INTERVIEW: Egyptian accordionist Youssra El-Hawary reflects on journey within the independent music scene

Amina Abdel-Halim, Wednesday 11 Jan 2017

Youssra El-Hawary spoke to Ahram Online about her career, studies in France, Egypt's independent music scene, and her future plans

Youssra El Hawary
Youssra El Hawary (photo: Emma Studio)

The cold January night sets on the quiet streets of Garden City, as ROOM Art Space slowly fills with the alluring, harmonious tunes of the accordion. Youssra El-Hawary opens the show with a soulful rendition of her song Eyrah (Shame), a hymn to all things that are beautifully deplorable.

The concert, which was held 3 January, was organised as a means of supporting ROOM, who have openly addressed their recent financial struggles and invited artists’ as well as the public’s support. Several artists responded to this call for help, among them accordionist, singer and composer Youssra El-Hawary.

The prominent independent musician was born in 1983. She spent her childhood in Kuwait where she took an early interest in music and began to play piano. Upon her return to Egypt, she took classes at the Cairo Music Centre, where she studied music theory and learned to read music.

After graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts with a degree in theatre and cinema design, she went on to work in advertising, perform in Salam Yousry’s El-Tamye theatre group, and later joined The Choir Project, travelling with the latter across the Arab world.

El-Hawary told Ahram Online that she has also worked in parallel on various art-related community service and development projects. Such projects include a music workshop at the Jesuit school in Menya, as well as her work with Action For Hope, an organisation that aims to provide cultural relief and development to displaced and disadvantaged communities.

It was not until 2012, with the widespread release of her hit single El-Soor, that she began to pursue music professionally.

El Hawary rose to fame at a time when the international scene took an interest in Egyptian artists, viewing their work as a form of political commentary. Although she does believe that the 2011 revolution played a great part in her initial success, unlike many others El-Hawary did not fade along with the political turmoil.

Her lasting musical career, she feels, came as a result of her constant thirst for progress and renewal, one which many mainstream artists lack nowadays.

“After El-Soor went viral, many people advised me to continue playing satirical songs. I did not want to limit myself to a specific style and to keep making more of the same just because it succeeded the first time,” she remembers.

Many of her songs are personal, not just in the sense that they speak of her personal life; they express her perspective on societal issues.

The artist cites the chaotic streets of Cairo as her inspiration, as “when you walk Downtown, you’re sure to witness something that upsets you, or uplifts you, or just something that you would never see elsewhere.”

With Ghareeb An El-Madeena (Stranger to the City), the performer guides the audience through the narrow streets of the city, its innumerable tales and unveiled mysteries. But El-Hawary has lately been estranged from her muse.

This is her second year studying accordion at the National and International Centre of Music and Accordion (CNIMA) in France, a renowned institution founded by prominent musician Jacques Mornet in 1995.

Located in the small town of Laronne near Clermont-Ferrand, CNIMA provides full-time and full-board accordion studies, as well as the possibility to study various musical styles. Students have the option of passing the Conservatoire National Superieur examination at the end of the two-year study programme, which is what El-Hawary plans to do.

The musician, who says she initially planned to spend one year abroad, covered all the expenses for her stay during that first year. When she decided to prolong her studies, she received a grant from the French Cultural Institute, divided between her and Saz player Abdallah Abozekry.

“I wanted to learn to play the right way,” she explains. “In Egypt, the very few people who do teach the instrument only teach it in the oriental style.” Thus until her move to France, the performer was entirely self-taught.

Youssra El Hawary
Youssra El Hawary (photo: Julien Nehring)

As her show at ROOM Art Space began taking a more joyous note, El-Hawary called Salam Yousry to the stage, and the two performed the upbeat tune, Bel Mazboot.

She then went on to perform some of her most popular songs: El-Soor (The Wall), El-Sharea (The Street) and Autobees (Bus). The latter sparked controversy after its release over the use of what some consider to be “strong language”. The audience at ROOM, however, seem to find the lyrics quite amusing; they joyfully clapped and sung along, as the place filled with heartfelt laughter after each curse.

