Last month, the Egyptian independent band Gawy made the headlines
with the news that their 2015 song, Atshan Ya Zeina (I’m Yearning, Zeina) had made it to the track list of the newly released American sci-fi action film Black Widow. Directed by Cate Shortland, the film stars Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and David Harbour. With the news making a considerable commotion in the independent music scene, it is worth looking into the six years from the song’s release to its acquisition by Marvel, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios.
The song was the result of a group of friends trying their hand at something new together. With lyrics in Upper Egyptian dialect based on a folk theme, Atshan Ya Zeina was written by Ahmed El-Gamal, who only recently won Abdel Rahman Al-Abnudi award in the Colloquial Poetry section (2021). It was composed by Mohamed Abd El-Latif (known as Tifa) with Mostafa Taxi, and performed by Tifa and Nehal Kamal together with John Khalil on guitar, Bebawy Rafaat on bass guitar and Kirollos Nageh Alfy on kawala, an Egyptian version of the ney. Arrangement, mixing and digital mastering was done by Mark Adel.
Atshan Ya Zeina was released on SoundCloud in 2015. “We were surprised to find that the track was very well received by listeners,” Tifa recalls. “Soon after, the Egyptian radio started broadcasting the song, shedding even more light on it. People began to ask about the band, when in fact we were not even a band yet. This unexpected positive feedback encouraged us to form Gawy
, a formation that would be more than just a band.”
The word gawy indicates a unique scent. As the band clarifies on SoundCloud, “This specific name was chosen by the band members to suit their contemporary poetic style.” Together with the band members, Tifa and El-Gamal began working on further compositions, always relying on lyrics written by the latter. Capitalising on the literary component set within music, alongside a few singles, Gawy released the seven-track album Qalbk Yasa’ in 2017.
Gawy’s compositions blend Oriental and Western traditions, carrying mostly a light-spirited and meditative feel further enhanced by Tifa’s unperturbed vocals. In their songs, the Egyptian musicians’ cultural origins are expressed through the lyrics alongside kawala and qanoun enveloped in Western harmonies, some jazz influences, electronic inserts, and a mixture of rhythmic patterns from both cultures. In some compositions, the songs are intertwined with poetic recitations, highlighting Gawy’s mission to draw the listeners’ attention to the lyrics and meanings they carry, often inviting contemplations of life and people going through their daily endeavors, sadness and happiness.
As, years later, we listen to Gawy’s repertoire, we see that in many ways their first attempt, Atshan Ya Zeina, is their hallmark composition, a staple work they created without being fully aware of what they were doing.The song chosen by Marvel defines the band’s unique color; it represents a creative vocabulary developed and refined in the songs that followed.
What makes this spontaneous musical experiment of 2015 even more astounding is the fact that not all of the band members graduated from music schools, nor had they all been practicing music for long time. Tifa himself is a computer science graduate, though he used to join different music formations, including the Palestinian Abbad Al-Shams choir. Atshan Ya Zeina was the first serious project that he took on. The same goes for El-Gamal, a commerce graduate who, though began writing in 2010, considers the song to be his first serious work.
Following the success of Atshan Ya Zeina in 2015, the band performed in multiple venues across Cairo, including El Sawy Culturewheel, participated in the independent music contest Battle of the Bands (2016) and pursued four musical projects with the Goethe Institut. As Abd El-Latif explains, starting in 2018 and until the closure imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic (2020), Gawy focused on live performances while working on their second album and struggling to obtain funds.
Marvel Studios expressed their interest in Atshan Ya Zeina in 2018. “I received an email from an agent explaining that they are interested in our song. At first I thought it was some kind of a hoax and I didn’t bother to reply, I closed my laptop and went to sleep,” Tifa laughs.
“Then I went back to it and communication took off. Throughout the following months we were asked to provide the lyrics and translation alongside some procedural issues. This communication continued until October 2020 when we finalized the contract.” It is worth adding that Black Widow also includes American Pie by Don McLean, Bond Fights Snake by John Barry, Cheap Thrills by Sia featuring Sean Paul, among other songs. Gawy can definitely take pride in being among such names.
Naturally, this unexpected journey to Black Widow energized the band. Not only does Gawy aim to capitalize on the amplified attention they have received but they also finally have means to continue working on their upcoming songs. As the band members explain, the new songs will be presented in the format of music videos, released consecutively, with the first one planned to see the light this month. With El-Gamal providing the poetry, the current band members include Tifa (vocals), Fakhrany (drums), Bebawy Rafaat (bass guitar), Shodz (keyboard) and Fady Wissa (guitar and keyboard).
“We have been working on music for more than four years and we are extremely excited that it will finally be released. The songs will form one thematic body, with the poetry and music set in a visual framework,” Tifa explains. This is where Ahmed El-Gamal steps in. As he reveals, over past years, he was offered work with other musicians yet it is in Gawy that he finds himself.
“Curiously, Tifa and I were not close friends; we just decided to try something out together. It clicked and here we are,” El-Gamal comments. He adds that he started writing long before Atshan Ya Zeina. “At that time a lot had been happening in the country, then the revolution came... followed by years of change,” El-Gamal refers to the fertile ground providing him with ideas for his writings. “I write about people, from social issues to the smallest details.”
Tifa adds, “Ahmed tells stories through his poetry. His writings are very real and resonate with many people. Ahmed’s language is strongly influenced by the language of Egypt’s south.” That is partly why, he explains, Marvel asked for two translations: a literal one, and one that conveys meaning and style.
Excited though they are, the two friends remain humble: “We would never have thought that our song would draw the attention of international listeners, let alone land on Marvel’s desk.” But we can wait for their new music video.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly