الجمعة، سبتمبر 19، 2008

Muslim, Coptic, Nubian...Yes, I am all that

Al-Ahram Weekly18 - 24 September 2008

Ana Masri bandAna Masri (I am Egyptian) is the name of both a song and a fairly new musical band. New, but famous enough to draw an audience of hundreds to their Ramadan concert in the British Council Garden in Agouza, adorned for the occasion with brightly-coloured lights and khayamiya.
Formed in 2005, Ana Masri is a very Egyptian band whose songs and Christian music reflect the distinctive national character and ensure its special identity. Most of the band's songs are written by the group's founder, Ihab Abdu. Almost half of Ana Masri's members are professional musicians, while a few are amateurs and, as such, possess a freshness that makes their music sound more spontaneous and entertaining. Unlike many bands that consist of four to five members, the number of musicians in this group is quite large: four or five musicians and ten or so singers. They sing with great enthusiasm and with a sincerity in which their belief in themselves shines through. "Ana Masri itself is a message to demonstrate the wealth of the Egyptian identity and how much we love and appreciate this diversity," Abdu says.
The warm, genuine and beautiful voice of Janine Zaki singing gospel songs strikes an original and different note. Her contribution to the genre is unprecedented in the modern history of vocals in Egypt. Her striking appearance and her darker skin give the impression of viewing an act that might have taken place here many centuries ago. The mix of her songs and the Sufi praise of Prophet Mohamed in the strong voice of Mohamed Ismail filled the air with a heady mood of national pride. While they were singing, a back screen showed pictures of churches and mosques and portraits of Egyptians in the street and the countryside, working women and the faces of children.
The idea of the band came about by mere coincidence. Abdu obtained a first degree in business administration from the American University in Cairo, and in 2004 went on to study for a master's degree in the same field in international development. Five years before he had helped found a non-governmental organisation called Fathet Kheer (Good Start), whose mission is to help underprivileged women in the working-class area of Qattamiya. Abdu also founded and directed Nahdet Al-Mahrousa, another NGO whose aim is to develop the social status of women. "I have been singing since I was a kid, especially old songs by Bairum El-Tunsy, Sayed Darwish and Fouad Haddad," Abdu says. In his university years he was able to take free Arabic singing lessons. His first encounter with an audience was in Ramadan 2005 when he appeared with Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy at Al-Azhar Park and performed his song "Ana Masri" for the first time. To his delight it was warmly received by the audience. Then he met Zaki, who was singing Coptic hymns at the Evangelical Church. "She clicked instantly with the spirit of the band, and then other members continued to join the group," Abdu says.
In addition to Islamic and Christian tunes and contemporary songs written by Abdu, the band's repertoire includes Egyptian heritage music such as Oum Ya Masri (Stand Up, Egyptian) by Sayed Darwish, as well as Nubian songs performed by the young Egyptian singer Mohamed Dawoud.
Abdu believes his band was born to fill a certain gap in the Egyptian artistic scene. "There is a fairly large number of music bands in Egypt, but I think we stand alone with our unique vision, and that's why we have overcome all these challenges and survived."
"In the 1970s and 1980s national songs were a lucrative business," Abdu says. "Since the beginning of this century, the sense of nationality has faded in contemporary songs, except for formal military feats like the Sixth of October. Yet they do it superficially, and they ignore the fact that our identity is really rich and diverse."
Ana Masri has played in several venues in Cairo and Alexandria, and their future plans include heading for Upper Egypt. "We want our message to be heard, especially [in Upper Egypt] where people have lost their respect and tolerance for the other, be it Muslim or Copt."
Zaki, who also sings with the Better Life band at the Evangelical Church, joined the band as a result of coincidence. She has sung in church since she was 17, but she still sees herself as amateur. Zaki, who studied theatre and mass communication and is a freelance filmmaker, agrees with Abdu that being Egyptian means being a mixture. "Egypt is for both Muslim and Christian people, and this unique diversity is what makes Egypt's rich cultural identity. We, Christians and Muslims, don't need to agree about religion. All we need to do is respect and tolerate our differences."
Zaki is well aware of the tolerance that existed in the past. In the 1920s her grandmother took dancing lessons from a Jewish teacher. "If I mentioned this small thing nowadays I would be cursed by both Muslims and Christians," she says. "Society has become more fanatic and intolerant than ever before, and this is what encouraged me to carry on with the band.
"It might seem odd to some people to see me singing gospel alongside an Islamic Sufi chanter, but my mom is very supportive, and she attends all the concerts."
Abdu complains that producers are not willing to produce and promote new songs, and bemoans the fact that in Egypt, which boasts dozens of new bands, only West Al-Balad has produced a single CD. "It's a shame," he says.
Zaki, however, is more optimistic, "Ana Masri is a mood that needs to be experienced," she says. "Roaming the remote areas of Egypt is what counts here, much more important than producing a CD. The band is evolving and new singers are joining us, and this ensures the richness of the band. I do not know exactly where we are heading, but I think we're doing well."
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