The Lel Wa Ain Interview

Marching to the Beat of a Different Derbouka

The new world is as yet behind the veil of destiny.
In my eyes, however, its dawn has been unveiled.

~Allama Muhammad Iqbal

If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.

~Emma Goldman

I’m amazed at the similarities between the changes in the music economy being made in Egypt and those emerging in Canada; a tremendous amount of cleverness is now being channelled into rejecting the conventional star-maker machinery that rarely succeeds in promoting cultural development. Musicians themselves are coming up with ways in which they and their fellow musicians can make at least a modest living, as opposed to a system in which a chosen few get all the golden stars.

The models are different, based on the exigencies of the moment and the cultural and societal contexts, but the will is there to forge a new world of music. It may be less sensational, but it is more innovative and truer to the real needs of real artists, whose most urgent desire tends to be to continue to do what they love.

What role did the Egyptian Revolution play in all of this?

The musicians’ commitment to freedom is nothing new. Although media reports have suggested that the revolution changed the way musicians thought about music and encouraged alternative forms and political subjects, the opposite is true. In fact, alternative forms, a love of freedom, and political lyrics predated the revolution by decades and provided the cultural impetus to launch it and keep it alive.

The difference now is that the audience for such music has expanded greatly as media coverage of alternative bands and performers has become more common and enthusiastic. Those who wish to support homegrown music and creative freedom aren’t weirdoes and saboteurs anymore—they’re the trendsetters. There are fewer, if any, repercussions for singing openly about the need for justice and equality or for criticizing the establishment.

The new Cairo music scene showcases local musical traditions that blend in foreign genres. One example is mahragan (“festival music”), which is also called electro-sha’bi. Sha’bi originated in Algeria and developed separate traditions all over North Africa. It’s popular at weddings, with its hard, driving rhythms and ecstatic and loud delivery. This tradition is always in flux, and international elements are constantly being added to it, lending it vibrancy and relevance.

Taqwacore, the name for Muslim punk, originally had a presence all over the world (including North America). Now it’s faded a little into the background, but this tends to happen when societies open up and become more democratic (punk in the US had its heyday during the Reagan years).

Since 2006 the annual SOS Music Festival, the brainchild of Cairo jazz guitarist Ousso, has been providing free admission to audiences of 15,000 for eight hours of superlative performances by acts carefully chosen for their willingness to keep it real. Because the musicians are there to promote themselves and each other, they share resources like equipment and technical skills and services. Homegrown acts play alongside bands from other Middle Eastern countries, and reggae, rock, and jazz are was right up there with rai and sha’bi.

The new music horizon is no bed of roses. There is still uncertainty and a lack of resources, along with the perennial temptation to sell out. Worse, there is no music education in public schools, even though it’s been proven that arts education enhances academic performance in all areas. There’s also a lack of infrastructure to support alternative music. But judging by the ingenuity demonstrated by dedicated music activists, this is all changing.

Back in 2012 Nour Eldin Nageh Ali, composer and vocalist for the Lel Wa Ain band in Cairo, took the time to talk with us about his personal musical development, the band, and the effect of the 2011 revolution on the Egyptian music industry.

lelwaain2Prior to the “Day of Rage,” Nour had fought long and hard to make a niche for himself in the commercial recording industry, composing songs for big music studios. But when one studio wouldn’t pay him for some of his material that they’d recorded, it left a bad taste in his mouth. He began moving in a new direction.

In the beginning it wasn’t easy to persuade good musicians to take a big risk and strike out on their own. “My start was actually in 2008,” remembers Nour. “I started my band with an oud player and drums. I tried to recruit other musicians, but everyone wanted a big record contract. I waited for around three years to make the band I have now. Like the other independent bands, we had to build a base of supporters for our music.”

Nour’s disappointment with the commercial music world paved the way for his rapid acceptance of the kinds of new music business models that are now springing up all over the world. Just as in North American folk music circles we see ingenious ideas being implemented to replace the traditional recording contract, so also the Egyptian musical world is learning to find ways to support alternative music by means of audience support. This allows the proceeds of CD and ticket sales to remain largely within the pockets of the musicians themselves.

But in order to make this work, you need to have a fan base.

The 2011 political revolution in Egypt had significant cultural repercussions. There had long existed an underground music scene in Egypt, but its lack of widespread support kept it from thriving or having any marked influence on the culture at large.

“I don’t think Egyptian music changed in response to the revolution,” Nour says, “but more ordinary people started listening to underground music.”

Lel Wa Ain, like other independent musicians and groups that had long accepted anonymity as their lot and who’d grown accustomed to struggle and poverty, now found themselves the happy recipients of media coverage and an upsurge of gig requests. A fan base grew quickly from among the native Egyptians and the foreigners who lived among them. But the infrastructure for the growth of this sector of the music industry was not there, and without it independent music remained clandestine.

