Birds of Upper Egypt: Children choir sings in Cairo

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 2 Jul 2016

On 20 June, Children Choir operating under the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development performed at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre in Cairo

Children Choir
Upper Egypt Children Choir at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

When Ramadan comes in June, musical evenings at open air locations are particularly welcome by the audience of all generations. And whenever artists reconnect with the Egyptian tradition and perform within or surrounded by a neighborhood bespeaking history and magnificent Islamic architecture, such events become even more pleasing to the senses.

It was one of those unique, if definitely hot evenings, in the El-Sayyida Nafisa neighborhood. On the bustling borders of the Islamic Cairo, in between alleys whose stones have witnessed many centuries of the city’s history, stands the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre, one of the homes for artistic activities run by the Cultural Development Fund, a sector within the Ministry of Culture. 

On Monday 20 June, in the open air court of the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre, the stage was already set. Trees behind the stage were lit by projectors adding natural warmth to the space. Upon arrival, we could hear a few oriental musicians tuning their instruments, amongst the voices emerging from the audience asking the group of young children circulating in between the chairs to take their seats as they were going to witness something special. And indeed, once the musicians were ready, it didn’t take long for around 30 young people, children and youth to step on stage. As they faced the audience, their faces were happy and confident yet also expressed remarkable concentration. 

The audience calmed down and the group was introduced as the Upper Egypt Children’s Choir, who arrived from the Minya governorate to share with the Cairo audience their work and passion, a repertoire of traditional songs. 

The evening was divided into three segments: song for Egypt, songs for the month of Ramadan, and a few gems representing the tunes passed from one generation to the other by the performers’ forefathers. Performing the best known compositions to the music of Sheikh Imam, Sayed Darwish, Sayed Mekkawy, Ammar Al-Sherei, Mohamed Fawzi, and to the poetry by Salah Jaheen, Fouad Haddad, Ahmed Fouad Nigm, Sayed Hegab, Bayram Al-Tunsi, Gibran Khalil Gibran, among others, the choir instantly captivated the audiences’ hearts.

Not only did the beautiful young voices infuse the area with soul stirring songs that resonated in every Egyptian’s mind, the evening was also an opportunity to get closer to this charming and skilled group of children and the association that gives them artistic life and purpose.

Children Choir
Upper Egypt Children Choir at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

The children’s choir is managed by the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED), a non-profit association established in 1940 by Father Henry Ayrout with the aim of providing education and development services to four main zones of Upper Egypt: Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Luxor. The choir is one of the many projects in which the association, which focuses on funding and running schools, also seeks to educate children and young people through music. 

The idea of the choir goes back to 1987 when Sister Celeste Al-Khayat of the Sacred Heart Society decided to establish the ensemble and handpicked children with beautiful voices from local schools, reaching out to both Christians and Muslims. 

Over the past decades, a few generations of children have crossed paths with the choir. Apart from regular concerts and cooperations with renowned musicians, their voices animate celebrations and events that are linked to religious practice. In the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre, for instance, the choir dedicated a large segment of the evening to Ramadan songs. On other occasions they would perform during Christian celebrations in churches. And since the choir consists of representatives of two religions, in those instances, they present songs that talk about spirituality and God in general, rather than pointing to a specific religion.

Hanaa Gameel, who has been in charge of all the operational aspects of the choir since 2004 (and worked with the association since 1994) explains that in total the ensemble counts some 60 children and young persons, aged between ten and early 20s, living in villages scattered across Minya governorate, 250 km south of Cairo. 

“The choir has participants from Minya itself as well as smaller towns and villages such as Bayadeya, Mallawi, Berba, Abu Qurqas, etc. The choir brings together children from Muslim and Christian families, from small towns and villages, boys and girls. They form a community where the basis is music, singing and strong friendships that are formed on the way,” Gameel explains. 

She adds that inside the choir, the members do not judge one another based on religion, social background or gender. The reputation that the association and the choir developed over the past decades has helped the choir to gain a special positioning within the community and find acceptance. 

Children Choir
Upper Egypt Children Choir at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

In the 75 years of AUEED’s presence in Upper Egypt and the choir’s activities that span almost three decades, a lot of ice has been broken. Today, the families of those children and young people prove more accepting when they participate in activities shared by both religions and genders. 

