fake," he sings: I cannot foresee the future or even see the past. . . . I cannot decide whether this is disaster or a normal situation. I cannot differentiate between a child and an old man. Is this man asleep or just discreet and full of rebellion? Are we the same people or are we all confused?
"I don't mean to influence people. I believe influencing listeners is a cheap undertaking. It is a form of blackmailing," said Aziz, who performs a few concerts a year, mainly in cultural centers and theaters. "I just say words that any other Egyptian would like to say. . . . I don't like inciting songs. I only prefer to raise questions in my songs."
He sings in another song: Poke me, perhaps I will wake up and speak in both colloquial and classical language. . . . Make me laugh, perhaps I will dream, make a change, express what I am hiding.
He acknowledges that his songs seek to resurrect self-esteem. "The only thing that I wish to move in people is their human dignity," Aziz said. "If I retrieve my self-esteem, I will automatically refuse a lot of things. I won't accept different forms of mistreatment. In fact, we have made concessions on many things, which implied daily humiliations."
In "A Piece Is Missing," he sings: Every time I add a new piece, I realize that there is still a piece missing. When I get a shirt, I lose a jacket. I keep telling myself that one day I will be happy But I hope when that day comes, I will still have a spirit to feel happy.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report.