Monica Gerges explores the cultural conundrum of what it means to be Egyptian through a chat with folk phenomenon Dina El Wedidi.
Living abroad and coming ‘home’ after 20 years has given me quite the strange vantage point on this beloved country of mine and what it means to call it ‘home’. While I solemnly swear that I’m not living out my own version of 3asal Iswid, I struggle to identify what it means to be part of the Egyptian culture anymore. What the heck is Egyptian culture, anyway? What image does it call to mind? What feelings does it elicit? What does it sound like?
It’s a funny thing, this concept of culture; almost like a fingerprint, no two people experience or define a culture the same way, and regardless of the conversational confusion this causes, it’s a beautiful thing that people can experience and express a culture so differently, challenging the single-story lens that often erases the many ever-changing narratives living within one city, country, or continent. Being Egyptian makes this all the more convoluted; do we embrace our inner-city bustle or calm culture of the countryside? Do we embrace our Arabness? Our Africaness? Our folkloric Egyptianess? Our deeply rooted Ancient Egyptianess? What the heck is Egyptianess, anyway?As Dina El Wedidi’s voice floats across Horreya Garden, it interrupts my incessant plague of thoughts about what all of this may mean. Well, it doesn’t float – her voice resounds across the open space, captivating my attention and all of my senses – particularly my sense of being Egyptian. And while it penetrates through my many musings, something about this artist – the strength of her voice; the style of her songs; and, frankly, the kinks in her hair – both expresses and elicits those same questions and feelings in me all the more. While something – nay, nearly everything – about Dina El Wedidi screams ‘Egypt’, so many other things about the young musical mastermind are boldly countercultural. I told you; convoluted. So how does she embrace it yet challenge it all the more so?
“I feel like we have a very rich substance that we need to work on and make use of,” El Wedidi says of Egyptian folklore. “The music I make is inspired by folklore and is similar to folklore, but it isn’t folklore; it’s my original stuff,” she tells me, correcting the frequent misconception about her music. “I’ve only done three covers of folkloric songs, and the idea was to change the arrangement of these songs and make something different of them – something personal.”
So where does all of this folkloric substance come from, and where has it gone? Egypt has gone through many a time of transition and takeover, influenced by others since the good ol’ B.C.E times, medieval times, colonial times, and, most recently, the era of globalisation . Folklore, a representation of the segment of people who held firmly to what it meant to be Egyptian at a time of transition, is where Egyptians attempted to retain their heritage, reflect on their present, and cultivate a culture that was at risk of being lost into an abyss of other-cultural influence.
Generations later, Egypt now finds itself at yet another cultural crossroads – this time, a cultural identity crisis, if you will – where people like me come back after 20 years and can’t quite identify what it means to be Egyptian anymore amid all the rapid change. In the midst of this, El Wedidi seems to have established her own perception of what Egyptianess means to her, and captures every strand of that through music.“Egypt, and what Egypt means to me, is comprised of a lot of different things,” says the Giza native of 27 years. “My music is influenced by the area I’m in – I could easily find joy in the busyness and chaotic noise of home; I have no problem with these things. Some of these things could even make me go home and write music, like certain smells in the streets, and other things that might appear to be qabee7a (ugly); for me, I use them as a source of musical energy.”
The chaotic noise; the smell of fresh bread wafting from the forn baladi and intertwining with the scent of cigarettes; the peaceful busyness of city life and its simple people – these, to me, are my reminder that I’m finally home, and perhaps it’s for this reason that El Wedidi’s music elicits a sense of home in me, as I gaze beyond the stage and my mind drifts to a place warm and familiar.
Commanding the stage with a surreal presence, Dina El Wedidi so boldly captures the essence of Africa; you know, that continent we so often forget that we’re part of. “We as Egyptians tend not to embrace African culture within our own culture. You find it through soccer and things more so related to politics; but, on a social and cultural level, we’re far more affected by the Arabic culture,” El Wadidi comments, echoing my thoughts. “Given that we’re in Africa, and given that Africa is a substantial place, it’s important for us to be impacted by it.”
