Egypt's Al-Nour Wal Amal blind women orchestra opens Brazil's music festival

Ati Metwaly , Sunday 24 Jan 2021

In its 38th edition of what is known as 'Curitiba Music Workshop' the event delivers concerts, seminars and educational activities with some events taking place online

Curitiba Music Workshop
Amal Fikry during the Zoom meeting with the 38th Curitiba Music Workshop, 17 January 2021.

Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra, Egypt's renowned orchestra of blind and visually-impaired women musicians,  participated in Brazil's music festival known as the Curitiba Music Workshop (Oficina de Música de Curitiba).

This year the festivities take place between 17 and 31 January in Brazil. Many activities are held online under the theme of 'Music at a distance' as a way to reach out to the international music community as well as to the audiences despite the COVID-19 lockdown.
The one-of-a-kind orchestra in Egypt and the Middle East, joined the Curitiba's events through an online presentation on the Workshops' opening day, 17 January.

Posted on the 'Oficina de Música de Curitiba' YouTube channel, the hour and 20 minute video is a documentation of a live meeting between Vice President of Al-Nour Wal Amal Association and the main dynamo behind the orchestra, Amal Fikry along with the orchetsra’s mentor and conductor, Mohamed Saad Basha, three musicians from the ensemble and the Brazilian visually impaired interviewers and translator.
Amal Fikry opens the presentation giving an introduction to the history and journey of Egypt's over four-decade-old orchestra. The whole presentation is conducted in English language with translation to Portuguese.

The orchestra is part of the Al-Nour Wal Amal association, an NGO for blind girls founded in 1954 by a group of volunteers led by the late Istiklal Radi, with the aim of educating visually impaired girls and helping them integrate into society.
In 1961, seven years after the establishment of the association, Al-Nour Wal Amal Music Institute was founded by the late Samha El-Kholy, former Dean of the Cairo Conservatory.
Throughout the years, the girls are enrolled in regular schools at Al-Nour Wal Amal association, and the musically gifted are given an opportunity to study music as well as respective instruments in the afternoons. The association provides the instruments to all the musicians as well as brings the best Egyptian musicians (many teaching at the Cairo Conservatory or are employed in state orchestras) to work with the girls individually. The orchestra rehearses twice a week with intensified practice coming prior to tours and other performances.
Over the past decades the orchestra has been a shining light of Egypt’s musical firmament. With performances in six continents on over 30 international tours and hundreds of concerts inside Egypt, the orchestra wins the hearts of listeners while the international media describes them as “the fourth pyramid of Giza” and “a human miracle.”
The association also has a junior orchestra which over the past decade has begun performing across a variety of stages in Egypt.
In her introduction, Fikry recalls many milestones of the orchestra and also points to the many decorations that the orchestra received in many countries. She highlights "in 2018, we were decorated by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, a recognition given to the musicians and myself," Fikry said in the video. It was the best decoration we have ever received,” she added.  
Curitiba Music Workshop
Mohamed Saad Basha during the Zoom meeting with the 38th Curitiba Music Workshop, 17 January 2021.
She adds a personal note on Brazil being a “beautiful country” recalling her visit to the capital Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, State of Bahia, São Paulo, among other corners of the Latin American country. “I hope that one day our orchestra will be able to travel to Brazil and physically participate in the music festival of Curitiba.”
The video continues with questions to Fikry regarding the orchestra, successes and challenges, and how it is able to sustain.
Fikry pointed to particular difficulties that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic, including the closure of many performing venues which resulted in the need of continuous support for the orchestra and for the music institute so it can “form future generations of blind musicians.”
Fikry points to the girls and women performing in Al-Nour Wal Amal as being talented musicians but also highlights their many financial responsibilities while their main income comes from working in the ensemble.
Following the exchange of thoughts, the music segment showcasing Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 (1st movement).
The video then focuses on Mohamed Saad Basha, current conductor of the visually-impaired women orchestra.
“I joined the orchestra eight years ago,” Saad Basha says in his presentation. “At first I worked with the junior orchestra, before moving to the big chamber orchestra.” Throughout the years, the orchestra was led by Ahmed Abul Eid followed by Egypt-based Sudanese conductor and composer Ali Osman who passed away in February 2017. He was then replaced by Egyptian conductor and composer Saad Basha.
Curitiba Music Workshop
Footage from a concert by Al Nour Wal Amal posted during the Zoom meeting with the 38th Curitiba Music Workshop, 17 January 2021.
When speaking about the process of preparing a composition for performance, Saab Basha says: “The orchestra reads Braille music notation, we begin by choosing a piece of music that meets our instrumental formation and the musicians learn their parts by heart. My role is to bring it all together in a correct manner.”
He also mentions the new successes of the Junior Al-Nour Wal Amal Orchestra with their first tour taking them to Serbia three years ago.
In the interview segment Saad Basha is asked about differences and similarities between conducting a visually impaired ensemble and one with sighted musicians.
“The similarities are in music. Our sole expression is in music and its dynamics. The differences are in the way we communicate. In the sighted orchestra, we depend on eye contact but in this special orchestra we depend on memory,” he replies adding that prior to rehearsals, the blind musicians work hard to memorise the music.
Saad Basha also underlines how working with the blind musicians has impacted his own development. He explains that when the eye contact is removed from the equation, he must create a special focus on all music aspects of the piece, articulations and expressions embedded in the composition.
The video then moves to providing the footage of numerous performances that the orchestra held internationally: in UK (1990), Spain (1992), Japan (1994), Greece (2006), Australia (2008), France (2008), India (2010), France (2012), Malta (2012), among others. It also presents the musicians in their free time, singing together and enjoying their time. A few segments point to the Junior orchestra as well.
Curitiba Music Workshop
Shaimaa Yehya during the Zoom meeting with the 38th Curitiba Music Workshop, 17 January 2021.
The presentation ends with interviews of three musicians from the orchestra expressing their thoughts on the ensemble and how Al-Nour Wal Amal enriched their lives. Violinist Shaimaa Yehya also stresses on the ensemble’s uniqueness and how it stands out from general Egyptian everyday culture. “Music is a universal language,” she says underlining the main tool that Al-Nour Wal Amal uses to overcome all challenges and address the audience through their concerts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the orchestra very hard. In the first wave of the pandemic and suspension of performances as well as closure of the institute, the musicians were deprived of regular practice. Moreover with the general shutdown in March, the orchestra’s plans of a new tour to China and Saudi Arabia were suspended.
As the cultural venues began reopening and putting precautionary measures in place, in August, the 50-member strong orchestra has been divided into two groups, each rehearsing once a week. Meanwhile, the Junior Orchestra, also returned to practice and was divided into smaller groups.
The orchestra has given a couple of concerts in past weeks yet there is a strong need for a more dynamic presence in the field, for musical as well as economical, social and psychological reasons. Concerts are an important part of the orchestra’s life. Through practice and performance, the musicians gain a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, music activities provide them with income, especially needed for female musicians responsible for households and children.
The orchestra’s presence – even if virtual – in the Oficina de Música de Curitiba (Curitiba’s Music Workshop) is an important step reassuring the ensemble’s value and presence in the international scene, against all odds.
Held between 17 and 31 January, Oficina de Música de Curitiba (Curitiba’s Music Workshop) hosts a variety of artistic activities revolving around music.
The activities are held all across the city. They include concerts, presentations and seminars with a big stress placed on educational activities. Each year, the festival is attended by tens of thousands of people, musicians, music lovers, regular listeners from Brazil and other countries.  
Al Nour Wal Amal
One of the musicians of Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra, 2017 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

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