“They do not object that some young singers travel up to 40 km from their homes to attend weekly Friday rehearsals in Abu Qurqas. The families are proud of them and approve of their travels across Egypt and even on those few occasions when we performed abroad, in Italy, Germany, etc. On the other hand we develop strong relations with the parents. We also organise concerts in the village schools, inviting families and peers. Today, the choir members are popular in their communities, a few of the older singers teach their colleagues in the villages. It is a phenomenon that transforms communities. The choir is their small world, but it is also the trigger of a bigger change that is already very palpable. If you walk in the small streets of their villages, you might hear them sing,” Gameel points to one of many changes that the association has managed to bring about in the Upper Egypt’s restrictive society. 

On the other hand, the association tries to navigate through the difficult months and years without jeopardising the choir’s activities. Gameel explains that the 2011 Revolution not only resulted in many financial struggles, but also in compromised security in the regions where the children live. “Some children live in the areas located far from roads, hence the association was sending microbuses to collect the choir members from their homes or the nearest meeting points.” 

Success at social level, on the other hand, could not have been achieved if not for an intelligent choice of material and the creative component of the choir’s work being deeply rooted in the culture of its members with many songs touching on important human values. 

The choir’s repertoire includes well known compositions cherished by generations of Egyptian and Arab listeners at large. Hayam Tawfik, a holder of PhD in Arabic Music from Cairo’s Ain Shams University who trains the choir since 2000, points to “the book of songs” that the association developed and continues to expand on a regular basis. 

Inside the book, we find songs such as “Salma ya Salama” (Sayed Darwish / Badia Khairy), “Rita” and “Montaseb Al Qama” (Marcel Khalife / Mahmoud Darwish), “El Ard Betetkalem Arabi” (Sayed Mekawy / Fouad Haddad), “Ya Zaraeen El Asab” (traditional tune), “Resala Ela Abdel Wadoud” (Sheikh Imam / Ahmed Fouad Negm), among dozens others. Tawfik adds that “sometimes older members who have a substantial experience in the choir and music, those who also explore instruments, might come up with a tune to lyrics by a well-known poet and we try to support their creativity, at times even performing those new songs.” 

Children Choir
Upper Egypt Children Choir at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Tawfik elaborates on the skills she tries to develop in the young singers. “Normally, we have rehearsals on Fridays, unless we prepare for a bigger concert that demands more frequent practice. We start at 10 am and practice until 2 pm. Whenever introducing a new song, I want to make sure that the choir understands the poetry well, all its meanings and cultural connotations as well as the musical maqamat, etc. On the musical level, we work on different scales, explore different rhythmic patterns and analyse them. Theory is as important as the fun of singing,” Tawfik explains. 

She says that it takes up to one year for new members to get into the choir’s dynamics. “At the beginning it is often difficult for them, but as they move from one rehearsal to another, they go deeper into the song, develop skills and understanding of the music. This is when they really enjoy the singing.” 

The joy was obvious on the faces of the children performing at the Talaat Harb Centre. Each song was additionally adorned by their big smiles and rewarded with generous applause from the audience. Following the belief that everyone should have an equal chance, regardless of their musical advancement, Tawfik makes sure that each singer has a solo part, even if a small one. 

“Those children come from very simple backgrounds and we have to be sensitive to and support their hopes and passions. Music brings them together; it changes their perceptions of life, culture, people,” Tawfik comments. She then elaborates on how songs and music in general can cross all borders and help the children blend and erase many often extremely harsh barriers set up by society that surrounds them. It is due to their participation in the choir that they are able to develop many healthy relations with peers and the community, and become richer human beings.

But while music adds an important colour to the children’s life, the association also offers a variety of workshops to those children. 

“Paralleling their creative development, we also work a lot on behavioural elements, trying to teach the children to always have positive energy. Last but not least, the choir has unbelievable power over us as well. When you work with them, you get addicted to them. And despite the many challenges we, as an association, have to overcome, there is nothing more beautiful than working with children and music. It is a wonderful community; they sing together, play together; there is this big life they have together. We are happy whenever new members join, sad when someone leaves. However, we build ongoing relationships,” Gameel concludes, “which continue even after they leave the choir.”

Children Choir
Hayam Tawfik with Upper Egypt Children Choir at Talaat Harb Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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