Wholesome brass: El-Nafikha band introduces a new recipe to Egypt's music fans

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 6 Aug 2016

In a short time, a unique flavour of El Nafikha brass quintet has generated interest, appreciation of every generation of Egyptian audience.

El Nafikha
El Nafikha band at El Sawy Culturewheel (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Take two trumpets, two trombones and one bass tuba. Add some oriental percussion and a drum set. Sprinkle with a few clever ideas and a dash of nostalgia for the old times, but keep it intertwined with modern melodies. Seal with infinite energy, much fun and artistic imagination.

The result is guaranteed. What you will get is a rich musical experience and a very big sound.

Such was a result delivered by El Nafikha band on 25 July when music filled every corner of El Sawy Culturewheel, seeping out of the River Hall to fade into the Nile.

The sound produced by the brass quintet was big enough to overlay the mahraganat music coming from a felucca sailing in the vicinity.

At the same time its power sent strong shockwaves into the audience, to the extent that one could feel every inch of the body quivering. Finding ourselves in such settings and thoroughly embraced by the show, we immediately realise that the brass quintet is no minor event.

A unique flavour on Egypt’s music scene, since their first concert in October 2014, El Nafikha (The Blowers) have generated interest, appreciation and a high demand.

They have over 50 thousand followers on the Facebook, a platform which they keep engaging. Since their concert in El Sawy Culturewheel on 25 July, they have also performed at the Piacera compound in Ain El Sokhna and at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 31 July. Most recently the quintet performed on 6 August at Cairo’s El Genaina Theatre where, they were part a double bill with Bahgaga band.

El Nafikha’s line-up consists of Mohamed Sawwah and Walid Gabr on the trumpet, Amir Ibrahim and Ahmed Ismail on the trombone and Masaki Okajima on the tuba. The musicians are graduates of the Cairo Conservatory, and some of them are also members of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. They are accompanied by Khaled El Sayes on oriental percussions and Sameh Shaaban on drums.

El Nafikha
El Nafikha band performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 31 July 2016 (Photo courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

“We were friends during the years spent at the conservatory. We always wanted to form an ensemble, brainstorming different ideas. Finally, it was the brass quintet that turned into a solid project,” explains Mohamed Sawwah, the band’s main dynamo.

He adds that the main idea behind the band’s formation was to introduce brass instruments to a large audience, taking them beyond the opera’s repertoires. “We wanted to show the audience that brass instruments can perform good melodies.”

While on their Facebook page the band present themselves as an “Oriental Brass Sound”, El Nafikha’s concerts are based on the musical medleys and songs arranged for the ensemble by Sawwah.

Most of the compositions are well known to listeners as they are taken from oriental music’s decades-long repertoire, with most melodies being well-known enough to be instantly recognised and appreciated by every generation of Egyptian.

During their performances, the band not only walks the audience through decades of Arabic music, it also adds a theatrical element using costumes and lighting. The result is a show in the fullest sense.

At El Sawy Culturewheel, while opening the evening with Om Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab songs reinvented for brass, El Nafikha’s members wore red tarbooshes reminiscent of those times. As they progressed towards more recent decades, they took off layers of their outfits to match the increasingly contemporary style of music.

“We always add this element of a mini drama to our official monthly concerts, such as the one that took place at El Sawy Culturewheel. It is through engaging the audience in the show and the music that we can open the door to the many other values we hope to transfer,” Sawwah clarifies, adding that, above all, this artistic packaging allows El Nafikha to break the barrier between listeners and brass.

Apart from the theatrical elements and the melodies, which the audience will sing along with, there is an even more important element in El Nafikha’s concerts: the fact that the brass instruments are the true protagonist, which is unusual in Egyptian music.

El Nafikha
El Nafikha band performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 31 July 2016 (Photo courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

Except for the Boghdady Big Band performing mainly at the Cairo Opera’s stage, today brass instruments are not in focus in Egypt. While they remain an indispensable component of a variety of ensembles and play an important role in many musical programmes, they hardly ever make it to the front lines of the music scene.

Equally in Egyptian and oriental music history, brass instruments rarely played any obvious role and only a few examples taken from pop culture point to a brass presence. 

One of the names that come to mind would be trumpeter Samy El Bably who enriched the instrument with his imagination and improvisation on oriental tunes, gaining popularity in the 1970s through the 1990s.

Much earlier, at the turn of the 20th century, we find Mohamed Hasaballah’s marching band, known simply as Hasaballah, a troupe which was recognised on the Egyptian streets, joining in public and private festivities. Over the decades, the Hasaballah phenomenon has been occasionally revived with sporadic shows on the streets and more recently at the malls by musicians hoping to carry on the legacy.

It is safe to say that while drawing on a those very few historical experiences, El Nafikha steps into the scene with their own unique vision of how to bring brass back into the mainstream. Well-known Arabic melodies and songs arranged for the brass quintet become an excuse for the band to gain the listeners’ hearts and incite in them a warm relationship with the instruments. The theatrical element that comes with the concerts makes the experience even more enjoyable.

“We want to create real fun for the audience,” Sawwah comments on the band’s mission. And, indeed, it is a goal the band is achieving. El Nafikha’s provides a lot of fun with programming that relies mainly on a journey through memory, as we move in time through musical riches.

In some concerts they go as far as including the most surprising musical material, such as arrangements of well known contemporary compositions, or music from video and Android games, Super Mario or Subway Surfers included. There are no limits on where their creativity and imagination will take them. And, besides giving concerts, they join corporate events and advertisements.

El Nafikha’s popularity is growing by the day and their schedule is becoming packed with concerts all across Egypt. While the band continues to invest time in establishing its name in the country, Sawwah adds that they are ready to embark on regional endeavours and “who knows, maybe international exposure will follow”.

Being the band’s managerial and artistic dynamo, Sawwah now considers including support forces which would help transport El Nafikha to the next level.

Yet, apart from the logistical plans, we can rest assured that El Nafikha’s future will hold surprises. Their secret and power lies in their unique flavour, their clearly defined vision, intelligent artistic strategies and musical professionalism.

And so – till we next hear from El Nafikha. 

Mohamed Sawwah
Mohamed Sawwah from El Nafikha band. Concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 31 July 2016 (Photo courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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