Cairo has been hit by wave of protests these past few months, whether it was against extending the emergency law, for raising the minimum wage or calling for more freedom of expression. Even behind closed doors, Egyptians’ complaints continue to rage on, varying from the mundane (boredom) to the appalling (sexual harassment).
A group of 25 Cairo residents from different walks of life decided to transform the huge energy Egyptians put into complaining into something sarcastic and entertaining, a new form of contemporary art: a Complaints Choir. The first event of this unusual project was held Sunday evening in Downtown Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery.
“There’s a lot of repression in Cairo, so instead of taking it out on each other, it’s better to join a Complaints Choir,” said Suzan Radwan, an actress and member of the choir.
The idea of a Complaints Choir began in 2005 in Helsinki, thousands of miles away from Cairo, with two Finnish artists, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kallleinen.
In the Finish vocabulary, there’s an expression “Valituskuoro” which literally means “Complaints Choir” and it is used to describe situations where many people complain concurrently. According to their website (www.complaintschoir.org), the two artists thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to take this expression literally and organize a real Complaints Choir.”
Since grumbling is a universal phenomenon, Kalleinen and Kochta-Kallleinen decided to open their “Complaints Choir” website and encourage people from all around the world to create their own groups.
Gradually, people from Birmingham, England, to Chicago were caught up with the idea and decided to form their own events.
The idea grabbed the attention of Sarah Rifky, a curator at Townhouse Gallery, who has been in touch with the Finnish artists for a few months now.
“As a curator, in order for me to be able to best facilitate [a Complaints Choir] in a context other than which it was originally produced, it required a lot of adaptation,” Rifky told Daily News Egypt. “In this case, it didn’t only include discussions with Oliver and Tellervo, mostly through e-mail, but I also talked with a local group of people who work in theater and do public performances and we discussed how we could best establish this event.”
The choir spent six days preparing and rehearsing for the event under the guidance of theater director and writer Salam Yousry and standup comedian Moataz Attallah.
“As we were rehearsing last night, people felt relieved that they could share their complaints with others,” Yousry told Daily News Egypt. “I believe that’s one of the most important roles of art, sharing, whether it’s with the choir or later with the audience.”
Yousry added that there’s no need to be a professional to join this choir. As long as you are a resident in Cairo and have a complaint, you’re considered eligible.
Non Egyptians were also welcome to take a part in the event, including Algerian student, Nahla Djabi. “I like the idea that although I don’t know how to sing or play an instrument, I was allowed to join the Complaints Choir,” she said.
The lyrics was written and performed in Egyptian dialect, which made perfect sense for a Complaints Choir whose aim is reach out to all Egyptians from different social classes.
Accompanied by the oud and tabla, the chorus managed to turn almost all their complaints into four uplifting songs in only six days of rehearsals.
Although many of the members had no previous experience in singing or music, they conveyed great confidence and gave solid, entertaining performances, imbued with sarcasm and a contagious sense of humor.
The four songs comprised different themes, ranging from the political — extension of the emergency law in Egypt, civil rights and bureaucracy — to the personal and the trivial — bad TV shows, annoying neighbors and petty behaviors.
Using the simplest lyrics in a sarcastic, entertaining manner, the choir managed to address very serious issues like racism and sexism.
“She’s black, but she’s beautiful. He’s a Christian, but he’s kind. She’s a girl, but she’s tough,” the choir sang quoting commonly used phrases.
The songs also criticized government officials’ abuse of power, with a particular emphasis on police officers.
Aly Sobhy, an actor and member of the choir whose long hair seems to attract unwanted attention wherever he goes, told Daily News Egypt, “Policemen always stop me in the street and tell me to cut my hair, why do they think they have a say over what I do with my hair.”
Any proper ranting about Cairo wouldn’t be comprehensive without the inclusion of the nightmarish traffic and enormous population.
“If you’re thinking about where you could go out tonight….don’t! It’s too crowded. The metro can’t handle any more people and it always breaks down.”
The show was received with many rounds of applause, laughter and appreciation from dozens of spectators who turned up for the event.
The organizers of the event didn’t embark on this project thinking their songs would change the world, or even Egypt for that matter. They regard it as a fun experience that could help people tap into their creative side and better express themselves.
“We are not thinking much about solutions, it’s an expression exercise,” Attallah told Daily News Egypt, “It’s a chance for us to get together and enjoy writing, singing and making music.” –Additional reporting by Ian Lee