Ears Wide Open: awakening the creative impulse in Egypt's children

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 25 Oct 2014

Supported by the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI), Ears Wide Open approaches music education in an intercultural and non-traditional context

Eva Fock
Eva Fock with children at the Artellewa arts centre (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Egypt’s state school curricula hardly include any artistic education and very few schools organise end-of-the-year performances. When they do happen, these tend to be a showcase of the teachers’ ambitions rather than demonstrating any solid benefits the students have gained. Over several years now I have spilled much ink on the importance of artistic and music education, incessantly calling on educators and parents to invest time and energy in this priceless endeavour. Repeating those desperate cries now feels somewhat less worthwhile than highlighting a few existing locations and projects that offer music education.

Several such facilities have always existed, catering to those fortunate children whose parents recognise the need for art and are willing and able to invest time and money in the process. More recently, on the other hand, a number of valuable initiatives motored by independent art players have targeted underprivileged children.

Managed by the Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thakafy), Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School is among the most successful projects providing children and young people from the most challenging backgrounds with education in a number of artistic disciplines, including the circus arts and percussions. The recently launched Egypt Children Choir, Selim Sahab’s ambitious project aiming at enriching the lives of orphans and homeless children with music education, might soon become another shining star in the field.

The more recent candidate for the honour of music education partisan is perhaps “Ears Wide Open,” an initiative that places creativity in an intercultural context, approaching music education in a non-traditional way and using artistic expression to incite creative dialogue between professional musicians and children.

Supported by the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI), the project is represented by Egyptian composer Nahla Mattar on the one hand and three professionals from Denmark on the other hand: ethnomusicologist Eva Fock, singer and music teacher Malene Bichel and composer Mogens Christensen. The project also involves a number of other Egyptian musicians such as the Awtar Quartet.

Ears Wide Open addresses children and young people, mostly from state schools, with the aim of awakening in them the creative impulse. Through a series of short workshops, continuous dialogue is generated at a variety of levels; team members help the children to explore their own voice as well as other sounds, introducing them to the concept of instrument-making and eventually directing them to a final performance (scheduled on Saturday 25 October), where all the workshops’ components can be fused by Christensen.

“The beginnings of Ears Wide Open go back to April 2014 when I visited Cairo and developed a closer contact with Nahla Mattar,” Fock explains. “Shortly after that, we met again in Copenhagen where a few workshops and lectures were held with Danish children...” Fock stresses the fact that the final concert incorporated all project partners, allowing the whole team to understand the dynamics of their cooperation. Further plans were laid out and the team met once again in Cairo, where they proceeded with a clearly drawn plan of workshops that would benefit local children to be held between 15 and 25 October.

One part of the initiative involves the Misr Public Library hosting a group of 30 children from state schools, aged eight-16, who are working with Bichel on the recognition of one’s own voice and raising awareness of sounds. “We approach music education in a non conformist way,” Bichel describes her practise. “Rather than singing, I look into the concepts of playing with the voice, helping the children to discover everything they can do with it. We explore the sounds of crying, laughing etc., and then we put meaning and emotions into it.”

While the group is invited to detect the large vocabulary of sound, the workshop participants are encouraged to create a collective activity in which listening to one other becomes a factor as important as that of producing sound.  Similar exercises will be held with a group of children in one of Giza’s schools, together with a visual element in which Fock will use figurative art to invite the children to “listen with their eyes and look with their ears”, as she puts it.

Fock will also attend to the young community of the poor Cairo district of Ard El Lowa, where she will hold an instrument-making workshop: “The workshop will take place at the Artellewa arts centre. We will start by collecting some junk and then use our creativity to build some string, wind as well as drum-like instruments. Those instruments will then become tools for further exploration of sounds.”

We should also point to the initiative’s Fayoum leg, whereby another group of children will investigate layers of sound. For their part the Awtar Quartet will join a workshop that should test their professionalism  with new creative references. “Rather than reinventing forms,” Christensen says, “we will try to look into the process of music creation, placing ourselves in the twilight between fixed structures and improvisations.”

Ears Wide Open
Photo courtesy: Ears Wide Open

The final performance which was planned on 25 October would combine all the groups in a structured sequence of creative explorations, an organised set built on experiments with sounds, journeys in instrument making and a dynamic dialogue between everyone involved, children and professionals, making sure that all parties benefit equally from the whole. Christensen’s role will be to look into the different pitches created by the groups and put them into a unified context.

As such, instead of starting with musical frames and then filling them with creative components, Ears Wide Open operates the other way round: it starts with a process in which the idea is generated and developed by the participants, eventually leading to an artistic structure. The team members believe that, on their way to the performance, the children will be exposed to a non-traditional music education, something that will raise their interest and could lead to further creative realisations.    

And the project does include an impressively wide array of interesting components. By relying on sound and pulling the creativity from within the participants, Ears Wide Open will not be restrained by any cultural or social limitations. By drawing on the participants themselves, the project remains equally valid and beneficial to children in Denmark and Egypt. For many Egyptian children it is a rare opportunity to investigate previously untouched layers of the inner creative force: an area that is in dire need of exploration. As much as Ears Wide Open introduces important values, however, one question forces its way through the packed ten-day’ programme, “What’s next?”

For many children, participation in the project will light up a sparkle that will hopefully shine for a longer time. If it is not maintained, however, it will fade sooner or later. It is true that, during the core process of the project, children always show clear changes in their attitude, opening up and moving from timidity to active participation, but it is on the frequency of such initiatives that a sustainable change in their lives depends. The one-time experience is severely challenged by the educational and social conditions surrounding those children’s lives, which will remain long after the Ears Wide Open team has left.

It goes without saying that the impact of such an initiative is strongly linked to the choices made by the organisers, including such Egyptian parties as DEDI — the backbone, who are well aware of the ground on which they’re treading. In this context, the choice of Artellewa is most commendable, since the centre already has an established standing among the local community, which in large part consists of underprivileged children.

Though targeting public schools sounds like a good proposition, it fails when placed on the balance between the project’s aims and the practical long-term success the team hopes for. Though it is unfair to deprive any group of children of the project’s values, one needs to stress the fact that the survival of the same values depends on the choices of target areas.

Due to the brevity of the workshop, Ears Wide Open is more likely to leave a solid imprint on territories where children are already practicing creative expression, such as those mentioned at the opening of this article: Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School, Egypt Children Choir, as well as Kythara Institute for Music, which sets a symbolic price on the music education services it provides. On the other hand several initiatives continuously involved in providing art to underprivileged communities across Egypt, such as Mahatat for Contemporary Art, can be good conduits for the values carried by Ears Wide Open.

Not only can those platforms help to create sustainable long-term results, they might also learn from and adopt the techniques developed by the Ears Wide Open team, promoting them further for the benefit of an even larger number of children.

Ears Wide Open
Photo courtesy: Ears Wide Open

This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly

Note: The final performance culminating Ears Wide Open's work was scheduled on Saturday 25 October, but it was cancelled when all cultural institutions have suspended their programmes following the national mourning announced by the Egypt's government on 24 October responding to a series of deadly attacks in Sinai that killed 31 soldiers and left 30 more injured.


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