Egyptian band expresses hope for better tomorrow

Sunday 19/03/2017
Eskenderella oud players perform at a concert in El-Sawy Cultural centre. (Courtesy of Sarah Shady)

Cairo - If you happen to visit Egypt, you will probably hear about Eskenderella, a band whose concerts are always fully booked.
Eskenderella is one of the best-known independent bands in Egypt that has succeeded in con­necting music with politics in a simple way that reflects the pains and hopes of the country’s citi­zens. The band became a symbol of resistance through art.
Last December, the band mem­bers celebrated their 11th anniver­sary with hundreds of their fans.
“We started as a group of musi­cians playing and singing at our houses and people came over to listen to us, bringing their friends,” band founder, lead oud player and singer Hazem Shahin said.
“At that point, I thought why not form a band. So in December 2005, we performed our first concert as a band at El-Sawy Culture Wheel­centre.”
At that time, the band an­nounced on a poster that it would play in honour of legendary oud players, singers and composers Sayed Darwish and Sheikh Imam as well as celebrated Lebanese singer, composer and pianist Ziad Rahbani.
“The concert was full of peo­ple who attended [because] they heard that we would play for those renowned artists,” Shahin said.
Eskenderella eventually be­gan performing its own songs. It gradually included more singers, bass guitar, oriental and Western percussion, piano or keyboard and several oud players.
The 10-member band now sings lyrics written by late legendary poet Fouad Haddad, contempo­rary ones written by his son Amin Haddad and his grandson Ahmed Haddad.
“We are a group of friends who love their culture and homeland. We gathered to create art that re­flects truth,” said band member and singer Salma Haddad, a grand­daughter of Fouad Haddad.
The band proved there is no con­tradiction between originality and modernity. Interestingly enough, the old songs of Darwish and Sheikh Imam that Eskenderella at­tempts to revive, which tackle the themes of persecution, injustice and everyday life, are applicable to current Egyptian life.
The band members chose to swim against the current of com­mercial, romantic songs.
“Eskenderella seeks to link mu­sic with the reality of Egyptian citizens. Today’s songs mostly speak about love without touching other social issues unlike Eskend­erella that discusses the daily life of Egyptians as well as causes that are important to their homeland,” music critic Fathy al-Khamisy said.
“Hazem Shahin’s oud together with the poems and the singing transform listeners to a different state of mind — one that they long for and miss in real life,” Ghada Mahmoud, a teacher and a fan of the band, said following its latest concert.
“This is why listening to them now and reviving the memories of the revolution triggers grief and despair along with entertainment and pride,” she said.
Among the band’s most well-known contemporary songs with musical compositions by Shahin are: Hayyou Ahl al-Cham (Hail the People of the Levant), Safha Gedee­da (A New Page), Hanfdal Thawrag­eya (We Will Remain Revolutionar­ies), El’ab Seyasa (Play Politics) and Youhka Anna (Once Upon a Time) in which they sing about the “Arab spring” uprisings.
“Sometimes we feel that it is time to sing a specific song like the case with Safha Gedeeda and El- Horeya Lel Shohadaa (Freedom for the Martyrs) that we sang on the occasion of the January 25th upris­ing of 2011,” Shahin said.
Eskenderella’s first album, ti­tled Safha Gedeeda, includes two compact discs; one contains songs made before the revolution, the the other disc’s songs were made after the uprising.
“Yet the songs in both CDs re­flect the theme of the revolution,” Shahin explained.
Eskenderella has always been part and parcel of the uprising. The band members would go down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbol of the revolution, and sing among protesters and share with them the dream of freedom.
Revolutionary poet Zain el- Abedin Fouad said Eskenderella represents the uprising “which continues till now”.
“The band played a key role in preparing for the uprising since it first appeared on stage in 2005,” he said.
“We sang for the uprising before it even erupted, creating revolu­tionary art. The songs we sing, whether old or new, criticised the bitter reality and the political situation Egypt had been going through,” Shahin said. “So when we joined the protesters in Tahrir Square singing for hope and free­dom, people believed us.”
Yet frustration found its way to their hearts.
“It is true we got frustrated after the revolution hasn’t achieved its goals but after all, it is a fact that happened and there are people who lost their lives for their home­land. The revolution still goes on and its fuel is poverty, which is on the rise,” Shahin said.