In one of the buildings in Qasr El-Nil street, where the walls are defaced by many company and store signs with glaring colours and neon lights, a brass name-plate states, in genuine Arabic calligraphy, “The Office of Mahmoud Reda”.
Mahmoud Reda is the founder of the Reda Troupe, a pioneering group in the field of Egyptian folk-dance, and gave its first performance as an independent band in 1959.
Walking through the office's corridor, where photographs of the band’s most famous dances hanging on the wall, it's hard not to hear echoes of the joyful sounds of the group’s most famous songs: Halawet Shamsena (The Beauty of our Sun), Yawlad Baladna (Children of our Country), Agaban Leghazal (O thou Gazelle), Luxor Baladna (Luxor is our Home), and many more.
Mahmoud Reda sits in front of a computer screen, working hard despite the signs of aging on his face. He has excelled in his chosen field throughout his long career of fifty years.
Ahram Online: Why do we no longer enjoy folk-dancing? Has society changed ?
Mahmoud Reda: I am not up-to-date on the current scene, but when I go to the Balloon Theatre to look at performances, I do not find any. This theatre was established for the Reda Troupe you know, and it was later dedicated to the folk-dance troupes, when we used to have a three or four-month season. The National Band would come, followed by the Musical Dance Band to give huge folk-dance performances.
Right now however, when I have foreign visitors who want to watch the Reda Troupe or folk-dance, I find that the theatre is there as well as the troupes, but no-one is working. They practice and get paid, but without giving any performances. It is a matter of bad organisation, not a lack of artistic skills.
AO: The Reda Troupe started out as your independent dream with no bureaucracy or organisation, and then the state took over and it became part of the public sector. What are the ups and downs of being affiliated with the state?
Reda: When we asked Abdel-Qader Hatem, the Minister of Culture at the time, to help us we were a popular band but with financial troubles. The most expensive ticket was sold for 25 piasters, and the rest of the ticket prices were 10-15 piasters. When the theatre was fully booked, we did not even advertise in the newspapers.
President Gamal Abdel-Nasser loved the band, and he would always request them whenever he had guests or during the celebrations for the 1952 revolution. It was always the Reda Troupe, along with Abdel-Halim Hafez and Um Kolthom. He called Hatem and told him to help us, and we agreed that we would perform the same kind of art, with no changes or interference, and they would cover expenses.
However, it never crossed my mind that we would turn into “government employees.” I found out that I have a dossier! I became a manager, then a general manager and finally a deputy minister. That was good.
When we started out as a private band, there were seven men and seven women dancers, along with Farida Fahmy, Ali Reda, Ali Ismail, myself and thirteen musicians. Of course, as a small troupe, we were not able to give grand performances like Qatr El-Thawra (The Revolution’s Train), El Sad El Ali (the High Dam), Ranet El-Kholkhal (The Anklet’s Tinkle) and Ali Baba Wal Arbe’een Harami (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). When we joined the public sector, we had forty dancers whose salaries were higher than what we used to offer. We also had a hundred musicians and we travelled all over the world, and that was one of the advantages.
The disadvantages were the routine, bureaucracy and civil servants who outnumbered the artists. By the time I became the deputy minister for the three bands and the circus there were 1,700 administrative employees with only 200 dancers. There were twenty-seven departments without any artistic duties like music or dancing. I do not underestimate civil servants, but they should be placed where they are needed. If we create a budget of LE5 million for the three bands, rest assured that LE4.5 million will be spent on civil servant's wages.
AO: Is that why we feel that there is no renewal or development in the nature or composition of dancing? The Reda Troupe was famous for its field research to find folkloric inspiration. Why is this process of research and development missing in this field nowadays?
Reda: I do not like to criticise anyone, I am not a critic. We used to love what we did. I will speak for myself, Farida Fahmy, Ali Reda and Ali Ismail. During rehearsals, I used to pay LE3 a month, so young men and women did not join for the money. They loved what they did, but we could not rely on such passion. We were asking them to commit to a 15, 20 or 30-year long career, and when they did, I must give them a decent wage because they will need to get married, buy a home, and establish a family.
Can you imagine that the salary of a professional Reda Troupe female dancer is now just LE200 a month? What is she going to do with that? If she takes a taxi a couple of times, she will spend it all.
AO: Tell us about the Reda Troupe experience in finding inspiration from our artistic heritage and how it offered its own vision that was inspired by folklore.
