This is part one of an interview with Youssra El Hawary a singer/songwriter from Cairo, Egypt. Currently touring the United States through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs’ Centre Stage Program (which is also funded by the New England Foundation for the Arts) Hawary first came to the world’s attention in 2012 through her self produced video of the song “El Soor” (The Wall).
Adapted from the poem of the same name by Walid Taher it resonated with people and soon became a symbol of the Cairo street protests against then President Mubarak’s corrupt regime. In 2017 Hawary and band released their first full album of music (previously singles had been available on Soundcloud and Bandcamp) – No’oum Nasyeen. While her current tour is half over, she still has four dates left in October and you can find the remaining times and locations at her page on the Centre Stage website.
(One further note – at Youssra El Hawary’s request I’ve edited her answers. As English isn’t her first language she asked me to make changes as required.)
Can you tell us a little about yourself – where you’re from that sort of thing – people over here probably aren’t that familiar with you.
I’m 34 years old and live in Cairo, Egypt. I was born and raised in Kuwait because my father (as many Egyptians) moved to work there in the seventies. Then I moved to Egypt at the age of ten.
I am a singer/songwriter and an accordionist. I started in theatre as an actress and singer in 2006. I have also worked as a radio host and producer for a music show on Nogoum FM Radio station in Cairo for two years (2014-2015)
Why music? Did you come from a musical family or is this just something you felt pulled towards on your own?
I have loved music since I was a kid, I had a small keyboard and managed to play anything I heard. My parents received a letter from my school advising them to take care of my musical talent, that’s why I started learning piano at the age of eight. I studied classical music on piano and music theory (following the curriculum of the ABRSM).
I stopped the lessons and exams when I became busy with high school and university. I studied set design for theatre and cinema at the faculty of fine arts in Cairo.
I’m assuming you’re asked this a lot but I’ll be unoriginal and ask anyway – why the accordion?
At the time I was graduating from university, I felt, I am missing music, especially after I started performing with Altamye theatre group. However, I was thinking of playing an instrument aside from piano, so I could move with it. By chance, I found an old toy accordion at my parent’s place. I played with it a bit and this is when I thought: Why don’t I play accordion?
I took the decision and bought a new one, I started teaching myself as I couldn’t find anywhere to learn accordion in Cairo, especially since I was more interested back then in the western style of playing accordion, like Italian and French.
I quickly fell in love with it, an instrument that stands by its own and doesn’t need any accompanying instruments. The sound that comes out of it is already rich, with the rhythm and melody played at the same time, and it looks and sounds charming.
There is also the fact that it is loud and doesn’t need microphones made it an ideal instrument for playing int the street. I also like the fact it has to do with cultures associated with traveling and moving and its ability to help tell stories.
I also like how the sound of the accordion changes from one style of music to another as if it is a totally different instrument. Like when you hear it playing the Argentine tango, the French musette, the Brazilian forro, or Balkan and Oriental music.
Why travel to France to study that instrument – was it a particular style you were looking to learn or a sound that attracted you?
I was not looking for a school in France in particular, I was looking for an accordion school period. It turned out they’re not easy find, I wanted to learn the techniques and secrets of the instrument more than learning music writing or doing a masters degree in music at an university.
After some searching I discovered the school Cnima J. Mornet had what I was wanted. While there I managed to learn other styles of playing, not only the French Jazz manouch, but also Latin and Balkan. Also, because it is located in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere, it gave me the chance to focus on music and improve.
Listening to your music I can hear everything from Edith Piaf type songs to more Eastern European influenced, Romany and Klezmer for instance, music. “Jessica” in particular reminds me of songs I’ve heard from Romania. What are your musical influences?
I think everything that I have listened to in my life affects the music I make. The music I used to listen to in my childhood which was played by my parents and relatives in Kuwait and Egypt, mostly Arabic pop or old Egyptian songs.
In my teenage years I was a fan of Michael Jackson then moved onto rock and spent quite a long time listening to Queen and the Doors. I then moved onto jazz and was interested in learning jazz scales and structure. As I said before I learned to play classical music when I was young.
Of course after I started playing the accordion I was curious to listen to accordion music from around the world, and all that was added to what I heard when I was in France. All of those things have contributed to the mix you are talking about. Also when I work with my band, we usually work on the arrangements together in a collaborative way, and each one of them has a different musical background that can be sensed in the music later.
Have there been any musicians in particular who’ve influenced you more than others?
No, but let me say that I am always interested in following the path of each artist I like. I like to observe how they started, how their music changed after success and what happened later and how their later works sound.
I admire characters like Nina Simon and Joan Baez even though I don’t like all their tracks. I love to see them performing, how honest and emotional they get when they perform. I love how powerful Freddie Mercury is on stage.
You first came to international attention with your song El Soor (The Wall) which is associated with the Cairo protests of 2012. How did the creation of that song come about?
The lyrics of this song were written by Walid Taher in 2006, and he published it as a poem in a book in 2009. I have read it many times but when I read it again in 2012 I was inspired to put the words to music. It had a new, different, meaning to me when I linked it to the walls that were being built in downtown Cairo (around Tahrir square) to prevent people from moving freely in the area and block the roads to the square.
It was one month after my first performance, and I could never imagine that it would receive all that attention. Everything happened in a week, I recorded it with my friends Sedky and Shadi. (who are now members in my band and the three of us were members in the theatre group I’ve mentioned) My friend Sara Yahia filmed the music video and I edited it on my laptop. I posted that on Youtube not expecting anything.
There were and are musicians who consider themselves politically active – in that there songs address certain social and political issues; injustices they see around them. Because of El Soor people might assume your music is politically/socially motivated. How do you define yourself?
I know that I get defined as a revolutionary artist, but personally I don’t believe there is such a thing, for me the revolutionary song is not the song that talks about a revolution and the revolutionary artist is not the artist that talks about politics all the time.
The revolutionary artist is the artist who can be honest and daring, that can be independent and manage to make and produce music their own way, that doesn’t give up or change because of the society or the music market.
They are the artists who are capable of giving an honest image of their place and time so at the end they can show you the reflections of the political situation in an indirect way. I never think ahead about what I am going to express in my next song, I just get inspired by my daily life in Cairo and my friends, family and relationships. My songs talk about love, about the street, about my dreams and questions, and I try my best to be honest.
(Part two of the interview with Youssra El Hawary can be found here