Having spent three years making music and crossing Africa with The Nile Project, El Wedidi laments the lack of African influence in Egyptian culture, namely through music. “We have a lot of opportunities to meet and be influenced by musicians from Europe and the US, but we don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet musicians from Africa and Latin America,” she shares, reflecting on her encounters through The Nile Project. “It’s a good opportunity to meet a musician from Ethiopia or Uganda or Kenya; to get to know someone from Rwanda or Burundi.”
Although we often tend to forget how much we have in common with Mother Africa, we can always find bits of it in Egypt. It lives in the language and architecture of Nubia, the colourful floral prints in the fabrics of our galaleeb and fasateen, the sunkissed tone of our skin, the boats floating along the Nile, and the way we can and always will move to the sound of a drum. It lives in us, through and through.
A tribal mood permeates through Horreya Garden as Dina El Wedidi keeps time on her daf and floats around the stage, curls bouncing to the beat of her own drum, entering what I can only imagine is that space in her mind where every element of culture and music and experience combine, leaving us – the audience – to transcend the present and be led home through rhythm and song.
Rebellious Regard For Tradition
At the intersection of the foreign yet familiar, Egyptianess, imbued with Arab and African influence, is sent spinning in every direction by the external influences playing a part in this cultural transition period. Cultural growing pains, perhaps? And while a culture and its music are inseparable – a concept El Wediddi knows far too well as her music sprang into the scene with the rise of the January 25th revolution – where does that leave us as Egyptians?
“Traditional music is available on cassette tapes and CDs; I don’t want to just create more of that. I want to wreck it!” the artist says, before bursting into laughter. Her passion for cultural rebellion is as evident off-stage as it is during her performances, as she proceeds to share – with an unmatched twinkle in her eyes – about adding drums or electric guitar or a fretless guitar to the traditional sounds of El Seera, which her mentors – 3am Sayyed El Dawwi, El Sheikh Zain, and Maged Soliman – told her can’t be combined with the traditional sounds of the rababa and the daf.Dina El Wedidi’s disregard for tradition yet deeply rooted reverence for it manifests itself in her unique sound that she and her team have chosen to term ‘new folk’. With three strands, much like the simple complexity a young Egyptian schoolgirl’s braid, Dina El Wedidi intertwines all three elements of Egyptianess – the folkloric, the African, and that of the charismatically chaotic city streets – and seeks to beautifully disturb the peace. “With my adaptation of the classic folklore 3la Wara2 El Foll Dala3ni, I changed the original melody into one of my own, and then merged my own back into the original,” El Wedidi shares, indeliberately constructing a beautiful metaphor of my complicated relationship with Egypt – or perhaps Egypt’s complicated relationship with itself.
As the songstress’ signature sound extends throughout the garden, picking up far too many backup singers along the way, a mobile phone obstructs the atmosphere with an obnoxious yet melodious “give it to me I’m worth it!” Nothing like a little Fifth Harmony to make you question whether you’re in the heart of Cairo or somewhere between Miami and LA. Perhaps it’s at this crossroads that I find myself relating to Dina El Wedidi yet stuck in my own conundrum of cultural confusion and nuance. Yes to embracing the many roots through which we’ve struggled and grown and cultivated a culture, and yes to disturbing the peace and making those roots our own; however, where do we draw the line between embracing elements of other cultures to better our own and allowing ourselves to be willfully occupied by external forces that threaten to eliminate our culture as a whole?
With Dina El Wedidi's voice serving as the soundtrack to the perilous questions that threaten to make or break my understanding of what it means to be part of this culture, I'm back where I began not too long ago – it seems that I may be here for a while. For now, I'll embrace it and enjoy the music.
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Photography by Osama Selim and Ali Bahr.
Videography by Taher Gamal and Yousef Emad El Deen.