In Conversation with . . . Lel Wa Ain
Volume 21 Issue 19 2013-05-24
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.”
(To be continued.)
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