I try my best to keep up on new sounds out of the Middle East and North Africa, but the name Youssra El Hawary was completely new to me until just a couple of weeks ago. But now, I'm totally hooked on music by this 28-year-old folkie-ish, indie-ish, chanson-ish singer/songwriter from Egypt armed not with a guitar, but ... an accordion.
In preparing for the Revolutionary Road Trip series, one of my colleagues here at NPR had stumbled across her Soundcloud page and passed it along. Hawary's songs were charming and spare: mostly just her sweet voice and either accordion or piano, lithe and sleek. But then, when I got to the third song, I fell in love. It's called "Al Soor" — "The Wall" — and despite its simple framing with accordion and recorder, lilting rhythm, playful melody and easy charm, "Al Soor" is a biting political commentary about life in Egypt right now.
The more I heard and read about Hawary, the more I realized that her quirky charm was less a persona than who she really is. Trained as a set designer, she's spent much of her creative life as an actress, not a musician — and this month, she's off performing with a mime troupe (yes, a mime troupe) on a tiny island in northern Holland. (Let me emphasize: mimes.) And after I talked with Hawary earlier this week, I realized that she's just as bubbly and frank in conversation as she is in her songs; hear her for yourself at the audio link above, from her appearance on Morning Edition.
For "Al Soor," Hawary borrowed the lyrics from one of her friends, the political cartoonist and author Waleed 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/Who peed/On the wall, and on those who built it and those who made it high." (Needless to say, a "good girl" doesn't sing about people eliminating — but Hawary does it with a wink and a smile.)
Taher had published them as part of one of his cartoons years ago, long before the Arab Spring — but Taher's meaning gained new resonance after a huge wall was erected in Cairo on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which leads on one end to Tahrir Square and on the other towards the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
So it was natural, if pretty daring, for Hawary to enlist a photographer friend to go shoot a DIY video for "Al Soor" in front of the Muhammad Mahmoud wall, which is now covered regularly with fresh work from a burgeoning group of graffiti artists.
In the video, Hawary is bathed in beautiful breaking morning light; the women shot the video shortly after dawn, mostly in hopes of not having their work shut down. But the giddy happenstances of this shoot done on the sly — the random guy who asks El Hawary to snap his picture, the kids dancing, the caretaker shooing everyone away at the end — just adds to the perfect, easy magic of "Al Soor."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Over the past two weeks on MORNING EDITION, we've been playing a lot of music from North Africa. Many of the songs featured are ones Steve and our team have been hearing on the radio during their long road trip. One Egyptian musician that caught their attention is Youssra El Hawary.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MONTAGNE: This song, El Hawary's best known, is about Tahrir Square, the vibrant center of Egypt's Arab spring uprising. When we called her, she told us it's also about the changes the square has seen since then.
: The army came and built, like, a huge wall so that the downtown area is all locked because of this wall. And the traffic is so bad.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The song is called "Al Soor" or "The Wall." And it's about the many barriers that exist in society. The lyrics are from a poem written by the well-known Egyptian poet and cartoonist Waleed Taher. And the lyrics were written several years before the Arab Spring erupted. But the young musician, El Hawary, says the poem's theme resonated with her as she watched the military's attempt to clamp down on the uprising.
: So, when I read this again, I linked it to the walls that we all see now in downtown and it's something we are new to Cairo.
GREENE: The lyrics feature a poor old man rebelling against authority in the only way he can.
: A poor man came and peed on this wall.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AL SOOR")
MONTAGNE: And those words, sung by a woman, sparked some outrage in conservative circles in Egypt. But the music video went viral on social media sites. It features El Hawary playing her accordion on the wall near Tahrir before she's chased away by security guards.
GREENE: The success of this song, some say, reflects the important lasting role social media has played in Egypt. It's one of 11 songs El Hawary has released on the Internet. She says she prefers that method because of its lack of censorship, lack of limitation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AL SOOR")
GREENE: And you can stream a mix of North African music and also see El Hawary's video for "Al Soor" at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.