Conventional models of music creation and promotion are designed to make more money for the lelwaain3upper turrets of the music industry than for musicians, supporting just enough superstars to make a music career seem so attractive to up-and-coming musicians and composers that they’re willing to give over too much money and control to the enterprise. But in Cairo, several independent entertainers decided to extend their maverick approach from making music to making a living.

“There’s a great guitar player in Cairo now,” says Nour, “called Ousso. He has a diploma in guitar from America and he plays in Eftekasat, the most incredible jazz band in Cairo. Ousso had a unique idea that ended up being good for all of us. His idea was to have an underground concert. He came up with a really good business model to make this happen. It was called the S.O.S. Music Festival. Because of it, the underground bands in Cairo got more famous. The musician takes 50 per cent of the money.”

“When the revolution came it actually gave us more opportunities, even television exposure. It was an amazing experience for me, the first time I sang before millions of viewers—something I had only dreamed of.”

Listen Global, Play Local

“I love our Egyptian music,” says Nour Eldin Nageh Ali, “[but] I also love Western genres like jazz, blues, and reggae. I like to blend them together and I also like to find ways to mix all of these with Oriental and Sufi music.”

Nour is the composer and vocalist for Lel Wa Ain, a Cairo-based underground band composed of extraordinary musicians with a penchant for bending rules and blending an assortment of musical genres, wedding them to traditional Egyptian musical forms to produce a sound that’s lively, intense, and brilliant.

There’s also a dimension of social concern to the band’s lyrics and personal beliefs, but this consciousness comes across as difficult and hard-won, born of a determined struggle within a school of hard knocks.

Getting to Mastery

In the Egyptian educational system, musically gifted children don’t have the opportunity to study music in public school; if they wish to prepare for a university program they must rely on private lessons from professionals. Students who are poor or simply want to learn how to play can try to entreat free lessons from older musicians.

“I remember in elementary school,” says Nour, “we received one music lesson—from the math teacher. I’ll never forget what she told me: ‘Music is rhythm and tune together.’

“Later I paid for music lessons from a teacher here in Cairo. Around that time I decided to play guitar, but I needed money for lessons. I found one guy in my town who taught me for free how to play and to read music. I learned by ear and started to go to the streets in Cairo to play. That’s how I learned to play the guitar.”

As soon as he’d gained sufficient experience with different instruments, Nour began working with other musicians.

Eventually he achieved his dream of acceptance in a university music program. But it wasn’t the Utopia he’s expected; his autodidact life had accustomed him to a degree of liberty frowned upon by academia.

“When I studied music at the university,” he confesses, “I argued with the professors. I asked them why I had to study math and psychology and Arabic when I’d gone there to study music. They told me that if I didn’t come to every class I wouldn’t have enough points to graduate.

“They acted like they were gods—if they didn’t like you, you couldn’t succeed—and they didn’t like me. They didn’t like my attitude, my long hair, or the fact that I always wore a hat.

“One day a teacher told me to take off my hat; when I refused, she tried to take it from my head. Soon after that I left the college. Then I left home, telling my father I wouldn’t return until I’d made something of myself.”

Freedom of Expression

“In many countries they’re not interested in hearing Eastern music because they don’t understand it,” Nour says. “I want to make it more accessible. The attractive thing about Oriental music is the improvisation.”

In the West we tend to think of improvisatory music as the exception rather than the norm, but in fact on the world music stage Western notated music is the anomaly. Egyptian music is just one example of a traditional form that encourages musicians to elaborate in original ways within certain parameters. This emphasis on creative freedom communicates to the political sphere as well.

The Legacy of Mohamed Mounir

“There is a tradition of songs here in Egypt that talk about fighting, corruption, politics, dictatorship, and democracy. When I was a child these kinds of songs were very important. There’s one singer who’s really famous for this kind of song—Mohamed Mounir. He started making songs in 1979 . . . [his] second album was really nice, so people started to buy.

“Mounir also developed a new musical genre in Egypt by mixing African with Oriental music and introducing elements of blues and hard rock, local music, [and] jazz.

“It’s not only about the music—it’s about the lyrics too. He talked about deep subjects, not like in commercial music. In the early ’90s he was talking about some really bad stuff happening in Egypt, how people suffered, especially the poor people. He motivated the people to be alive again, to move against the old regime.

“The government tried to stop him from singing. He was outside of Egypt for a while. He wasn’t exiled, but the government was really angry with him so he left for his own safety. He’s a very cultured person, with great knowledge. And he cares about people; he gives concerts for a cheap price.”

Music means to me eternal life, freedom, the extreme expression. I’ll die without music. Music kills the barriers and lifts the soul to a very, very high degree.

~Cairo musician Ousso




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