In a new release, Hagat wahshani (Things that I miss), musician Hazem Shaheen bounces between compositions and taqassim (Arabic melodic improvisations), bringing back distant memories related to musical form in particular and childhood in general.
“The idea of the album was to go back to things I miss,” says Shaheen. “Those include Alexandria, my hometown, the traditional taqassim that are not electronically generated, and many other things.” Hagat wahshani, also the album’s title track, is a twist on a poem by Bahaa Jaheen titled Mafish hagat wahshani (There is nothing I miss). Another piece is inspired by phrases from a song by Sayyid Darwish, the iconic figure in Egypt’s modern music history, titled Nahnu el arbageya (We’re the thugs). Shaheen also re-composes a piece from his adolescence where he uses the longua technique -a fast-rhythm melody that brings out the strength of Oud performance.
Hagat wahshani comes as part of a self-assigned quest by Shaheen to revive Arabic traditional musical forms and pay homage to its icons, like Darwish. Shaheen’s popularity grew as the frontman of Eskenderella, a group of young musicians and singers who revived and reworked Darwish’s songs while their preserving integrity. Most of the band members had been working in Bayt el Oud el Arabi (House of the Arabic Oud) and would meet to play music of their interest. The idea of forming a band came out of a coffeehouse get-together where they decided to move from their usual intimate settings and hit the stage to face an audience.
Eskenderella’s first concert in 2005 at el-Hanager theatre mostly featured works by Darwish and Sheikh Imam, a singer and composer who used colloquial language to reflect on the country’s political and economic concerns in the 1960s and 1970s. Eskenderella quickly developed, shifting between revivals of the nation’s classic tunes and ventures into new compositions. Using collective vocals, a piano, percussion and the Oud, the band members continuously delighted a wide range of listeners. “We play Sayyid Darwish because he is a master. He introduced a radical change in our music history and he respected the minds of his audiences,” Shaheen says. Bent over his Oud in a small sound-isolated rehearsal room, Shaheen spoke avidly about his band’s work. He is mainly responsible for Eskenderella’s music concepts and compositions. An honors graduate of the Higher Institute for Arab Music, Shaheen has been part of key Arabic music initiatives such as the Abdou Dagher music group. He also joined the Massar group, through which his music was first released in 2006 in the CD compilation El-eish wal malh, (Bread and salt).
For Eskenderella, playing the songs of Darwish not only pays tribute to his art, but also helps them remain faithful in reproducing it. “Only few people understood Sayyid Darwish and managed to reproduce his works the way he wanted,” says Shaheen, who also thinks that only a few artists like Ziad el-Rahbanni captured the spirit of Darwish when presenting his music. Phenomenal Arabic music traditionally transcended the boundaries of its original nation-state to become regional food for inspiration. So, as Egypt sang, Lebanon reproduced and re-distributed those songs.
But for the Cairo-based band, one of the essences they maintained in reproducing Darwish is collective singing, which characterizes the group. Traditional covers of Darwish are usually brought out by solo performances. Also, common reworkings of Darwish’s music tend to remove the Robe’ tone (quarter-tone), a subdivision of tones that differentiates the Arabic and Western musical scales.
“When we present the work of Sayyid Darwish as it is, this is renovation in and of itself,” says Shaheen, whose words prompted the approval of band member Salma Haddad, sitting next to him with an Oud in hand.
Shaheen does not agree with the common belief that contemporary popular taste would not favor their work. “In our first concert, we posted the names of Sayid Darwish and Sheikh Imam on the event’s poster. To our surprise, we found an audience that filled up the hall. When we started singing Um ya masry (Stand up Egyptian), people started singing with us right away. This is when we realized that the public wants this,” Shaheen says, playing on a common catchphrase – when today’s pop musicians release poor tasteless hits they usually justify it by saying, “the public wants this.” For Shaheen, Darwish “elevated himself to reach the ranks of the people.”
The successful experience of engaging with the public encouraged Eskenderella to venture into making original compositions, using the writings of poets Ahmad Haddad, Amin Haddad, Fouad Haddad and Salah Jaheen. “We started writing about issues that concern us. Most of them are contemporary,” he says. This was reflected in their audience; While their concerts used to attract older intellectuals, they eventually started bringing their children. “Then their children started coming alone and started bringing their friends,” says Shaheen. The introduction of the double-bass, a European instrument dating back to the 1500s and prevalent in modern fusions, demonstrates another side of Eskenderella’s dynamism. Looking ahead, the band has an eye on the production of musicals, whereby their music can be infused into a storytelling form. This model is usually effective in attracting a larger audience.
Shaheen feels that the public is as thirsty as his group is for fresh re-discoveries of Egypt’s musical repertoire. This is the driving force for Eskenderella, sometimes dubbed “a case of resistance through music”. “In our last concert in El Sawy Cultural wheel, we played a Sayyid Darwish song that we only recently discovered on a record. It dates back to 1914 and had been lost. We started playing the song and before we sang it, people started clapping. It felt like a revelation," says Shaheen.
Eskenderella’s upcoming concert shall be held on
Thursday, December 24 at 8:30 PM at, River Hall, Sawy culture Wheel