Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Song of the Nile

Ati Metwaly finds out about the Nile Choir

Song of the Nile
Song of the Nile
Al-Ahram Weekly

“A 

long time ago, all the people lived alongside the Nile basin, happy and with no fears. A long time ago, all the people lived alongside the Nile basin, happy and with no fears. A long time ago…” 

Thus a large group of performers singing in unison at Cairo’s Falaki Theatre. Their hour-long performance, which took place on Saturday 28 May, is titled The Tale of the Clouds and the Nile. As the organisers explain in the programme notes, the story brings together the legendary creatures that live on the river banks during a harsh drought. 

In the theatre 30 singers are lined up on stage. They are mostly amateurs, with no previous stage experience, many young people topped with a few older participants. This is the Nile Choir, a collective led by the Egyptian young director Salam Yousry, perhaps best known for the Al-Tamye Theatre Company, which he founded in 2002; he created the Choir Project in 2010. The choir is also accompanied by professional musicians, part of another collective, the Nile Project, founded and managed by ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. The musicians are divided into two groups, seated at the right and the left wings of the stage. They include several names well-known on the local cultural scene, such as the Sudanese Asia Madani and the Nubian-Egyptian Adel Mekha, Egyptian-Eritrean bassist Ahmed Omar, percussionist Ahmed Bezra, nai player Hussein Darwish and violinist Amr Darwish, among others. The music incorporates many percussion, wind and other instruments prominent in the Nile cultures.

The Nile Choir, which was formed only a few weeks prior to the performance, is itself a creative marriage between the musical force of the Nile Project and the dramatic methodology that Salam Yousry has implemented in the Choir Project. In brief, The Tale of the Clouds and the Nile is a collaborative project which not only brings together professional musicians and amateur singers but also relies on solutions provided on the initiative of the Nile Choir members themselves, who were guided through workshops, with Girgis introduced in the crew list as “choir producer” and Yousry as “choir facilitator”.

On the thematic level, the performance is a journey from south to north through imagination and creative collaboration. As the chirping of the birds and the sounds of the flowing river fill the theatre, we savour the silver waters and the fertile grounds. But this celebration of richness is obstructed by a drought which eventually results in many of the creatures living on the river banks perishing. The few survivors, be they actual creatures or more metaphorical concepts such as a small cloud, become the heroes of the stories, and the choir is the storyteller that shifts between singing and reciting lyrics in Egyptian dialect.

Clearly, the thematic backbone of the Nile Choir is strongly linked to the Nile Project, an initiative which, though it uses music as its primary denominator, also takes on values which reach beyond just this. A ground for professional musicians performing or inspired by music of their home countries, the Nile Project is a knowledge tank which combines music with education and tells stories inspired by the fertile basin. Since 2013, musicians from over 10 Nile basin countries have met, exploring the musical traditions of each country, combining rhythms, scales and modes as well as languages while raising awareness about the natural wealth of the region, probing the African identity and shedding light on hydro-political challenges. Throughout the past years, part of creating music, in sessions which were joined by Egyptian talents such as Dina Al-Wedidi, Hany Bedair, Hazem Shaheen, among others, the Nile Project conducted gatherings for the musicians and numerous workshops, panels and lectures for audiences and students, many of which were held internationally during the projects’ tours to Africa, the USA and Europe.

“The Nile Project is a little different from the Nile Choir,” Mina Girgis explains. “In the original project we bring together professional musicians allowing them and their audiences to explore new layers of creative cooperation. Their performance is a live concert by an ensemble that incorporates many traditional influences and instruments coming from the musicians’ countries; it is not a choir.” 

Girgis adds that three Nile Project musicians participated in the Nile Choir’s premiere: Asia Madani, Adel Mekha and Ahmed Omar. They also conducted workshops for the Nile Choir members. 

Different in its execution, the Nile Choir is for Girgis an opportunity to engage deeper with the community, to reach out to the many members of the Nile basin countries who live in Egypt and with them create a platform for creative expression. And this is where a theatre director and an active young cultural player with experience working with random community members like Salam Yousry steps in. 