Reda: We cannot represent folklore as it is. Folklore is like the great pyramid. I cannot bring the great pyramid to the Balloon Theatre. My work was inspired by folk art; for example, the Hegala dance (Bedouin belly-dance) in Marsa Matrouh, where you can take two or three steps and I can draw inspiration from that. Theatre has its own rules and norms, and I cannot represent folk-dance choreography as it is, it has to be in theatre-form.
What I did was an adventure that could have gone wrong. I would draw inspiration from an Upper Egyptian dance for instance, develop it and change the colour of the costumes so it will not be all black, because black is the dominant colour in Upper Egypt where women wear it all the time as part of the mourning traditions. That is what I call “drawing inspiration”.
My work was a mixture of the original folk-dance, the ballet I learned here and in Paris, and my own personal style and this was surprisingly successful. This does not happen much these days. You can find a hundred dancers but no more than one creative performer among them. Nowadays, there is not a good environment for discovering talent.
AO: There was a boldness in bringing educated and young college-graduates and turning them into performers in a society that does not totally approve of dancing. How did you overcome this obstacle, and how do you think society views dancing nowadays?
Reda: Society has always had an unfair view of dancing. There is no-one in the whole world who does not dance. I once brought a video camera and started video-taping people in the street; moving forward, looking to their right and bending to tie up their shoelaces. If we add music to the same video, it will be a dance. Dancing is basically an expression.
Dancing is a much respected art around the world; it is the origin of all arts and it is the easiest for the human body to perform. But here in Egypt, I do not know why we do not respect it. At the time we formed the Reda Troupe, the first thought that came to people’s minds whenever they heard the word “dance” was oriental or belly-dancing. It is true that belly-dancing was a kind of folk-dance, but it developed independently either at weddings or in cabarets, and of course cabarets had a bad reputation.
That is the reason why parents would never allow their daughters to join the Reda Troupe. I wanted to know why, and I found out that the reason is the nudity (in belly- dancing), and no female dancer at that time ever had a second career. For example, Farida Fahmy had a Bachelor of Arts, I had a Bachelor of Commerce, and I could have worked at any company rather than choosing a career in dancing, but we danced because we loved it. Also, dancing was only for females back then and I thought why shouldn't men dance?
At the beginning, it was hard to take pictures of women peasants in order to study their folk art and costumes, and although they were covered “from head to toe” as they say, they would run and hide because it was shameful back then.
These days they have folk-dance troupes that include both sexes. I can write in my passport that my profession is “a dancer for the Reda Troupe”, and the name of the band earns respect. Was it possible back then that a deputy minister would be a dancer? Well, I am a deputy minister because I was a dancer for the Reda Troupe. Dancing has developed enormously, and I hope that this development will continue.
AO: Were your family and the family of artist Farida Fahmy open-minded when it came to their views on art, life and marriage?
Reda: (Laughing) How come? I paid 25 piasters as a dowry! Listen, in the Reda family, they were ten children and I was the eighth. My father was the Cairo University librarian, and he wrote more than fifteen books on religion, but he was neither very conservative nor very liberal. He used to play the lute, and my brother Ali used to dance before I did. The same goes for the Hassan Fahmy family. He used to be a university professor and because his daughter was a dancer, it caused him problems, but he was convinced that establishing the Reda Troupe was like a PhD thesis. When I went to propose to his daughter Farida, he asked me “What are you going to do in life?” and I told him that I was going to start a dance troupe, and he kept asking me questions and I kept answering them for years, as he considered those questions like a PhD thesis to establish the Reda Troupe. After our success, he taught at the faculty of engineering and spoke there of the reasons for our success, and he used to mention our group as an example for his students. Imagine a university professor who lets his daughter, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree, dance. Of course, that was something very unique at that time.
AO: The experience of the Reda Troupe in cinema was very unique. The movies, directed by Ali Reda, definition of dance-dramas in Egypt. Tell us more about this experience and why dance-dramas no longer exist.
Reda: We did three movies, Agazet Nus El-Sana (Mid-term Vacation, 1963), Gharam Fil Karnak (Romance at the Karnak, 1965) and Harami El-Waraqa (Thief of the Lottery Paper, 1970), which was really underestimated. I thank God for doing those movies because if you want to watch the Reda Troupe, you will find them at the Balloon Theatre for only ten days a year, but those first two movies are aired almost every week. I give the credit to Ali Reda because these two films enhance the Reda Troupe’s image in people’s minds.
