A musical dialogue: Rania Shaalan's music

Chitra Kalyani
10 Min Read

Had Rania Shaalan picked a bicycle instead of a piano when given the choice on her seventh birthday, perhaps she wouldn’t have been singing at El-Sawy Culture Wheel last Tuesday.

Picking the musical instrument was not strange for Shaalan, who grew up listening to older brother, Waleed Shaalan – from the band Stonefish that produced popular classics such as “Mama, Ayez Atgawiz (Mom, I Want to Get Married) – and found a musical ally in half-sister Shaymaa Shaalan.

El-Sawy attendants settled in to the music of “El Namla (The Ant). Listening to her conversation with an ant, it was easy to be charmed by the timbre of Shaalan’s voice as well as the content of her song, preoccupied with the everyday, with a touch of imagination. Shaalan’s song follows an ant creeping in her kitchen, admonished, but left happy as it was alive.

Shaalan opened the night with “Tameny Aleik (Let Me Know You’re Okay) a song that slowly sheds its softer tone for something more forceful. While Shaalan’s voice remains at the same pitch, the momentum of the song is carried forth by the guitar, which moves from introspective finger-plucking to full-bodied strumming.

The following songs – based on ruba’iyat (quatrains) of late Egyptian renowned poet Salah Jahin – were played with Shady Mou’nes from Iskinderella band on the oud.

In a clear marriage of form and content, the metric tune of “Khayfa (Afraid) carries a regular pace that turns into a musical mêlée when the subject, formerly unperturbed, is suddenly caught off-guard, encountering a former love-object.

Shaalan dedicated “Suwar Ati’a (Old Pictures) to her parents. Co-written with young poet Ramy Ali, who was present in the audience, the song expresses a desire to comfort her separated parents “They don’t need to feel bad about not giving me a complete home, she sings.

“The old pictures, says Shaalan, “are enough to make me feel good. Shaalan’s mother also attended the concert.

Just when there was a danger of the tone becoming monotonous, there was the splendid offering of “Sigadtee El-Ageeba (My Magic Carpet). Starting with the usual soft tempo, the pace soon changed when Shaalan put her guitar down and stood up to add extra spunk to the song.

“Samba we rumba. Robabekya. Biscileta. Arabiya. Bee em weeya, the staccato lyrics are infused with the dailies of living in Cairo, reflecting, as the artist mentioned, “all the colors I see in Egypt.

The patriotic sentiment of the fast-paced finale – “Masr baladi, aiwa baladi, baheb baladi, (Egypt is my homeland, yes, my homeland, I love my homeland) – had the audiences cheering and asking for an encore.

Not unlike Shaalan’s more contemplative numbers, “Sigadtee Ageeba was conversational, casually introducing her drummer Ahmed Bahaa in the course of her song, before temporary giving way for a brief solo by the percussionist.

A touch of the Indian came into the percussion, which Bahaa later informed Daily News Egypt had been learned from American visiting artist, Raki. When the tabla faded slightly, the applauding audience was cued to hold on by Bahaa who went into a faster traditional Oriental drumbeat. During the encore, the audience clapped along with the singer and percussionist.

Impromptu performances came in the form of audience member Ismail Agina from popular band Wust El Balad.

Amir Eid of CairoKee made a guest appearance, performing “Gharib Fi Balad Ghareeba (Stranger in a Strange Land) and the much-requested “Valerie Just Understand, a stand-out tongue-in-cheek social commentary in Arabic fused with accented English, written by Egyptian esteemed poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.

Shaalan, who is also a sculptor and a member of the International Masters Swimming Team, finds that “singing is a much more direct way of communicating.

“Swimming is for health and exercise. Sculpture is silent – it doesn’t speak, Shaalan commented.

“The way I deal with people through music is much more rewarding than swimming or sculpture, she explained, revealing how much she enjoys the interaction between herself and the audience – like a long, continuous dialogue. “I see people when I’m singing. I’m in touch with them.

Some songs written by Shaalan are almost anecdotal. The delivery is articulate – no words are lost on the audience, and the audience is drawn in to the careful narration.

The English numbers did not appear to be Shaalan’s forté, and chosen songs did not stray from the original classics. Shaalan’s rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time was not as confident, and while Eden Ahbez’s classic “Nature Boy was slightly better, it still did not veer from the done-before territory.

Yet, Shaalan challenged even that impression – and the comfort zone – with her performances of the pentatonic “Inshid Ya Albi (Sing, My Heart!). However, the bass solo performed by Omar Hussein did not gel well with the rest of the song.

A fusion of Mozart’s “Pappagena from “The Magic Flute with a cut from Jahin’s ruba’iyat further confirmed that taking risks was not beyond Shaalan.

Putting the Austrian artist and Egyptian poet together seemed but natural, “it just felt right, and it didn’t seem bad or ugly. Mozart’s classic was a song she grew up singing with her father.

As for Jahin’s lyrics that form the basis of Shaalan’s many songs, she attests that she always found a lot of shared sentiment in his words. “I feel he is singing my words. Whatever he is saying, deep down I want to say it, too.

Shaalan writes many of her own lyrics, too. She explains how she wrote her song “Khayal El-Ma’ta (Scarecrow), “I was on my way to Alex.I was looking at some fields and I saw some scarecrows – one after the other. It came out like a story about the scarecrow – and while writing it I felt I was a scarecrow talking about myself.

Such preponderance with a sole object in the outside world – be it an ant or a scarecrow – that turns into a conversation, and then into introspection, is typical of Shaalan.

Starting her musical journey with piano, Shaalan was given vocal lessons at the age of seven. She picked up the guitar at 14, insistent on learning it all on her own. Only last year did Shaalan decide to take up music theory, resuming her piano and vocal lessons.

Shaalan was first aired on Cairo radio waves in 1995. Impressed by her guitar performances, a musician arranged for her to present a few songs on air.

Things took a turn for Shaalan when she tried approaching renowned composer Fathy Salama in 1996-97. Salama responded favorably in 1997, and at his concert he played keyboard to Shaalan’s performance of her original, “Masr Baladi (Egypt, My Homeland).

Since then, “it became a lovely toy for me to be onstage, Shaalan told Daily News Egypt, revealing she had not changed much from that seven-year-old girl.

While she insisted on performing more with Salama, he challenged her “by putting conditions for a new song or a new way of singing. Hence, perhaps, came the variety in her work.

Not surprisingly, her range of musical influences too was varied, including family – her brother, her cousin – The Beatles (again through her brother), Pink Floyd, Diana Krall and Eric Clapton.

Closer to home, she is also inspired by songs from Om Kolthoum, Fayrouz, Said Darwish, Magda Al Rumi and Fouad Abdel Meguid.

What began as a form of play at age seven, and continued to be a “toy even as she performed with Salama, has now produced a singer who continues to do onstage what she likes best – play on.

Share This Article
Leave a comment