It’s often said that listening to songs by the great Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish, one could easily determine the mood on the Egyptian street at the beginning of the 20th century.
Eighty-five years after his death, Darwish’s music is like a time machine, taking the listener to a dramatically different place. What’s more astonishing is how this immortal collection of songs has lost none of its relevance, command or charm.
Darwish’s songs, along with a selection of tunes composed by Sheikh Imam and others written by the revered Lebanese poet Fouad Hadad, were resurrected via an astounding performance by the young folk musical outfit Eskenderella last Wednesday at the Sawy Cultural Wheel.
Formed in December 2005, Eskenderella have steadily gathered a large group of enthusiastic followers of their innovative versions of classic folk songs ­- hidden gems are introduced to the young audience hardly familiar with them.
Preceded by an intro composed by the band’s lead singer and oud player Hazem Shahin, the concert kicks off with the soaring “Al Arbageya (The Thugs), the first of the Darwish covers of the evening.
“Arbageya is an archetypal Darwish tune about corruption, tyranny of the rich (particularly members of the monarchy) and the honor of the pettiest of criminals. Darwish presents a plight to understand and pardon these criminals that are one of many outcomes of society. Despite its serious theme, Shahin and co. preserve the sarcastic, light tone of Darwish’s music, which sounds much like a sonic caricature.
“Al Waretheen (The Successors) and “El Bent Maa Geditha (Girl with Her Grandma), on the other hand, are pure fun. At the center of these two songs are a bunch of young women: flirty, voluptuous, and spoilt yet gullible. Poet Bade’a Khairy and young lyricist Ahmed Hadad paint a world where the primary concerns of the young females are amorous rendezvous and mouth-watering desserts.
The songs subtly ridicule the girls, but both the melodies and the lyrics are so jubilant and downright endearing that they ultimately evolve into a tribute to Egyptian women with all their beauty and misgivings.
Both songs showcase the talents of singers Samia Jahin and Aya Hemeida. The two starlets nearly steal the show with their highly expressive body language, playful gestures and melodic delivery, which captures the spirit of the 20s.
With El Sheikh Imam’s signature song “El Bahr Beyedhak Lieh (Why is the Sea Laughing), a grand, but intimate picture of Egypt is completed. What emerges at the end of the song is a world with boundless optimism and joy transpiring from wretched conditions and political instability. A world where women are unafraid to openly celebrate their femininity, and men meeting their affection with equal respect and unadulterated delight. A world of horse-drawn carriages, old buildings, slinky dresses and funny-looking tarbushes where life was too valued to squander.
“Ala Gabal El Shouk El Ramadany (Atop the Ramadan Mountain of Desire) is a witty and amusing ode to the eternal passion of the Egyptian poor for meat.
“Rabha steers the show in a slightly somber direction. A short mawaal written by Ahmed Nour and composed by the group’s singer/oud player Shadi Mou’nis, the song captures images of suffering outlined by subtle messages of injustice.
“El Ghassala (The Washing Machine) sustains the stern vibe. The washing machine is a metaphor for the hallucinating drugs Egyptians consumed to forget their loss and the utter pointlessness of their lives. The desperate need to break away from the harsh reality and sense of psychological and spiritual defeat is like a page torn from Naguib Mahfouz’s “Adrift on the Nile.
An instrumental interlude – that sees Nawar Abbas’s apocalyptic piano merge with Shahin’s intense oud – paves the way for “Sohour Abo El Tayeb. The Fouad Haddad number starts with a wordy monologue that gradually blends with Shahin’s fierce oud and Sameh Ismail’s menacing drums.
The forceful lyrics form an epic of resistance, fighting against occupation. Historical figures such as Abou Zied El Hilaly are directly addressed, pushing them to end all doubt and continue building “the nation of dreams.
El Sheikh Imam’s “Ya Masr Oomy (Rise up Egypt) glides even higher. Imam’s music, coupled with Naguib Shihab El Din’s verses, is a patriotic anthem that never succumbs to the naivety and unbelievable sentiment of patriotic songs. As powerful and strong as “Rise up sounds, a palpable sense of sadness and skepticism runs through it.
Darwish’s “Hiz El Hilal (Shake the Flag) – a record of modern fads that touches cunningly on the 1919 revolution – ends the gig on a cheerful note.
Even in the darkest moments of the Eskenderella performance, the band avoids taking themselves too seriously. They’re clearly having fun and it rubs off on the audience.
Eskenderella’s success is rooted in their knack for combining different sounds, styles, moods and themes in a coherent whole. It can also be attributed to how they present these forgotten classic nuggets in a modern, brisk context without pinching their spirit or authenticity.
The feeling you have at the end of the evening is one of genuine nostalgia; a fervent yearning for a time and place where virtue and innocence have become nothing more but fading memories in a large musical catalogue.