Singing love: Egypt's Monica Georges revisits Coptic hymns with David Junior Choir

Nevine Lamei, Thursday 12 Jan 2017

Ahead of their concert on 15 January, young Egyptian mezzo-soprano Monica Georges talks about bringing Coptic spiritual music to a wider audience

Monica Georges
Monica Georges

Mezzo-soprano Monica Georges will present a set of Coptic hymns and psalms, blended with contemporary tunes, with the David Junior Choir on 15 January at Mar Morcos church in Heliopolis, in celebration of Coptic Christmas.

Georges dreams of bringing the Coptic hymns which she gently chants to all sorts of audiences. The singer believes that changing the world is simple; it only takes a bit of willpower and a lot of love to reject injustice and sectarian tension.

Born in 1988, in Cairo's Maadi neighbourhood, Georges regularly goes to Mar Morcos church, in the residential area where she lives, to take part in mass and services.

The mezzo-soprano is the main composer of the David Junior Choir, which she founded in 2007. The project builds off the work of her father David, a Coptic historian, priest, engineer and musician for the George Kyrillos choir.

Georges also hosts the television show Hanranem Tani (chanting forever and always), which airs every Tuesday at 8pm on the Christian satellite channel El Sat7.

Coptic hymns, which Georges and her father both sang in their respective choirs, have been used in liturgical prayers for millennia. Today, they preserve Coptic heritage, which dates back to 3000 BC. “The David Ensemble revives the time of the prophet David, known to have carried a lyre with him as he walked, surrounded by 120 choristers, according to the Old Testament,” Georges explains.

The singer studied music theory at Trinity College, Cambridge University. “To obtain my degree in music theory and composition from Egypt, without moving to London, I took music classes at the Sacre Coeur School in Ghamra, then showed my results and performances to Trinity College,” says the artist. A disciple of several foreign musicologists, she was always encouraged by her father and mentor, from whom she gets her passion for Coptic hymns.

Ever since she was four years old, Georges has attended every David choir rehearsal, everywhere they performed. “My father, who studied musicology with composer Aziz El-Shawan and maestro Youssef El-Sisi, at the Arab Music Institute and the Academy of Arts, was the first to write partitions for, and record traditional Coptic hymns. They can therefore be presented outside of the Coptic liturgy, in a more contemporary manner. They can, for instance, be interpreted by a full orchestra,” she explains.

Coptic Hymns were previously transmitted orally from one generation to the next; nothing was written or recorded. “Most of the old choristers and religious singers were trained by blind people, whose handicap allowed an exceptional aptitude for memorizing long texts, sometimes up to 575 hymns. For my father, the study of measures, rhythms, scales and proportions of the musical phrase was an essential was essential for re-working the hymns. His references were the Institute of Coptic Studies at the Abbassiya cathedral and the keepers of traditional Coptic music: Mikhail Guirguis El-Batanuni (1873-1957), and his successor, Gad Geris,” says Georges.

“Unfortunately, although sacred Coptic music constitutes a rich ancestral heritage today, it remains unknown. On the Internet, we find all sorts of music, but not Coptic music. Even within the Coptic church, very few young priests speak the liturgical language, which cannot live on without special attention,” adds the mezzo-soprano.

Proud of this language, in which she is fluent, Georges underlines its pharaonic origin: “Coptic hymns like l’Eb-Ouro (King of Peace), Erof (Glory of God, sung at Christmas), Atay Barsinoss (chanted in celebration of the Virgin Mary), Genaynan (God has mercy on us), stem from sacred pharaonic-era music. The prayers and psalms are completed with long vocalisations, accompanied by the pulsations of a triangle and the alternated frictions of cymbals, which energise the singers.

The soloist regularly travels with the rest of the David ensemble to perform in Russia, Greece, Italy, Sweden and most of all France, where they benefit from the support of several cultural organisations.

Georges was also chosen by French director and producer Hughes de Courson to participate in the 1999 CD Mozart, the Egyptian, produced by Virgin Classic Ltds. The project was a success, blending Mozart with Egyptian musicians, juxtaposing local tunes (Sufi music, Coptic music, popular music, etc.) with classical melodies. “Hughes de Courson heard me sing the hymn Golgotha during a rehearsal with the David Ensemble. He was moved by the sight of a child singing such a difficult hymn,” she remembers.

The Mozart, the Egyptian album helped the singer gain international exposure. Around the same time, she was invited to sing Golgotha at the Marseilles Opera House, and at the St. Denis Cathedral in Paris, accompanied by the Sofia philharmonic orchestra and the Venice Choir.

In 2000, she traveled to France to record the original soundtrack for the French film Belphégor, Le fantôme du Louvre, by Jean-Paul Salomé, composed by Bruno Coulais. “[The soundtrack] was about Egyptian mummies, like the film. Bruno Coulais came to Egypt in search of musical references. In the David ensemble, the music comes closer to Coptic hymns, which is what he was looking for.”

After she founded the David Junior ensemble, Georges participated in many musical projects and performances. In 2014, she invited Lebanese singer Manal Neema to celebrate Christmas with the David Junior Choir, creating an extraordinary fusion between the Coptic and Maronite genres.

Georges says she supports unity, and rejects all “confessional incitements to violence.” During her last concert at the Cairo Opera House, she celebrated the birth of prophet Muhammad with the Cairo Steps ensemble, along with the Catholic Christmas, with jazz tunes.

“Combining religious chants is the key to success. We reach out to the hearts of a wider audience, of different cultures and religions. During the Cairo Steps concert, I underlined the fact that the attack on El-Botroseya Church will never stop us from celebrating the birth of Christ, the king of peace and tolerance.”

The singer is currently preparing her upcoming Christmas concert, which will be held on 15 January, at the Mar Morcos church in Heliopolis, and will include fourteen hymns to be broadcast on Youtube with the help of El Sat7 channel.

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