Egypt Children Choir: Sahab reaches out to orphans, homeless children

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 27 Sep 2014

Conductor Selim Sahab tells about his latest brainchild, Egypt Children Choir, an ambitious project which aims at infusing lives of orphans and homeless children with valuable music education

Selim Sahab
Selim Sahab during rehearsal with Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Selim Sahab, the Palestine-born, Lebanese-Egyptian conductor, sits in a small room at the Egyptian Charitable Association for Childhood Care (ECACC), taking a break from a long day of rehearsals. The voices of children running along the corridors just outside the door do not seem to bother him.

“In 1970, I was still a student at the Moscow State [Tchaikovsky] Conservatory. I travelled to Paris where I visited the Louvre. As I was wandering around the famed museum grounds, I noticed dozens of children, probably no older than ten, entering the Jeu de Paume Hall.

“The group of children were following the teacher who, museum guide in hand, was describing the hall and its treasures. I will never forget the great concentration on the faces of the young children, their eyes exploring a Monet, then a Renoir... This day was to stay fresh in my mind for many years to come.”

He continues: “With the image of those French children marvelling at works of art engraved on my mind, I could not stop making comparisons between my experience in Louvre and what children in the Arab world have access to, thinking about the facilities with which they are provided and the many things they lack... And this is where it all began.”

Indeed, Sahab has since dedicated his life to children. His rich resume includes founding and managing children’s choirs in Beirut (from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s) as well as Cairo, where his name has become synonymous with the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir, an ensemble that he established following the opening of the new Cairo Opera House in 1988.

Not only did the choir enrich the lives of children for over 25 years, according to Sahab it was the artistic cradle of many acclaimed singers, such as Sherine, Reham Abdel-Hakim, Ayat Farouk, May Farouk, Ahmed Saad and many others.

Today, Sahab has a new story to tell, and he’s as passionate about this one as any other he has told in the past. He has always been ardently dedicated to children’s choirs, but this story does not refer to either the impressionist brushstrokes of the great Parisian landmark or younger stars on the Arabic music scene.

In Sahab’s new story, the heroes are over 100 orphans and homeless children aged six to 12, all gathered inside the ECACC’s halls, in the simple Giza neighbourhood where we’re having this conversation. They’re in the middle of a busy day filled with rehearsals for performances by the Egypt Children Choir, another long-term project aimed at improving children’s lives with a valuable musical education.

Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir
Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

“I love children and I love working with them,” Sahab says. In his seventies, the maestro’s dynamism does not seem dimmed by age. “Whenever I see a child on the street, I can’t stop thinking what he could have become had he been given an opportunity to indulge in a valuable creative practice. This boy or that girl could have been a remarkable painter, an actor, a musician or a filmmaker, had life been kinder to them.”

The association’s management explains that the Egypt Children Choir was founded through a collaboration between three organisations, regulated by a joint protocol: Sahab’s Organisation for the Arab Creator, Egyptian Renaissance Association for Development (ERAD) and Egyptian Charity Association for Childhood Care (ECACC).

In March this year, Sahab’s non-profit organisation contacted the ERAD’s chairman, Mohamed Al-Batran, who, expressing a profound interest in the choir project, in turn spoke to Mohamed Fahmy, a member of the board of the Egyptian Charity Association for Childhood Care (ECACC). After a few weeks of talks, the ECACC, whose Al-Fustat Orphanage is home to over 50 children, became the central platform, coordinating the logistics behind the choir’s formation.

ECACC contacted several other orphanages and charitable associations working with children, as well as centres operating under the Hope Village Society, an NGO providing services and assistance to children in a range of difficult circumstances.

“The choir is only the first step in Selim Sahab’s much bigger dream,” explains Wael Kamal Al-Naghy, director of one of the ECACC’s divisions. “Since the main aim is to offer music education to those children, some will join the choir but others might be better off playing an instrument. As such, Maestro Sahab is also thinking about forming an orchestra.”

Al-Naghy goes on to explain that in the near future the association is also eager to provide the children with a large choice of artistic activities, supplementing music with fine art, theatre and other art forms, and so allowing the children to explore their specific talents.

“Our children deserve the same quality of life as those who are more privileged, who have stable homes and caring families. Music and art in general play an important role in any child’s development. The gains resulting from a music education are much greater than just the ability to sing or play an instrument,” said Al-Naghy.

“While providing a platform for self-expression, it is through well-tailored musical practices that we shape personalities, tame and redirect the choices of the more hostile young characters. This is how art becomes an indirect tool helping with the implementation of upbringing strategies.”

Al-Naghy says that, while the Egypt Children Choir has already started taking shape, all the parties involved have initiated the first steps on the way to the possible formation of an orchestra along parallel tracks.

Egypt Children Choir
Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

A mere few days of rehearsals have laid the ground for respect and great appreciation from the children towards Sahab. Attending a rehearsal is almost like witnessing a miracle in the making: deep concentration marks the young faces, attentive eyes follow the slightest movement of the master’s hand. Within minutes, an old popular song by Mohamed Abdel Wahab (1907-1991) turns from discordant sounds into a gratifying artistic presentation.

The Egypt Children Choir is probably Sahab’s most ambitious musical project to date, a big dream slowly coming true. Up to this point, Sahab has auditioned over 300 children, selecting over 100 musically gifted ones. The selection process is done alongside ongoing rehearsals, since Sahab aims to form a 500-member choir. Though at first the number sounds big, Sahab immediately points to the days when the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir numbered 300, with all the children standing together on stage to perform impeccably to a mesmerised audience.

“Once, when Abdel-Wahab saw so many rows of children singing, he came and said to me, ‘I won’t ask you how you train them. I want to know how you control this number. This is not just a class, it’s a complete school.’ I say it is always worth the effort. You can’t imagine to what extent the experience is beneficial and rewarding to the children.”

