I f the colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm were to tone down his acerbic take on politics, and mesh it with Egyptian music and dance company Ferqet Reda, one would get something close to the “Choir Project.”
A plethora of art has been released to capture the spirit of the January 25 Revolution, yet nothing in song and music produced so far can compete with the latest production of The Choir Project: The Utopia Choir.
Initially taking inspiration from the International Complaints Choir, set up by two Finnish artists, the aim of the music project is to channel all the energy of complaining into song. An offshoot of that is The Choir Project whose aim, as stated on the group’s website, is “to invite people from all walks of life to put their hopes and concerns, their feelings and thoughts, their jokes and woes into song.”
A brainchild of songwriter and theater director Salam Youssri, The Choir Project also seeks to bring together people of various ages and musical backgrounds — whether they have previous musical experience or not — for a week-long workshop of lyric and music composition, culminating in a performance by the volunteers.
The outcome is a multilayered production of song and performance built on witty expressions of personal experiences and societal realities of everyday life in Egypt, peppered with subtle, yet powerful, political commentary.
“It started off as a sort of joke, people coming together to complain about their everyday lives, and we didn’t expect so many people to come and for [such extensive] media coverage, and it suddenly became a very political animal,” says Wiam El-Tamami, one of the oldest members of the Choir Project. “We never intended for it to be anything other than social and political commentary. We faced some difficulties with state security, and we had to go underground a bit and many places wouldn’t allow us to perform.”
Since its beginning in May 2010, each call for performers yielded a different choir and, subsequently, a different repertoire of songs. The first was “The Complaints Choir,” and others include the “Ads Choir” and the “Proverbs Choir,” using colloquial everyday aphorisms as a send-up of the absurdity of the Egyptian reality. Congested streets, police corruption and endless arguments with cab drivers are all staple issues tackled with intelligent humor.
All three choirs contain every pop culture reference you can think of, from TV host Amr Adib to the new Islamic preachers. The “Proverbs Choir” is among the most inventive sections of the project, integrating various unaltered proverbs with folk music. One particular proverb, “El Toofan Kadem” (The Flood is Coming), proved to be prophetic.
The most recent workshop, the “Utopia Choir,” attracted the musical efforts of over 50 musicians and singers, ages ranging from early teens to late 60s. The latest leg of the project was set up five days before the choir’s first post-revolution concert on Sunday.
The “Utopia Choir” also incorporated a group of young teens that come from the Gammaliyah district of Fatimid Cairo who were part of an earlier workshop led by members of the Choir Project.
Performing at the Cairo Opera House’s Hanager Theater last Tuesday following their vigorous show at Rawabet Theater on Sunday, the “Utopia Choir” put on a show for a small yet enthusiastic audience of around 150 people.
The choir started off by singing The Choir Project’s call for volunteers, a song whose lyrics poke fun at the notion that just this once, groups are allowed to gather to sing, making a disclaimer to the audience so as not to have very high expectations.
For a volunteer choir that came together in a weeklong workshop, it is impressive how harmonious the sound of the group is.
Although the choir only performed half their repertoire that ran for 30 minutes, the choir members’ utilization of famous slogans chanted during the protests into their music was remarkable for the zeal informing the performance.
The closing song, “The People Want the Life of the Square,” was a major hit with the audience; an impassioned anthem perfectly encapsulating the newfound sense of national pride and the determination for change, for transforming the entire country into a grand Tahrir Square.
In sotto voce, the choir sang about the revolution, and about the youth and participants, referencing everything from Facebook to the state media that in the initial days of the revolution referred to the protesters as hooligans.
The volume of the choir dramatically increased to sing “Raise your head up high, you’re Egyptian!” prompting audience members to get up and clap enthusiastically.
Incorporating guitar, clarinet, drums, oud and Egyptian castanets, the melodies had a modern Arab jazzy sound, yet never did the music overshadow the solos and musical monologues sung by various members.
Several beautiful solos were sung by female choir members, giving one reason to dismiss their earlier modest disclaimer.
Male members too sang solos; one narrating through song a long poem whose lyrics included a tune touching upon shady real estate dealings of the former regime.
Though one could tell much of the audience was still angry about recent events with the allusions to violent moments of the protest, the self-deprecating humor helped to fuse the tension, ultimately delivering a message of strength, accomplishment and national pride.
The Choir Project will perform at Darb 1718 Culture Center on Saturday, March 12.
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