In the heart of downtown Cairo, Sudanese folk songs resounded in Makan, a culture centre dedicated to the general revival of folk arts.
Settouna, a unique Sudanese music talent that emerged on the Egyptian culture scene in the nineties is often known as a henna artist, but her talent extends to folk music.
Settouna’s pretty face and generous shape are becoming familiar to many people these days. Having always been fond of art and music as a child, she graduated from the Faculty of Arts and pursued studies at the Institute of Music in Sudan. After many years in Egypt, Settouna has made a name in the art of henna and has become quite a star on the music scene. In 1998, her face became known to Egyptian cinema, as she played several roles as a henna artist.
At Makan, people were taken by Settouna’s vivid performance, which is more of a live art. She donned colourful, flowing costumes, with winding henna patterns covering her dark hands. Cheerfully she sung out her echoing melodies to the background of the tinkling and beating of a traditional Sudanese band.
Along with a variety of modern songs, she takes her audience back in time with old Sudanese tunes, such as an enchanting song called Where is My Love Tonight? “My love oh my love. Where is he tonight? I think I upset him. Maybe I am wrong because I didn’t ask him. He said many things to me. Oh, he spoke in a very humble manner,” she sings romantically.
Settouna’s band consists of three women and three men; the ladies sing the background vocals, and the men play various instruments, such as the drums, the saxophone and the tamboura. In addition to singing, Settouna plays percussion, along with the other performers. She also clanks with a mortar and pestle - a feature of traditional Sudanese folklore - adding an exciting ring to her music. It all makes for a very special, uplifting experience.
Asked what it is like to be a lead woman singer, Settouna admits “It takes a lot of hard work, ambition and a strong personality for a woman to prove she’s got talent.”
She recalls having faced many downfalls during her career, especially because of the particular genre of the music in which she specialises (because it has taken time for people to appreciate). However, she “never gave up.”
Settouna’s musical performances present a unique example of the Sudanese woman. Her genuine talent and spontaneous character tell us a lot about Sudanese culture. The simplicity of the lyrics, combined with the complexity of their composition allows us a deeper emotional understanding of the magical effects of music, and the ways in which it transcends all borders. It makes us truly and passionately believe in the saying “music is a universal language.”
She is presently a very well known henna artist in Egypt, her drawings exquisitely intricate and beautiful to the eye. Brides are her favourite clients, who wish for an extra special touch before their weddings on the traditional Henna Night (a sort of bachelorette party). She boasts: “Being an arts graduate, drawing is my passion. As soon as I see a bride, I know exactly the right drawing for her.”
Beside excelling at henna art and folklore singing on the local scene, Settouna has performed live in many international festivals and carnivals in the US and Europe, including Germany, Spain and France. She has already released two albums: The Queen of Henna and Settouna Live and is currently preparing for her third album.