For Egyptian producer and vocalist Nadah El Shazly, all musical acts are communal experiences


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For Egyptian producer and vocalist Nadah El Shazly, all musical acts are communal experiences

Cairo-raised producer and vocalist Nadah El Shazly studied psychology, worked with choirs, and across punk rock and electronica before releasing ‘Ahwar’ in 2017. Described as “haunting”, and produced through a playful improvisation process in collaboration with 18 other instrumentalists, El Shazly’s debut studio album was intended as a radical “mistranslation” of Arabic sounds of yesteryear in order to imagine the music of the future.

In line with her debut A COLORS SHOW performance of ‘Bãnit’, we spoke to the artist about the underground music scene in Cairo, trusting the process of improvisation, composing her first feature film soundtrack for Moroccan-British director Fyzal Boulifa’s ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ (2022), and why she sees all musical acts as communal experiences.

What is your first musical memory?

I grew up in Cairo in a building together with my family and extended family. I guess my first musical memory is singing on the staircase with my sisters and cousins. I also remember my father buying lots of different kinds of tapes and CDs and listening to them together on Friday mornings.

Tell us more about Cairo…

Cairo’s big, loud, and intense. It’s influenced me in every way possible. It’s super lively. From a young age I got used to the noise, and from that I got into very loud music. I think I just needed something that was louder than the city, you know?

Which artists particularly inspired you when you were growing up? 

I listened to a lot of different kinds of pop music that came out in the early 2000s. There were many different singers at that time, like Sherene and Elisa. I also strongly remember listening to these special compilation tapes that music shops put together and released over the summer months. They featured a wide range of singers from all over the Arab world, both old and new. They brought together so many different eras in a kind of insane mixtape situation.

Can you tell us more about the underground music scene in Cairo, which you are a part of?

The underground scene in Cairo is always changing. When I was starting out around ten years ago, there was this place called 100 copies, but it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s already been three, four, or five other venues that have opened and closed since then. The development of the scene isn’t very linear, it’s constantly morphing. There are some stalwarts: for the past twenty years, Nashazphone has been one of the key places that releases underground albums on vinyl. There used to be a huge metal scene too, which I only saw the end of, and there is always sha3bi—a popular Egyptian music genre—with all its branches. There’s also a lot of amazing producers from Cairo—such as 3Phaz who I am collaborating with on my album on a number of tracks, as well as El Kontessa and 1127—as well as Djs, who are putting together some really cool events. Donia Shohdy, for example, has this remarkable party series called Jelly Zone.

When did you first start making music yourself? When did you realize you wanted to pursue it professionally?

The first pieces of music that I wrote and shared with others were heavily influenced by punk and metal. When I was 17, I was in a band that used to play super DIY shows. After that, my friend Mohamed Shafik and I started a duo called Shorba. We released some tracks online that got a really big following. Recently, one of them, ‘Shorbet Rosas’, was used for the soundtrack of the Netflix series ‘AlRawabi School for Girls’.

At that time, it was common for women to be singers, but not producers. I really wanted to be able to do both, so I decided to learn how to use music softwares. This came in handy when I made my debut album, ‘Ahwar’. It took quite a bit of time to finish, because I was figuring everything out as I went along. When I released it in November 2017, that was when I decided I could pursue music professionally. I was signed by DISK agency in Berlin, which enabled me to start touring with my album.

“To me, music is always a collective experience.”

As well as your band and duo, you also sang in choirs before you pursued a career as a solo artist. What do you enjoy about collective experiences of music? 

To me, music is always a collective experience. Even ‘Ahwar’, which I released as a solo artist, was recorded in collaboration with 18 other musicians. I think it’s really important to sing, or play an instrument alone without additional accompaniment sometimes—that’s how you learn about yourself, your songs, and get more comfortable in the way you articulate things. At the same time, playing with other people really pushes you in all kinds of ways. It’s like you’re dancing together. Sometimes you can end up doing things that you didn’t think you could do.

My songs are constructed using a lot of improvisation. They feature a lot of “open” sections that are created in the moment. For ‘Ahwar’, I worked with the harpist Sarah Pagé and the double bassist Jonah Fortune. When we recorded together, it felt like we were each driving our own cars and not waiting for the traffic lights. We were just exploring ourselves, and trusting that we could hear what the others were playing without having to study or analyze it.

Other than “open”, how would you describe your musical style?

I think it’s always different depending on the project I’m working on. With ‘Ahwar’—which means marshland and refers to a specific area of southern Iraq—I was very concerned with teaching myself about classical Arabic music, and discovering the tools I have in my hands to be able to create. Around that time, I’d started listening to Munīra al-Mahdiyya and Abdel Latif Al Banna, who were prominent in the 1920s. Their work really struck me as sounding like it came from the future as opposed to the past. It was very free, had strong improvisatory elements, and the voices were really powerful. I didn’t want to recreate this historic music, but to misunderstand and mistranslate it for contemporary audiences. I didn’t want to go back to the past, but to imagine a new future. In contrast, the music that I’m working on now is more focused on songwriting, lyrics, and seeking out new collaborations.

You were studying and working while you were writing ‘Ahwar’, right? 

I studied psychology and worked in the field for a couple of years in Cairo. I’ve always been really interested in the brain, genetics, neurology, and what is considered pathology or “abnormality”. These topics have definitely influenced me musically: ‘Ahwar’’s very much to do with memory, perception, and dreams.

Speaking of dreams, your music has been described as “haunting”…

‘Ahwar’ features a few songs that aren’t tied to clear beats or rhythms. They’re more about the ways different instruments and voices interact. I was very interested in the idea of daydreaming, and the musicians’ minds traveling as they were playing. As a result, there’re a lot of moments where instruments drift off. Maybe the listeners drift off while they’re listening to the music as well? Maybe they find themselves leaving the space that they are in? This could be the reason that it’s described as haunting.

You also compose music for film. How does this differ from composing for yourself?

I was approached by the Moroccan-British director Fyzal Boulifa, who was inspired by ‘Ahwar’ and wanted me to compose the soundtrack for his new film ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ (2022). It was the first time I’d ever composed music for a long feature. I really enjoyed the process, and working with Fyzal. It was very different to what I’m used to: in film, you are inspired by the characters, images, and the director’s narrative rather than relying solely on your internal thoughts and fantasies. The soundtrack I created won a couple of awards, which was mind blowing for me!

“Playing with other people pushes you in all kinds of ways. It’s like you’re dancing together.”

Tell us about the song you performed for your debut A COLORS SHOW. 

The song is almost like a spell. I wrote it last winter in -25 degrees in Montreal. I sat in my home studio, blasted 3Phaz’s beat, wrote, and thought intensively about the strength that I have to keep going no matter what. It’s a song about finding a witty inner voice, and summoning spirits to find the strength to do so.

Is there one lyric in the song that is particularly meaningful or important to you?

I’m currently working with Nariman Youssef, an amazing writer, translator, and poet. She translated all the lyrics from ‘Ahwar’ from Arabic into English, and she’s going to do the same for my new songs. It would be easier to answer this question when she’s finished, but I’ll try to do it myself!

My favorite lyric is from the second verse. When I sing it, it’s like I’m talking to someone and asking: “How did this small situation become so big? Did you lose a tiny grain of salt from your sea?” The second part is a metaphor that refers to the way some people make massive problems out of nothing.

What are your ambitions for the future?

Just to keep making music.

Nadah El Shazly is a Cairo-born producer and vocalist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 25th May 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Megan Courtis
Videography: Lucas Sanou
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko


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