The recent surge of underground bands in Egypt poses the question of whether the underground is the mainstream. Nadya Shanab is one of these promising new musicians, whose music takes the listener to enormous heights.
Born in 1987, she was practising music by secondary school. When she joined the American University in Cairo music was not a major, and she studied theatre and sociology as a major and music and maths as a minor for two years before she fled to Liverpool to study music in 2006. At the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, she specialised in song writing, earning her BA in 2009.
A woman of many talents, Shanab sings, plays the guitar and writes her own songs. She wanted to see herself as a professional musician as a schoolgirl, but, she says, “I doubted the reaction of my parents. However, once I graduated from the institute, I felt that I was on the right track,” she said in an enthusiastic way as we were sitting in a cosy bar in Zamalek.
As a song writer, she writes when she is in pain, sad or heart-broken. “My study of sociology has benefited me. I found myself writing about women’s issues: domestic abuse of women, specifically genital mutilation in the Third World has always triggered my writing.”
For example, “I am a young Egyptian girl”, the title of one of her songs, was triggered by the tragic death of a nine-year-old Egyptian girl who died after an out-of-hospital circumcision.
Shanab came from a political background; her grandfather is Mohamed Fayek, former minister of information, a prominent politician who worked in the human rights field, as well as a renowned publisher.
“Besides my talking with my grandfather about the struggle stories of African countries that won their independence as a teenager, I encountered many African musicians during my Liverpool years, and I learned a lot about their cultures,” she explained.
“I aspire to reconnect Egypt with the rest of Africa on the musical front. We are Africans by default. However, many people forget this basic fact. I fell in love with Nigerian music above all. And some of my songs are inspired by Sudanese and Kenyan music. It took me a while to define what genre my music falls under. Now I call it world fusion, because there are so many musical trends that influence my music, and I don’t want to restrict it to a certain geographical region; sometimes it is rock, or hard rock, or even country music. What I am doing nowadays is developing an Afro-Egyptian style.”
Shortly after graduating in 2010, Shanab independently released her debut album, El Mahrousa, through her own record label Hamzet Wasl Records, moving back to Cairo following the 2011 Revolution. However, due to censorship restrictions, the album wasn’t released in Egypt until 2012, when it was the number one best seller in Virgin Megastores for its debut month. Shanab has performed at international festivals such as the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, the Liverpool Arab Film Festival, Third Degree as well as at events in Cairo, Alexandria, Hurghada, London and Birmingham.
She has participated in several conferences and workshops in Cairo, London, Liverpool, Libreville and Accra and was a panelist at Mosaiques Festival conference in London, discussing the music industry of the Arab world after the Arab Spring.
El Mahrousa featured 10 tracks beautifully interweaving Arabic and Western elements. In 2014 Shanab moved back to Liverpool where she attended the University of Liverpool for a year and received a master’s degree in Music Industry Studies. And it is not for nothing.
Shanab’s voice is clear, soothing and compassionate. In a beautiful song entitled “Just So Tired”, she merges the Oriental mawwal with rock melodies. In most of her songs, there is a strong feminist voice, but a yearning for submission to the masculine can still be traced in songs like “My Lover Just Wondered”. She says, “these might be songs I wrote during moments of heartbreak or weakness, when I was young and naïve. Now I am a big girl.”
In a track entitled “Ticking Bomb”, she sings for peace in the Middle East. “It was one of the first tracks incorporating Arabic lyrics in the songwriting and Oriental elements in the melody. It was also the song I shared with the great British musician and songwriter Paul McCartney in my one-on-one songwriting workshop in 2009,” she said. “He is the lead patron of the institute, the building of which used to be his high school. The workshop ended up discussing politics and the few Arabic words he knows,” she recalls.
Asked if she would categorise her music as underground, she said, “I think underground music is anything which doesn’t fall under commercial, mainstream industry, and it could be different genres. I prefer the term independent music. You can still be independent with influence, and not necessarily underground.”
With the exception of Massive Scar Era, a band that was first established by female singers, most bands do not welcome female members. However, a few female musicians, such as Mariam Saleh and Dina Al-Wedidi, have managed to shape their image as solo singers.
“Yes, it is a more male-dominated industry both here and abroad, but I had a female drummer and a female percussionist as band members when I was in Liverpool. My band was called Property of Nadya Shanab, which had members of different nationalities. Now, I only perform under my name. I believe the name is catchy enough,” she laughed.
“I currently work with session musicians from Egypt. I don’t mind collaborating with other bands, but I have my own direction that I need to develop. However, when I perform only with my guitar, I feel it is kind of empty. I might have a band one day. But I also enjoy carrying my guitar and singing anywhere and I write my own songs. I make music for everyone, but I know it is not to everybody’s taste. I am not trying to be everyone’s cup of tea.”
Shanab sings in both Arabic and English, her audience doesn’t always understand her words but they still like them. “Music is a universal language after all. I don’t force it, but the fusion somehow reflects my identity. I think in both languages,” she added. “My education, however, taught me to be creative in English. On the contrary, I never learned at school how to be creative in Arabic. So, it took me a while to learn the rules and basics of how to write poetry in Arabic. It was necessary in order to express myself and how I feel.” She even took a workshop with the vernacular poet Hazem Wafi, on how to write poetry in Egyptian dialect.
In 2016, she returned to Cairo and has often performed under the name Aziza. She is about to release a four-track EP next month, which is supposed to act as a stepping stone between the music she used to create and the Afro-Egyptian sound she is developing for her next album. The songs, all in Arabic, are inspired by Moroccan, Mali and Sudanese rhythms.
In preparation for her new album, Shanab is planning to travel across Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon in particular to research and explore local music and learn more about culture through music. Her schedule also includes a performance of her songs in May in Cameroon with independent musicians.
“Yes, it is exciting,” she beams. “My target is to produce an Afro-Egyptian album. I hope this would be a good opportunity to enhance collaboration between Egyptian and African musicians through mutual exchange.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.