When accordionist Youssra El Hawary posted the video for her song “El Sour” [The Wall] online, featuring her playing and singing by – and on – one of the concrete barriers erected in downtown Cairo by the army during violence in recent months, she never expected it to go viral. Hawary has only publicly performed her own material three times. Fame, she says, was not her intention.
“I posted the video for art, for myself. I was shocked by the response,” Hawary explains. “I’ve always considered my music something simple to perform for friends. I still don’t see myself as a singer.”
Even so, “El Sour” has already garnered over 150,000 views on YouTube. The song is based on a 2005 poem by her friend, caricaturist Walid Taher. “In front of the wall/In front of those who built it/In front of those who made it high/Stood a poor man, and peed/On the wall and those who built it/And those who made it high,” she sings, calling to mind the army soldier who urinated on protestors from a wall on Mohamed Mahmud street in November (the incident, broadcast on national television, became a symbol of the Army’s disdain for demonstrators).
“‘El Sour’ is a kind of revolution song, but it shows that laughing while talking about your problems is a sign of strength,” she says. Though “El Sour” has a political edge, it’s Hawary’s simple melody and the song’s comic language that stick in your head.
“Walid wrote the poem [about] the philosophy of walls in general. His walls are anything that prevents change or movement,” says Hawary. “As I read it, it reminded me of what had happened in [Mohamed Mahmud street].”
Hawary, an on-and-off again art director, who recently quit her full-time job to focus on other projects, helps run monthly music workshops with the Choir Project and is also an actor with the Al Tamye group. She punctuates her words with swooping hand gestures, her face rarely still. That same energy is evident in her music and spills over into her creative process. “El Sour” took just a night to write, and its video, largely unscripted, was shot without a director and edited over a few hours.
“I had only one idea: that I’d hold my accordion, walk and find the walls, and stop. I didn’t have any plan after that. It was simply ‘Let’s go and see what happens,’” she says.
Hawary enlisted Sarah Yehia, a photographer who had never worked on a video before, to shoot “El Sour.” Everyone in the video – from the street children dancing on the wall, to the man who shoos Hawary away at the end shouting “Yalla el sitt!” [Leave now, woman!] – is an unplanned participant. The clip has a sense of immediacy that draws you in.
Within days of the YouTube posting, Amr Abeeb and Yusri Foda, respective hosts of two of Egypt’s most popular news affair programs, had played the video on-air. And Hawary’s already turned down offers to have an album produced. She says she wants to retain artistic control of her work.
Hawary first played the accordion in elementary school. She made the unusual choice (although the instrument was an important part of traditional Egyptian music, and is still taught to school children, it’s rarely, if ever, heard on modern tracks) to pick it back up as an adult just to accompany friends in jam sessions at parties. But it quickly helped her get attention.
“The accordion helped a lot because people aren’t used to seeing a girl play it,” she says. “It’s both a new and forgotten instrument and I see it as really joyful. I love it.” She says that her sound is “really very French,” relying on European waltzes rather than Oriental melodies.
Hawary’s success illustrates a shift in Egypt’s music scene where megastars – local and international – have long held a monopoly on audiences. With the proliferation of social media, though, little-known artists such as Hawary are now able to sidestep state-controlled airwaves and avoid the closed shop of major music labels. New satellite channels air weekly cultural shows that regularly showcase new talents. Before, indie musicians rarely got TV play.
According to Hani Alhamdoun, the blogger behind Hot Arabic Music, one of just a handful of English-language resources for Arabic music, the Arab Spring has reshaped the region’s media landscape. Facebook and Youtube are now “mainstream marketing tools,” Alhamdoun says, that allow independent artists to fill the vacuum left after many of Egypt’s megastars found themselves on the wrong side of last year’s uprising.
“Pop singers are sitting at home due to lack of interest and their support of the regime,” Alhamdoun says. “Big names are too afraid to release something that will bomb, which gives indie musicians breathing room to compete.”
Over the past year, Egypt’s music scene has embraced dozens of “political” bands such as Cairokee, and increased the popularity of older acts like Iskanderella, who were previously only widely known among activists.
Hawary’s songs feel different, though. While “El Sour” is certainly topical, it’s more of a satire than a political commentary. Her music is playful rather than earnest. Her lyrics have a poignant simplicity to them. “Autobis,” for example, a song about billowing exhaust fumes, was penned during a traffic jam on her daily commute.
“People hear that and think it’s a metaphor for the old regime; how it was controlling the youth by blocking the roads to change,” she says. “Really, it’s just a true story about being trapped behind a bus.
“Still,” she adds, “it’s good that the audience is thinking.”