Unique ingredients went into the meal served on 28 April – at the end of Ramadan – at Dawar Arts, an architectural gem of Downtown Cairo. There the Katakit choir was joined by a duo that features Egyptian darbouka and Indian harmonium. Dubbed ‘Taba’ Koshari - Music Varieties’ (or “A Plate of Koshari”, the traditional street dish of many mixed ingredients) the evening presented the well-known Egyptian and Arab songs.
At the core of the evening were the singers of the Katakit choir, consisting of expats living in Egypt and eager to explore local culture through its musical riches. What made the concert even more special, however, is the newly formed female duo, Maria K. and Morgane who with their darbouka and harmonium respectively invested the Katakit performance with new colour.
The evening featured Davide, Ines, Joris, Manon, Mark, Sixtine, Morgane and Maria K., alongside Mahmoud Mohamed on violin and Sayed Ashour on darbouka. The audience was treated to compositions such as Lamma Bada Yatathanna, El Helwa Di, Aho Da Illi Sar, Ya Mustapha as well as the far more recent El Ghazala Ray’a, among others. Joined by a darbouka and harmonium duo, the choir explored the songs as they were written, harmonising selected segments.
According to its founder Mahmoud Sameh, the Katakit choir is a friendly social gathering of many nationalities eager to explore Egyptian culture, music and singing.
Sameh’s involvement in music goes back to 2004 when he joined Salam Yousry’s AlTamye Theatre group, primarily as a singer. He became a music coach, joining cultural institutions and organising creative workshops and making a wide range of friends.
“One of my friends, Marie, suggested I should teach singing to the community surrounding her. So, in many ways, the choir was her idea. At the same time, and quite coincidentally, another friend was working on a master’s degree that focused on the artistic practices of expats in their new countries of residence. We discovered that in the Arab world we do not have a community of foreigners approaching the local culture through music and singing,” Sameh reveals.
Encouraged by Marie and his findings, Sameh decided to work on the arrangements and explore those grounds with friends, first in private settings, performing in homes before their first public appearance in El Dammah Theatre in 2019. But the Covid-19 pandemic had prevented further concerts until the present one. While working on a repertoire, Sameh brings together compositions representing different eras of Egyptian music, shifting between older classical songs, those from the animated films and modern compositions. This allows the choir to look into a variety of genres and generations.
“I don’t choose the repertoire by myself. We are like a family and each member suggests a composition he or she likes and we work on it together. We talk about the songs, their cultural and historical settings so that the singers can get as close as possible to the pieces they perform.”
As Sameh humbly adds, apart from the cultural knowledge gained by the expats, the whole process also boosts Arabic language skills. “The singers learn many linguistic intricacies, they get to know idioms, expressions and as a result they approach the language differently. We also have an Arabic teacher who supports the choir with language and pronunciation.”
Since the first meetings and performances taking place in private settings, many nationalities have crossed the choir’s path, with singers hailing from France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, the USA, among many others. “The challenge is rotating members; they come and go depending on the length of their stay in Egypt. But there are people who stay longer of course. As I keep thinking of solutions, I think we are managing it somehow,” Sameh explains, not discouraged by the unconventional dynamics of the ensemble.
Each of the choir members is busy with his or her responsibilities or work, but they always find time for their musical meetings. Projecting cultural benefits, word of mouth is always bringing in new singers with each choir member adding their own unique flavour.
What made the evening at Dawar Arts even more interesting was Taba’ Koshari, an equally unique duo still searching for the right name for their band. Following successful performances like the one so titled, they are considering calling themselves Taba’ Koshari.
Both ladies approach Egyptian heritage from yet another angle. In their collaboration with Katakit, Maria, who is also a multi-instrumentalist, accompanied the singers on harmonium, while Morgane fused in her darbouka. The duo, which created their own visual identity – wearing black with traditional tarbooshes on their heads – also performed a solo on two darboukas, a composition by the renowned Egyptian darbouka player Said El Artist.
“I found about Katakit while I was still working for the French Institute in Alexandria. I joined the choir once I moved to Cairo around three years ago. I always loved singing and I liked the Katakit community that gathers expats working in many institutions in Egypt, cultural centres, etc,” Morgane says, going back a few years.
Having travelled a lot, and spending more years in France, her home country, and Poland where she studied at the Jagiellonian University of Cracow, work brought Morgane to Egypt in 2016, and her passion for music directed her to the choir. “I was always fascinated by Egypt, by Pharaonic times, then modern Egypt. I even started studying classical Arabic in high school. I wanted to explore the country in depth, so here I am,” she says, smiling.
Apart from singing, the highly energetic Morgane began learning darbouka under Said El Artist. It was in one such class that she met Maria K. Hailing from Russia, a graduate of Moscow State University, Maria has her own interesting story which involves living for many years in countries about which she is passionate, including India and Egypt, and exploring music and dance there.
No wonder it took no time for both ladies to find themselves on the same wavelength and embark on their joint musical practice. They sing the Egyptian repertoire and perform on darbouka and harmonium. “A few months ago, we joined an open stage in Dawar Arts, then the organisers suggested that Maria and I stage our show during one of the Ramadan evenings. I thought that joining our duo with the choir could be an interesting combination,” Morgane says.
Morgane and Maria’s project already has a strong creative character. Playing harmonium, the more pensive multi-instrumentalist Maria is soaked in music, also playing oud, darbouka, and drawing music out of any instrument that comes to her hands. She is also a Kathak dancer, a traditional Indian dance performer, a skill that she brought with her from India, alongside singing and harmonium (known for a vast presence in Indian music).
“We are expats charmed by the beauty of Egyptian art and culture,” comments Maria who came to Egypt in 2012. “When we think about Egypt, we think about old films, songs, dance, and of course tarbooshes,” she hints at the Taba’ Koshari costume. Morgane swiftly adds that, “in fact, we are still a work in progress. While we develop our repertoire and explore different musical grounds, we are also searching for a suitable name for the duo.” Maria adds that “koshari actually originated in India, before the British brought it with them to Egypt in the late 1800s, where it has become the most popular cheap food of the population. With our duo, we represent a cultural mix, just like a Plate of Koshari.”
Whatever their final name, their creative identity is already obvious and their enthusiasm and dedication glaring. Visually, they opt for three colours: black, white and red (red scarves and tarboushes). “Those are the colours of the Egyptian flag, but this was not intentional. They’re just my color preference,” Maria explains.
Taking place during the last days of Ramadan, the evening at Dawar Arts included the traditional seasonal accent of a mesaharati, Morgane inviting the audience to join in.
Filled with expats and Egyptians, the hall of Dawar Arts filled to the brim. The fun of music grew contagious with the audience often joining the singers, many reading the lyrics transcribed in the programme notes. As the concert came to an end, the eagerness to attend more performances by both Katakit and the Morgane and Maria duo was obvious in many attendees joyfully humming the Egyptian songs as they left the hall.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.