Egyptian musician Nadah El Shazly on her fight against ‘musical political correctness’

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FMWT #21: Nadah El Shazly w/ Sivan Cohen Elias

Trumpet Blossom Cafe — Thursday, May 9 at 9 p.m.

Nadah El Shazly — photo by Alan Chies

There are songs of great sadness, written in the early 20th century by Egyptian Arabs and recorded mechanically. They’re written in a forgotten style, slightly grating on the ears, but evoking a sense of melancholy and nostalgia.

These are the sounds which guide the latest musical ventures of experimental multi-instrumentalist Nadah El Shazly. In a recent phone call, she remembered the moment she first discovered the tunes in the years leading up to the release of her first album.

“I was really inspired by the openness and the really brilliant dynamic between the musicians and their playing,” El Shazly said. “For some reason it resonated with me.”

In the past few years, El Shazly, a native of Cairo, Egypt, has proven to be a prominent voice in the growing experimental music scene of North Africa. Her 2017 release, Ahwar, a melting pot of dueling musical modes and experimental production, was met with international acclaim. More recently, El Shazly appeared as a guest vocalist alongside Middle Eastern septet Karkhana on their latest LP, Carte Blanche, in collaboration with American musicians Sir Richard Bishop and W. David Oliphant.

In mid-April, El Shazly began her North American tour, consisting of 22 dates, which includes a show in Iowa City at the beginning of May as part of the Feed Me Weird Things series. This tour features a new set of musicians not previously heard in El Shazly’s live shows. The personnel consists of double bass-player Thierry Amar (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and multi-instrumentalist Devin Brahja Waldman, both of whom helped record El Shazly’s latest album. The set-up of bass, synthesizer and alto saxophone is a bit more stripped back than previous iterations of El Shazly’s live crew, but she says the new musicians will add a never-before-seen angle to the music.

“For someone who knows the album, I think it’d be exciting to hear it from a different perspective and a different arrangement,” El Shazly said. “It will be like revisiting the sound but also being able to experience it differently. The working stuff is pretty open and it has a lot of improv parts, but that really depends on the musicians themselves and where they take it.”

It’s this idea of openness in the dynamics of musicians, both recorded and on-stage, that drew El Shazly to the old recordings which inspired Ahwar. The inspiration can be heard almost immediately on the opening track, “Afqid Adh-Dhakira,” which features a distorted sample of a tune by an Egyptian recording artist from the late 19th century before descending into an atmospheric free-for-all of competing instrumental voices, all the while guided by El Shazly’s haunting contralto vocals. Sometimes harmonious and fulfilling, other times cacophonous and unresolved, Ahwar remains conceptually consistent, each track containing those recurring elements of openness, freedom and improvisation.

“For me it’s a very personal album that brought out very personal feelings of confusion and borderline insanity,” El Shazly said. “But it’s also dealing with questions of protection and love as well. The lyrics are really intimate and personal but kind of expressed in a way that brings together aesthetics of old music with, just, the modern stuff we see on the internet.”

While immensely personal, El Shazly credits much of the album’s conception to the underground scene in Cairo, where musical freedom is expressed from bands of all genres. There, musicians are able to share musical ideas and experiment in an exploratory, deconstructionist environment.

“It’s very intense and there’s a lot of things that you wouldn’t think would work together but they work really nicely, actually,” El Shazly said. “You go and see a show and it’s always very refreshing to see what’s happening with new projects.”

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El Shazly herself had participated in a series of musical ventures before the conception of Ahwar. From performing as a punk vocalist to playing traditional jazz to composing electronica tunes, El Shazly’s storied musical history was quite diverse before settling with the current avant-garde/free jazz/rock hybrid sound of her current project. The transition was ultimately due to a desire for change, a step away from more controlled performances and towards improvisation.

This is the rejection of what El Shazly dubs “musical political correctness.” She describes the phrase as a person’s own delineation of music and how they subconsciously correct themselves while making music. It’s the underlying desire to feel safe and comfortable and normal in the music-making process — a desire which El Shazly has been confidently ignoring.

“It’s like, if you hear an instrument and think you shouldn’t use it because it’s not how the genre should sound like, or if you were to want to use a certain instrument but you’re scared of it because it represents another culture or thing and you don’t know how to push forward or how to detach it from its culture. All of these things can be part of musical political correctness.”

However, even with its efforts to maintain musical freedom and to push the envelope of what “correct” music means, perhaps Ahwar’s most relevant attribute is that initial attempt to merge the old and the new, to reintroduce musical styles from the past and style them with the fervorous colors of the present. But even then, those older elements are subject to getting lost in translation, El Shazly explains. The old ideas could be misinterpreted. Ultimately, El Shazly decided she must come to terms with the reality that the magic of those recordings couldn’t truly be reintroduced.

But beyond the experimentation and the striving for musical independence, El Shazly says her music is above all meant to achieve a personal sense of self-care and discovery.

“Primarily it’s to keep my sanity and to do something that I really love. I think also it’s to continue to be adventurous and discovering the potential of music and what you can do and the amount of things you can do with it,” El Shazly said. “That’s what I always like to do.”

Derek Tate is studying journalism and geography at the University of Iowa. He likes to play the baritone. He thinks he’s getting good, but he can handle criticism. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 263.

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