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Youssra El Hawary
Photo by Fouad El Batrawi

Interview: Youssra El Hawary – Egyptian Singer/Songwriter Pt.2

(This is the second part of a two part interview with Egyptian singer/songwriter Youssra El Hawary. Part one can be found here)

You started out as a solo act and now you work with a band – how did that evolve and what brought you all together?

After Shadi and Sedky joined me in the recording of El Soor, they started playing with me on some songs at subsequent concerts. After we started getting more shows. we formed a band along with our Belgian friend Carl Cappelle who plays the mandola and used to live in Cairo.

Other musicians joined later, some left and some were replaced, but I still perform solo from time to time. I enjoy solo shows because I feel more free to improvise and add some story telling to the show. Two years ago when we started working on the album, we worked on the arrangements collectively and they had so much input in the music.

In North America we’re used to musicians putting out albums as soon as their careers start. So I was somewhat surprised to hear that No’oum Nasyeen was your first album. Was there any specific reasons or was it a combination of factors that prevented you from recording and releasing something earlier?

I just didn’t think about it when I started because I didn’t care about building a musical career. I didn’t think of it that way and I didn’t find it important. All I cared about was performing and writing songs. I recorded my tracks professionally in a studio but used to post them on soundcloud and youtube as singles once they were done. I also felt that I was still taking my first steps and trying out new things and sounds.

However, when I felt I had reached something, a sound that I liked, then I felt, I need to put it in one place and it needs to be archived. Also, I needed to be able to move on to other experiments and projects.

I chose to include the latest songs I wrote on the album, those that which had not been performed that much and had not been recorded as singles before. I didn’t want to disappoint our fans by releasing an album of tracks they already knew. There are only two songs from my early in my career ( rehet el foraa’ and Jessica) but I added them because there were never recorded in a studio before.

An album is a huge project that needs time, preparation, dedication and money. If I can’t give it my all than I prefer to postpone it until I am ready.

I saw you crowdfunded the album – how was that experience for you?

I will always be proud that I was able to set this example for Egyptian artists, of a project completely and successfully crowdfunded and released, regardless of how successful it goes on to become. Just creating this path so other artists can think of it later is enough for me.

I have to say that it was also a very exhausting process, emotionally and physically and that it needs a lot of work aside from the work of the album itself. I am of course happy that people have trusted me and were excited enough to help me in producing the album and I hope I made them proud of what they’ve made.

You said the album’s creation was a collaborative effort – how did that work?

Normally I write the song, sometimes I write the lyrics, or I get inspired by the lyrics of a friend or a poem I read somewhere. Then after I am done with composing I meet with the band and I play the song for them. I offer some suggestions, but they also share their thoughts and ideas, and they start adding the melodic lines of their instruments. We keep working together until we reach something we admire.

Youssra El Hawary
Photo Credit Khaled Marzouk
We have arguments, but we are lucky enough that we haven’t had fights (so far). Also we were joined by Adham Zidan the producer when we started working on the album. We never had anyone from outside hear the music and guide us before and he helped us a lot in the process of finishing the tracks and recording the album. He has been working with us ever since then.

Can I ask you to talk about a couple of the songs from the album? For us non-Arabic speakers the songs sound musically wonderful but we don’t know what they’re about. How about a summery of what “On The Street” and “Sallem ‘Aal Beit” are about?

You can find the translation of the songs on Centre Stage website

Is this your first time touring in the US? Have you any plans to maybe come up north to Canada? I know this was funded by Centre Stage and touring is bloody expensive so that might not be feasible.

I never plan for a tour, as you said it’s very expensive and I can not afford that. I always get invited by venues or programs. So I don’t really have a say on where to go next!

What’s next – plans for a new album, touring etc.?

Surprisingly I am now interested in the oriental accordion that has quarter tone in it. It is made manually in Egypt by literally ruining the reeds inside a normal chromatic accordion so you can get the sound of a quarter tone. There are only few people left that know the secrets of doing that! I am studying Arabic scales now and working on a project that involves jazz styles with Arabic scales. I am not ready for a new album yet, I think I need time.

North American news from the Middle East isn’t want I’d call dependable, and maybe this is an unfair question and you can’t answer it, but what happened in Egypt? It appears to us that the vacuum left by Mubarak’s removal was just filled by more of the same? Is that fair or simply an oversimplification?

Yeah it is true that the situation is much more complicated then Mubarak’s time, and that we have a more aggressive and violent regime. I am sad to witness the days where websites are being blocked and screenings get canceled and venues get closed. Or people being arrested for a word they say or a song they make or for a post on facebook and sometimes without any logical reasons. We had high hopes and lived the dreams of freedom but I admit that we were also naive to believe that the change can happen in few years.

I know musicians who have left Turkey because they don’t feel safe anymore. Because of your association with the protests of 2012, and just the fact that you’re a musician, have you ever felt like you might be under threat?

I have never had a direct problem with the government, never been arrested or threatened. However, you can sense the constraints we have as independent artists that make it impossible sometimes to organize a concert. You have to pay a lot of money to get permits and you have to go through stupid procedures and you always have the risk that your concert might be canceled for any reason.

I had friends in prison and sometimes I feel scared, but up till now I still don’t want to leave Cairo as its my favourite city and my place of inspiration. I have dreams and hopes and I prefer to live my life with the hope that things will change. I also believe that the world is getting crazier every day which make it less safe everywhere but just in different ways.

(Youssra El Hawary is currently touring the US with her band. You can find the times and locations of her remaining tour dates here. If you have the opportunity, check out her performance. Judging by the album, No’oum Nasyeen, the opportunity to see Youssra El Hawary perform live shouldn’t be missed.)

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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