As the door opens, he walks in. Tall and charming, he places his precious oud (Middle Eastern pear-shaped stringed instrument) by the wall and introduces himself. “Hazem Shaheen. Nice to meet you”. He sits down and opens up to Ahram Online on the establishment and development of his group, the musical sensation, Eskenderella.
In the globalised world we live in, Egypt’s youth have been drawn to western music like magnets, attracting both upcoming and well-known musicians and singers to its pop-culture. The sounds of drums, six strings, high tempos and monophonic rhythms are becoming more and more dominant. The result has meant that Egypt’s unique oriental melody has almost faded away - until the birth of Eskenderella.
Inspired by the father of popular music in Egypt, Sayyed Darwish and the revered tunes of Egyptian composer El Sheikh Imam, Shaheen calls his band “the music of the group”.
“This idea was a dream of Darwish,” he reveals. “He wanted to compose and write for a group of artists under one project, although he performed solo his entire life,” Darwish’s musical milieu is regarded as the expression of the people’s soul and their nationalistic demands and it is Eskenderella’s aspiration to fulfill Darwish’s long-forgotten hopes.
“Eskenderella is the sound of a mix of Egyptian melodies, singers, musicians, and poets,” Shaheen explains.
Following in the master’s footsteps, Eskenderella also embraces western elements in traditional forms when composing their songs, using a piano, percussion and the oud. With the lyrics of renowned Egyptian poets, Salah Jaheen and Fouad Haddad, pillars of the Egyptian colloquial poetry, as well as Ahmed Fouad Negm and Amin Haddad poetry, Eskenderella have gained recognition and become one of the most influential Egyptian bands. Shaheen has even released his first solo album entitled, “Hagat Wahshani” (Things I Miss).
Back in 2005, and following his own dreams Shaheen, a graduate of the Higher Institute for Arab Music, co-founded a band of enthusiast musicians and singers, who toured Alexandria and Cairo to perform operettas and the songs of Sayyed Darwish and El Sheikh Imam. Bit-by-bit the band began to shape up. “A number of musicians and singers have been replaced since 2005,” Shaheen says.
The name Eskenderella was decided on the spur of the moment. “Just before our concert as an established band, El Sawy Culturewheel wanted a name to announce us to the public,” he recalls, “so we named it Eskenderella.”
Eskenderella was the name of their first song that night, a poem written by Khamis Ezz El Arab; and it was when it all began.
Some of Eskenderella’s famous songs include: “Al Waretheen” (The Successors) composed by Sayyed Darwish, “El Ghassala” (The Washing Machine) and “El Bent Ma’ Geditha” (Girl with her Grandmother) with lyrics by Ahmed Haddad, along with “Rabha” (Winner) written by Ahmed Nour.
“We sing about everything that is opportune and relates to our society,” says Shaheen. “We don’t have a particular style. Our songs can be about love, politics or poverty,” he explains.
Samia Jaheen, one of the singers told Ahram Online: “We were delighted to receive an invitation to perform at the Cairo Opera House but unfortunately we had to submit our poetry for approval and we were censored.”
“No one is allowed to tell us what we should sing or not sing about,” remarks her colleague, Aya Hemeida.
Despite the absurdity of public theatre policies, the band has been privileged to perform at some of Egypt’s most prestigious theatres and venues, such as El Hanager Theatre, El Sawy Culturewheel, Alexandria Opera House, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, to name but a few. As demand rose, they have toured other cities across Egypt, including El Beheira and even travelled to Lebanon.
Jaheen admits that the group is growing slowly. “We are partially at fault. But our main obstacle is trying to find a producer,” she says.
“All producers want some modifications in order to fit in to the pop-culture of today,” Shaheen explains.
Jaheen maintains, “We stand by our principles and the concept of an Egyptian folk band.”
This month in celebration of their fifth anniversary, Eskenderella presents “Magnoun” (Crazy) concert at El Sawy Culturewheel on Christmas Eve. The concert is named after one of the favourite tracks amongst their audiences.
“After the huge demand to include this song in our programme on Friday, we named the concert after it,” Jaheen points out.
Magnoun with the lyrics by Ahmed Haddad, suits the mood of the concert as Jaheen describes it as “presenting a wild combination of different sounds, moods and themes intact, moving from sarcasm and fun to drama and romance. The audience will be surprised”.
Slowly but surely, Eskenderella is climbing the ladder of fame. The band has been well-received in the last five years and in September Al Jazeera television channel featured them as amongst Egypt’s rising stars. Shaheen told Al Jazeera, “We want people to recognise us as the students of Sheikh El Imam and Sayyed Darwish.”
Yet it is a shame that they are still neglected by the big production companies.