Some of the songs are notable for their subtle irony and implicit critique of Egyptian society. The satirical tone of the music reflects El-Hawary’s views regarding the state of the Egyptian art scene and the challenges that artists, particularly independent artists, face throughout their journey.

The young accordionist spoke extensively to Ahram Online of the lack of institutional support from the Ministry of Culture and the artists' syndicate, whom she believes are not helping a large segment of artists.

“New laws and regulations are constantly put in place to complicate matters for musicians rather than assist and facilitate their development,” she clarified, giving an example of tax policies that make no distinction between musicians whose concerts are organised by production companies and independent performers who personally fund the entirety of their shows.

Another issue El-Hawary tackled was the lack of equipment and spaces for rehearsals and performances. The artist recalled having to rent a place where she stayed and practiced with her bandmates for 15 days, as they felt it was the only way to advance in their project.

“Some of my bandmates are married, others work full-time. They all had to put their lives aside for a while. We would have liked to do it otherwise, but with the lack of adapted spaces and the enormous amount of time lost in traffic, this seemed like the only solution.”

Although there are a few places where artists can freely perform and express themselves, such spaces are often faced with financial challenges that threaten their existence, ROOM Art Space being an example.

The main problem is not the presence of laws and regulations, but the lack of clarity, she explained to Ahram Online. “I am not denying the presence of extensive regulations in foreign countries. France, for instance, is very bureaucratic. However, if I plan a concert there, I know exactly what percentage of the revenues will be taxed. In Egypt, this constantly varies from one show to the next,” she said.

Aside from legal and institutional challenges, there is one thing that El-Hawary thinks Egypt lacks compared to many other countries: general respect for the artistic profession, which is at the root of all other problems faced by artists. “In other countries, there is a lot of respect for people with ideas, and their surroundings want to help them express these ideas, and put them into action. This is unfortunately not the case here in Egypt.”

Many young artists are forced to give up their passion due to societal pressure, as they would like to get married and lead a normal life, and cannot support themselves through music alone.

The final songs echoed the soft, melodious tunes of the opening. Shay Bel Laban (Tea With Milk), like an old movie scene, transports the audience into the intimacy of a couple, as they lock hands and share a kiss over the breakfast table. The crowd brimmed with enthusiasm as the musician performed Babtessem (I Smile), the emotional soundtrack to Mohamed Khan’s 2013 drama film, Fatat El-Masna’ (Factory Girl), and an optimistic ode to life and joy.

While she is obviously well aware of the difficulties Egyptian artists face, the young musician’s outlook on the future is brightly optimistic. She maintains that independent music is evolving, and will continue to evolve at the hands of the younger generation.

Today’s youth, she believes, benefit from greater exposure, and from the legacy of previous generations. She finds the January 2011 revolution, which they lived through at a very young age, has made them braver and changed their outlook on the world.

“Witnessing a revolution at such a young age must really change a person, create this new awareness within them, a new outlook on what is, and what could be.”

El-Hawary notes that the alternative music is becoming an increasingly competitive field, which she feels is a positive change. As more artists begin to create music that is different from the mainstream, it is becoming increasingly difficult to succeed, which means musicians have to work harder, develop, and be more creative.

The independent scene, she further claims, cannot die out, because it is a necessary part of the general art scene and of society. The accordionist states: “This is why, despite difficult economic conditions, the public responded to ROOM Art Space’s call for help. Similarly, a popular, mainstream radio channel like reached out to me, an independent artist, and asked me to host and give exposure to other members of the scene, because this is what the public needs: something different from the mainstream.”

As for her own future, El-Hawary plans to return to Egypt after finishing her studies. Although things may be easier for artists abroad, she cannot imagine leaving her home country. “Cairo is the place which inspires me the most. I care to share my thoughts and ideas with the Egyptian public, and later present truthful vision to the foreign audience.”

Upon her return, she considers opening an accordion school in Egypt, to offer young musicians the possibility of studying alternative musical styles.

While pursuing her studies, she has also begun work on an album, which she says should be released during the summer. “Together with my band, I plan to launch a crowdfunding campaign, to finish recording,” she explains.

As for what comes next in her artistic journey, it all depends on what she wishes to convey. “I will only continue to write songs if I feel that I still have something to say. If not, my next project may very well be entirely instrumental.”

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