There are many kinds of dance-dramas. It could be a musical film like one of Farid El-Atrash’s movies, where there are a couple of dances and songs but the leading role is for the singer himself. For dance-dramas, the leading actor has to be a dancer himself. This had never happened before the establishment of the Reda Troupe. Leading roles would go to Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda, and this was the first time it ever happened. Tahia Kareoka’s movies were mainly dramas with very little dancing.
The cinema industry usually looks for stars, so a successful group like the Reda Troupe attracted the attention of the cinema field, especially as director Ali Reda, cinematographer Abdel-Aziz Fahmy and composer Ali Ismail, were amongst the best. Ali Reda managed to turn all the stars of the Reda Troupe, like Hassan Afifi and Mohamed El-Ezabi, into successful actors. We also had the support of famous actress Magda, because we were new to the world of cinema, and we were afraid to start this new business without a star.
The same happened when we were starting our band. We used Karem Mahmoud and Shahrazad as leading vocalists to make a name for ourselves. That is exactly what happened later in the field of cinema when we used famous comedians like Abdel-Monem Ibrahim and Amin El-Heneedy in our movie Gharam Fil Karnak, and Magda in the movie Agazet Nus El-Sana.
AO: Why can’t we have a dance-drama nowadays? Is it because there are no directors like Ali Reda? Or is it because there is no dance group as successful as the Reda Troupe ?
Reda: It takes somebody who likes dance-dramas, and Ali Reda went through a lot of trouble to convince a movie producer to produce Agazet Nos El-Sana, which cost LE40,000 for production, music, scenery and hiring dancers. A few years later, we starred in the movie Gharam Fil Karnak, which cost LE120,000. To produce a movie like that nowadays, you would need millions and a director like Ali Reda, who is passionate and understands the true value of dance-dramas.
AO: The success of the Reda Troupe needed a composer with ability and an understanding of how to create music for a dance-drama, but few people know about the influence of musician Ali Ismail on folk dance and the Reda Troupe.
Reda: First of all, I can say that 90% of our success can be credited to Ali Ismail’s music. In the beginning, I did all the music for the dances myself, using a drum rhythm. Ali Reda told me that he knew a good musician, whose name was Ali Ismail. He came by, watched the rehearsals with the drum rhythm only, sat down and wrote some measures, and then disappeared.
We had an upcoming performance but no music. So we tried to find out where he was and were told that he had a terrible accident. We went to visit him at the hospital and we saw him holding a note and composing, and next to his son was someone who was playing the flute, with paper and notes all over the floor.
He composed the whole Reda Troupe musical programme while in hospital, and when we asked him how much he wanted, he told us he would not take any money until we became successful. He formed an orchestra of thirteen musicians.
AO: There is a new form of contemporary theatre-dance, and the Ministry of Culture sponsors festivals for this kind of dance, do you keep up with this form and what do you think about it?
Reda: I heard about it but never watched it. Folk dance is well-known all over the world. If we go to Paris to perform a classical ballet like Swan Lake, and we only have 20 years or so of classical ballet experience, while Paris has a background of 200 years and Russia has been performing for 300 years, we will never be at the same level. But folk-dance is something new to them. It represents a nation, and no one can compete with Egypt when it comes to folk-dance. To perform world-wide arts however, we must keep up with modern, classical and jazz dance. We are completely new in this field and if a small number of audiences attend, we must thank them.
AO: What do you miss nowadays in the Reda Troupe? What do you wish the Reda Troupe had in order to regain its glow?
Reda: It is not just about the Reda Troupe, but rather all folk arts groups. There are no performances and no audience, and why? The reason is that management, and especially the ministry, prefers opera. We tend to feel inferior to foreigners. Today’s opera is just a newborn art, while true art is performed by me and people like me. The salary of a lead folk art dancer is only LE200-300 a month, while the salary of a junior ballet dancer is around LE2,000 a month. Folk art will only regain its success when there is a ministry that appreciates it.
AO: How do you spend your time nowadays?
Reda: I travel all around the world. I was in the US for two months to teach folk-dance, and after that I went to Poland. I will also visit Japan and Venezuela. I am more needed abroad.
The Sphinx Festival 2010 - Egypt's Folkloric Arts and Ethnology - runs from 1 to 5 December at the Swiss Club in Cairo.