Fighting to be heard
Mustafa El-Menshawy talks to Dunia about the trials and travails of working outside the mainstream
The poster plastered boldly on the front door of Dunia Massoud's Munira flat gives you your first insight into the person who lives behind the door. "Boycott them" it reads, and boycott she does. An activist certainly, a revolutionary -- maybe? But the petite 29-year- old is not interested in labels. "I just want to express myself," she explains.
Born and bred in Alexandria, she finally left for Cairo eight years ago, alone and independent, to the outrage and chagrin of her family. The parents, now separated, had challenged her penchant for music and folklore early on. "They made it clear: 'if you want to be an artist, you'll have to do it on your own, and at your own expense," Massoud recounts. "And I accepted the challenge," she adds, defiantly.
Her destination was Cairo, still a formidable centre of Arab culture and arts. After a number of experiences on stage, both singing and acting, Massoud began a three-year journey searching for and documenting folk poetry and music. She travelled the length and breadth of the country, from Suez to Upper Egypt, to learn and study the musical repertoires of ordinary people.
On her return, she founded her own independent troupe of musicians, with whom she now tours Europe, Asia and Africa performing Egyptian folkloric songs. She also joined both the Fathi Salama group and Al- Warsha troupe, which gave her a way to be in touch with local audiences. "It was a thrilling experience for me to work with these two popular troupes."
All Massoud has to do is step on stage, alone, and she takes on a very special character of her own -- a style she herself describes as "a coquettishness reminiscent of Shadia and Soaad Hosni [two legends of Egyptian cinema] as they were in the 1940s and 1950s."
The critics agree. After a performance in Zanzibar in 2002, Ian Anderson of the British roots music magazine fROOTs could not stop singing her praises. "With a flexible throaty voice and a coquettish stage presence that captivated the crowd, Dunia was an immediate hit," Anderson wrote. While for the officials at the Jerash Festival, one of the most prestigious music festivals in the Arab world, she is "young, cheerful and creative".
These tours helped Massoud build up her self-esteem at a time when she was feeling less appreciated back home. In her view, if she is not yet a star in Egypt, the reasons are out of her hands. And she does not mince words.
"All the Ministry of Culture stages are controlled by Mafia-like troupes who do not allow any one else to share a slice of their cake," she tells me. "To get on the state- controlled stages, you need connections."
Trying to escape this grim reality, Massoud took refugee for a time in Lebanon, where she performed two successful concerts in 2001.
"Can you imagine? I was forbidden to take part in any performance at any state-run theatre because I had an argument with an official at one theatre!" she says.
This punishment hit a nerve, driving her into a state of deep desperation. "I feel that I dedicated my life to the stage, and my career was shattered by this polluted atmosphere, which is by no means conductive to art and creativity."
Instead, she has had to develop her own strategies for coping. "I recently made two TV commercials, one for butter and one for soap. So now many TV viewers know my face!" she explains. But then she adds, bitterly: "So they know my face thanks to two commercials which run for seconds, and not the three years I spent fastidiously collecting and performing Egyptian folklore."
Anyone who has heard her knows the woman possesses a gorgeous voice, great skill and real presence. But Massoud still has not made a record. Why? She admits it is not an easy step to take: it needs money, and it's a risk. "I was about to record my first tape, but the company which wanted to sign me had no money to foot the bill," she says. And indeed, several Egyptian music companies have gone bankrupt in the last few years, victims of the rise to power of the specialised satellite song channels and radio stations.
Massoud believes that Rotana (see related article opposite) must shoulder part of the blame. The company, owned by Saudi multi-millionaire Walid Bin Talal, has lured many renowned Egyptian singers away from their traditional studios to sign monopoly contracts which can run for as many as 10 years.
"Rotana has destroyed many famous singers in Egypt. The managers there hold all the cards. They can propel a singer to stardom, or pull them down and banish them from the audience's memory," Massoud explains. She is visibly frustrated at the way Egyptian TV for one has simply caved in to the desires of the giant company. Now, the main state-run channels will play the same song over and over again, as long as the producer is paying them to do so.
"And the fact that Rotana can afford to do this means they have a monopoly," she adds.
She also accuses the company of trying to strip Egypt of its status as the centre of Arab arts. "Now, there are Egyptian singers who have to perform in the Gulf Arabic accent on the orders of Rotana."
Massoud claims that many Egyptian stars such as Medhat Saleh and Hani Shaker have simply opted to escape from what she calls an "unhealthy atmosphere".
In her own case, she never got the chance to make a video clip for one of her songs. "The concept that a sponsor will pay for a singer to record a song or make a video clip is history," she says. "Now, it is up to the singer to pay almost all the expenses." A single video clip would have set her back a minimum of LE50,000.
She believes that musicians have to try and change the grim reality of that monopoly, but it will take many of them working together, not just the efforts of one isolated "star".
Meanwhile, good musicians continue to turn their backs on the Cairo scene. Massoud has compiled many Egyptian folk songs to create her own repertoire. But the main problem, she says, was finding good composers and musicians to work with her on stage. "Good artists are shying away from what is now a mediocre artistic scene here," she says, matter-of-factly. "Or they are now moving in the same vicious cycle of tasteless art, in order to make a living."
She herself has an idealised view of the country's artistic history. "We had a flourishing creative industry even during the political turmoil and restrictions Egypt went through in the 1940s and 1950s. Now, we have nothing, despite the alleged stability of the country."
But still, she ends the conversation on a high note. "It is artistry that will be recognised eventually," she declares, sure of herself again. "All we need are musicians who are prepared to hold firm and fight their corners till their voices are heard."