A Riot, A Fall, A Shrine: Egyptian musician Miniawy reflects on city life in new album

Soha Elsirgany , Monday 25 Apr 2016

The album comes after Abdullah Miniawy's one-year hiatus from the music scene, and a special venture for Zawya cinema hosting the music event in its screening halls

Abdullah Miniawy
Abdullah Miniawy (Photo: courtesy of Abdullah Miniawy)

Artist and musician Abdullah Miniawy’s debut album titled Attempts of the Middle: A Riot, A Fall, A Shrine was released at Zawya on 19 April.

The event was a special performance, combining a cinema experience with music to create a live audiovisual experience. As such, Miniawy’s work is realised as more of an art project. Zawya, on the event announcement introduces his "minimal compositions, combining different elements of jazz, hip hop, and the art of slamming and chants."

On 19 April, Miniawy, a chanter and musician from Fayoum, who is also behind both the music and poetic Arabic lyrics, stood before the audience in the dark hall with his collaborators/band members. The line-up includes bassist Youssef Hassan, violinist and vocalist Grasa Cravelio, and back-vocalist Kholoud Adel, in addition to visual artist Dina Shohdy, whose abstract video piece is what plays on the screen like a movie. 

Before the performance starts, the video on loop shows a stomach with a belly button that shrinks until it disappears, only to reappear again.

Music is minimal until the crowd settles, then Miniawy’s trumpet, Cravelio’s violin, Hassan’s bass, in addition to a keyboard, and electronic tunes join in to produce the mesmerising layered sounds the audience will listen to for 40 minutes.

He performs five songs out of the eight on his album, the songs’ endings marked by a “Thank You.”

According to Miniawy, Mohawalat El-Batn (Attempts of the Middle) was the last of several names for the project.

“It had many names, including The Newcomer,” Miniawy tells Ahram Online.

In Arabic, the word El-Batn has a more fluid meaning. As such, the middle can be the stomach, or the subconscious, the core of something.

“In my hometown of Fayoum, I drew inspiration from a very organic environment, one that is very different from industrial city life in Cairo,” the artist says.

Having moved to the capital three years ago, he found his usual artistic approach hard to apply in the new context.

“I would write four lines rather than the 60 lines I was writing before. I was trying to write in my same ways but was finding it difficult,” he says.

From playing the trumpet, Miniawy developed a tumour on his neck.

“It kind of traumatised me. It looked like a stomach, and the bulge looked pregnant. It was like I had something I wanted to deliver. Ironically, it shrank after I made the album,” he says.

Attempts of the Middle album can be interpreted as the artist’s journey trying to cope with his new surroundings.

His lyrics infuse his social, philosophical, and political thoughts sung in fluid classical Arabic.

Growing up with an Arabic language teacher as a father, Miniawy had been writing since he was eight years old.

The words are far from mainstream and one listen is not enough to grasp the meaning and richness of them.

“I realise that my lyrics are better understood when read rather than only heard,” he says.

The recorded album, expected to be out in a month’s time, will have a booklet of the lyrics printed.

“It takes a while for people to get used to them. I’ve been touring with Ahmed Saleh for three years, and only in the last year, while we were performing at Carthage [Tunisia] festival, the people started singing the lyrics along. It was quite surprising and amazing.”

The video playing with the music was all the work of Dina Shohdy.

“I didn’t even see the video, I just gave her the main concept of my album and she worked her magic,” he says.

The audience however might try to link the video with the music, looking for intentional links or parallels.

“I try to make work that can have more than one meaning, and allows for every listener to take it differently,” Miniawy says.

The video changes and develops through the duration of the five songs.

After the opening sequence of the belly button, the film introduces more and more layers, from superimposed drops that make the skin appear to be wet or melt like wax, to evoking an organic desert mountain-scape.

The video has an earthy colour palette, with lots of browns and yellows, mixed with more vibrant shades of reds and greens that are best described as computerised effects.

Hands are a recurring motif, with a segment involving a pair moving in circular motion on skin, like a massage, and another pair of hands digging in the soil.

This perhaps reinforces a comparison between Miniawy’s two different realities, between Fayoum and Cairo.

At some point, a restless fetus appears in the stomach. Perhaps the unborn project of the artist’s tumour?

More than once, there is an image of a person eating, with close up on the mouth, and a repetitive motion of a hand wiping something off the lips, suggesting gluttony and insatiable consumption.

For the first part of the video, the live music runs more organically, with ritualistic drums beating in background, and Miniawy’s voice flowing smoothly with long syllables and frequent harmonising.

Eventually the video starts to show a more urban landscape, with a city and building and cars.

This is paralleled with a shift in Miniawy’s song, which starts being more spoken than sung, like slam poetry. It sounds less organic, more rigid, less Fayoum, more Cairo.

It is the fourth song on set list that holds the title of the album, and a story of an eight story building collapsing, floor by floor.

Is it the story of man trapped in a collapsing structure? Or is the collapsing structure the man himself?

Attempts of the Middle stands as a conceptual music project that invites the audience to not only enjoy Miniawy’s melodious singing voice with fine music, but demands and asserts the respect independent music deserves.

“You know the music scene in Egypt, it’s difficult to break through and the venues are tiring and just want to make money,” Miniawy says.

“I want the ticket to be affordable for the student that gets an allowance. That’s my audience,” he says.

His decision to launch his album at Zawya came after his frustration with the scene and disappointment in other venues.

“A station like Zawya was a slap in the face compared to other venues and festivals. I was going to release the album in DCAF festival, but I was replaced with Abdelbaset Hamouda,” he says.

The screening hall at Zawya was full house on the day of the performance, with people sitting on the stairs between rows.

“It was great to see people fill the seats, I was very happily surprised at the turn up.”

After the first song, one audience member asked out loud “Can we clap again?” leading the hall to eagerly applaud Miniawy for the second time.

Afterwards on the same day, Miniawy performed the album at Cairo Jazz Club, and will perform it again on 4 May at Darb 1718.

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