On the website of the Choir Project, Yousry’s most prominent brainchild, we read that the initiative “invites people from all walks of life to put their hopes and concerns, their feelings and thoughts, their jokes and woes into song. A week-long workshop of communal improvisation, lyric-writing, and composition culminates in a short performance – with often surprising results”. It is in the Choir Project that Yousry implements his unique methodology, rejecting the role of the “almighty director” to become a facilitator who invites the participants to an active cooperation and creation of the performance. 

“I do not feel comfortable with the concept of hierarchy in theatre,” comments Yousry, whose method proved successful in Egypt as well as in a number of international cities he visits to give workshops on a regular basis. Stressing collaboration as the basis of creation, and refusing the idea of authoritarian leadership in arts, he talks about how some professional actors find it difficult to clear their minds of the “institutionalised and systematised” experience associated with a professional theatre and how he tries to challenge that. The Choir Project, which saw many successful performances in Egypt, is a collective in which the participants tell stories tailored from their experiences, concerns, dreams and hopes. 

“My role in Choir Projects is to help create the dynamics, or support with an idea, but then people develop it. With the Choir Project, and now with the Nile Project, I have to keep refraining from imposing anything and follow the mind of the participants; I have to trust them even if this means I can never tell what the final product will be,” Yousry comments. 

Preparations for The Tale of the Clouds and the Nile took several weeks. The project started with an open call for participants supported by word of mouth. Though the organisers hoped to collect representatives from the many Nile countries, the final group has a majority of Egyptians with a few members with Ethiopian, Sudanese and the central Africa backgrounds. Girgis explains that, though it was not always easy to reach out to foreign communities, he hopes that the trust developed so far and the premiere performance will eventually help to create the cross-cultural collective.

The group consists of amateurs, members who have no or very little experience in the performing arts. The collective was then offered a number of creative workshops that introduced them to music, drama, creation of plot and characters, singing etc. With time, each member of the group recognised the creative activity he or she was most interested in, be it writing lyrics, giving the story idea, pushing the plot forward or working on the details or the characters. During the two-month endeavour, with 18 collective sessions, the choir members became composers, lyricists, storytellers and dramaturges, and they distributed the roles among themselves. Yousry helped to combine the ideas and create the final performance, clearing up the dynamics of the material at hand. 

Since their work was embedded in the Nile Project, it was natural for the participants to look for inspiration in the river Nile and the cultures which live along the 6,850 km of its banks. Coming from a belief that no preconceptions should be imposed on the performers, when leading the collective, Yousry wanted the group to abandon the solid concepts of the river, its water and banks in favour of reaching deep into the less tangible and imaginative ideas. “I believe that the idea of having a collective that gathers people from the Nile basin already generates ideas that reflect their culture and their lives. No matter what stories they create, they will be one way or another rooted in their experiences alongside the Nile countries,” Yousry comments. Throughout 18 sessions, Yousry triggered the participants’ awareness, provoking their creativity, and eventually opening the door to a range of ingenious ideas. His methodology bore fruit in components such as creatures talking, a crocodile following his love or a cloud developing relationships with other characters. And naturally, due to the fact that the majority of participants were Egyptian, the stories, rhythmic patterns and melodies were predominantly Egyptian, with some influences from Nubia and Ethiopia.

The Nile Choir is more than a collaboration between representatives of two collectives – the Nile Project and the Choir Project, or rather Yousry’s methodology with the latter – meeting to create one performance. The visions and expectations characterising each of the two bodies also give them both the opportunity to experience diverse, profound and, if developed, far-reaching results. For the Nile Project, which relies mainly on professionals, the Nile Choir is an opportunity to embrace the world of amateurs, their passions, and explore those methodologies to which they respond best. It is also a step in the direction of active community engagement, something that Girgis looks forward to developing further.

“The Cairo performance is like a pilot and we hope to implement the same idea in other Nile countries. It made sense to do it in Cairo first, for a number of reasons, among them logistical capacity. Also Salam Yousry is in Cairo and he is the one who could launch this experience. On the other hand, Cairo is such a big city, it has different communities, refugees from the Nile basin etc. If we want to cultivate the sense of community, Cairo is a great place to start. But this is only the beginning.” 

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