To Sahab, the number of children in the choir is not itself an issue: he is simply passionate about the Egypt Children Choir project and believes it will reshape the lives of its members.

The different stages of practice that include seemingly demanding procedures are marked by the educator’s impressive control of the children and the high level of concentration they display. But Sahab makes it all sound like simple daily routines.

“When I teach them a song, we also talk about its lyrics, its composer and singers. I explain the song’s historical background, positioning this specific composition in the history of Arabic music. It is important that the children should have a full understanding of the material with which they are working.”

As for his regular practices with the Egypt Children Choir, Sahab uses the Arabic music curriculum which, though invaluable in national and regional history, does not include songs written especially for children. Often the lyrics have little to do with the world in which the children live. Sahab says he will introduce newer works, at later stages.

“Children need to learn singing with the Arabic music heritage. Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Om Kolthom and many other great names began their musical formation on this material and I believe the results were not bad at all,” he says.

“There is artistic wealth in those songs. You can see all the names that started with the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir and are now celebrated, either as singers or instrumental musicians, having benefited from these songs. I am using the same curriculum I was teaching children at the Opera.”

Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir
Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

No need to repeat the conclusions drawn by hundreds of research studies or to enumerate the living testimonies to how art and music education enrich the lives of the children, how the creative processes explored and practiced at a young age resound further in life and choices or how they remain at the heart of many professional accomplishments regardless the field of expertise.

For children who are not only deprived of luxuries but also stripped of basic needs and rights, music education becomes an essential window onto important human and aesthetic elements. In conversations with the children, one is surprised by the immediate effect that participation in the choir has on them.

It was only the third day of rehearsals, the third day of any art education that has ever touched their lives — but there was so much hope and motivation in their behaviour that it was overwhelming. And it was equally obvious in their comments when, during the break, they gathered in a large dining room, laughing, talking and listening to music.

“I will be like Elissa. No, better than Elissa,” one girl tells me. Two of her friends point to Leila Mourad as their idol. Chats with them reveal the extent to which they’ve already placed their hopes on the choir.

A young boy laughs and, eager to add his two cents’ worth, happily showcases his knowledge of the majority of Egyptian mainstream singers. When asked about his work with Sahab, however, his face becomes more serious: “Working with Maestro Selim Sahab is another thing. We are the Egypt Children Choir,” he manages to explain before the proverbial mike is claimed by his peers.

Sahab says the choir is one of the fastest mediums to bring about tangible results, while the orchestra will take much more work and time to take proper form. “Each child has his talent in a specific artistic field. One can sing, another might be a good violinist or a pianist,” Sahab says, adding that art is an excellent tool for directing young energies.

With his own organisation as well as two others involved in the project, Sahab still plans to address many parties — from charitable and non-profit organisations to official ministerial bodies — in the hope of securing their support.
But it is the name of Mohamed Al-Batran, chairman of the Egyptian Renaissance Association for Development, that keeps returning, whether in conversations with Sahab or with the ECACC management.

“Al-Batran was the first to believe in this project and supports it wholeheartedly. He understands the long-term gains of the choir and music education in general,” the conductor says. 

Egypt Children Choir
Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Change through music

Sahab points to El Sistema as an example of how music education has changed the lives of homeless children in Venezuela and challenged a substantial part of the country’s social status quo.

El Sistema was founded in 1975, under the name Social Action for Music, by the Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu. He believed that one can fight poverty and the incumbent isolation with music. He started a movement that creates orchestras by bringing together children from underprivileged backgrounds, including homeless children.

Today Venezuela, a country where a large part of population lives below the poverty line, has 300,000 children involved in El Sistema, studying classical music and playing instruments.

Among those students, some 80 per cent come from the most impoverished and disenfranchised sectors of Venezuelan society. El Sistema has several hundred youth orchestras and 30 symphony orchestras, choirs and ensembles especially designed for hearing and/or visually impaired children.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who is now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is probably the most famous student of El Sistema.
Through the years, the Venezuelan government has been involved in supporting Social Action for Music. Recent studies and statistics point out that areas covered by El Sistema see significant decline in crime rates as well as increased school attendance.

According to conclusions presented in “El Sistema: Challenging Norms through Music,” a 2012 paper written by Ciera M. DeSilva and Gregory L. Sharp at Mount Allison University, Canada, “Teens who attend El Sistema have a 6.9 per cent high school drop-out rate compared to 26.4 percent of their non-participating peers. Rather than allowing his country to become trapped in the vicious circles of poverty and violence, Abreu realised the mutually reinforcing effect of social investment and growth.”

Economists explain that every one US dollar invested in the programme, returns in ‘social dividends’ as $1.68.

El Sistema has proved that music education is an efficient tool that brings about palpable results on the social and economic levels. In the 1970s, it took Venezuela only a few years to start making that realisation and, 40 years later, El Sistema is a success story studied and cited worldwide.

Inspired by the group of children he saw in the Louvre Museum and later reinforced by news of El Sistema’s growth, Sahab’s dreams aim high. With a strong backbone already in place, hopefully the choir will gain the support of many parties yet.

Though still at the beginning, it is obvious to all parties involved, that the choir has already become a long-term commitment, invested with passion for the children and the project. The Egypt Children Choir plans to make its first public appearance in the second half of October, as part of the 6 October and Suez Canal celebrations.

Long-term plans include appearances in well-known venues across Egypt, as well as in the governorates. The management believes that moving into the less-privileged areas of Egypt will hopefully inspire children, their parents and educators. The Egypt Children Choir hopes to be an example of how music education can enrich and change lives.

Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir
Selim Sahab and Egypt Children Choir (Photo: Ati Metwaly)


This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

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