“El-Masreyeen Band is back,” was the buzz in town in 2009. Hundreds of Egyptians flocked to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the famous Alexandria library) to watch them live for the first time in almost 20 years. The tears of joy, mixed with the voices of audiences that came in all ages, singing along, clapping with every tune and demanding encores were indeed a sight. El-Masreyeen Band is deeply rooted in Egypt’s social history.
The band, founded in 1977, was the first Egyptian pop band to play modern Egyptian music during a time where most bands only sang western covers. With the switch from monophonic (where singer and orchestra perform a single melodic line) to polyphonic (multiple melodic lines are introduced in other vocal lines or in instruments) and the lyrics by renowned poetry pillar Salah Jaheen, the band was an instant hit.
With six albums and over 50 songs that broke the mould of cliché love songs and breakup themes, the band changed the face of the modern Egyptian song forever. Iman Younis, the band’s lead singer, one of the founding members, talks to Ahram Online about the band’s history, their comeback and all what’s in between
Ahram Online (AO): How did it all start?
Iman Younis (IY): My father, a pilot, poet and one of the Free Officers that helped depose the former president Nasser was a friend of the great poet, Salah Jaheen. So, after I graduated from the Cairo Conservatory and became a professor there, Jaheen phoned and asked me if I wanted to sing.
I was very excited, so he told me to get ready and someone will come pick you up. I went downstairs and found him sitting in the car of Sot al Hob (Sound of Love) Production Company.
He explained that this is a new Egyptian band, which they hadn’t named yet. He played a couple of songs to me Bahebek la, (I love You Not), Edhak baa khaliha 3al Allah (Laugh and leave the rest to God). It was harmonious and I loved it. That was the beginning and although there were other bands such as Les Petits Chats, they only sang cover songs of foreign bands. However, El-Masreyeen was the first Egyptian band to play original (modern) Egyptian songs. In the studio, I met Hani Shnouda, Tahseen Yalmaz and Hani El Azhari. The band was launched and released their first album in 1977.
AO: Is there a difference between El-Masreyeen Band now and then?
IY: Back then, El-Masreyeen was often regarded as the band that changed the path of modern Egyptian songs. We’ve introduced harmony, multiple voices, drums, base and lead guitar. They used to referrer to us as the Egyptian/western band that plays Egyptian songs. Nowadays, most Egyptian young bands follow the same line of thought, so our return to the music scene is accompanied with our experience; one that we are happy to share with the young members of our band. Meanwhile, the old songs are so popular, they evoke nostalgia and the people do not want it to end.
On a parallel note, within the band itself the mixture of generations has always been there. Since we started Hani Shnouda was the eldest member and I was the youngest, now we are the eldest and the rest are the young members. Now I am their mother figure and their experience. As for the audience, back then they were mainly our generation, but nowadays they are our generation and the new generation who come to discover us.
AO: To come back after 20 years must have been a big decision; what triggered the abrupt stop and sudden return?
IY: I was forced to leave my singing career because I gave birth to a child with special needs and I simply could not leave him to anybody else to take care of. So the mother in me was far more dominant at that time than the artist. Until he passed away, I was fully in charge of him. This is what made the audience understand and forgive such an abrupt stop. You see, in most cases, a comeback is limited to a couple of songs and then the audience shies away from them. But because people are good and forgiving, they welcomed me.
I’d lost contact with Hani Shnouda over the years. One day by chance I heard Hani on the radio talking about me, so I phoned them on air and even sang on air, Banat keteer (Many girls). We hung up and met the same day. He asked me to come back and I insisted that we come back as El-Masreyeen Band. So, we started to prepare for the reunion.
Our first night on stage was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in December 2009 and on the day of the performance only 100 tickets out of 500 were sold. We did not know what to do. Finally Hani decided that we are going to perform this once, for our own enjoyment. That was around 2pm. At 8 pm the hall was full of people, to the extent that the young audience was sitting on the stairs - and my son was one of them. When Hani and I walked onto the stage the entire audience stood up and clapped. That was the best moment ever. Then we started singing and people sang along and cried.
AO: As a professional vocal coach and singer, how do you see the art scene in Egypt now?
IY: I train people on vocals and singing and I see that the idea of learning started to pick up nowadays, but in the beginning it was not that popular. Production companies think it easier to sign an artist that appeals to them and simply produce a CD for them. Whether the artists gets signed depends mostly on whether the production company liked their video clip.
The outcome was a lot of mediocre singers and actors. We have much better calibre that should be on the artistic scene, but producers want things the easy way, hence whenever a certain person becomes a familiar face to audience, it’s the same face that gets everything - and this is unprecedented anywhere else. The more chances and room you give to new artists, the more reason for artists to work on themselves, excel and compete. But why would any of them work on themselves, if they are already acknowledged as stars?
Anyhow, our audience is not stupid; they go to the other Arab countries for better artists. If the actor and singer do not constantly train, they shall lose their edge: like football players, they must train. However, I think that after the revolution people started to take classes and work on themselves, but there is no room for them on the art scene yet.
AO: With six albums and over 50 songs, are you considering reviving the old songs in a new CD remix?
IY: I hope we can reproduce our tapes, but who would take on the loss of reproducing the tapes, only to have pirates copy them and sell them for cheap?
El-Masreyeen’s upcoming concert is on Sunday, 31 July at El Sawy Culturewheel, Zamalek