Working collectively for the first time, singer-songwriter Youssra El Hawary, multi-instrumentalist Nancy Mounir, Mohamed Adel on guitar and Yasmine El Baramawy on oud and electronics, enter the musical unknown — a production and performance space created by Cairo Jazz Club and Mada Masr’s Found in Translation series.
Hawary is largely known for her accordion-driven, narrative-infused soundscape that draws from various folkloric and contemporary influences. Last year saw the release of her debut album, No’oum Nasyeen (Forgetful, We Rise), released in collaboration with her band and made possible through a successful crowdfunding campaign via Indiegogo. Baramawy will also contribute her electronic musings, alongside her dynamic oud styles that reference Iraqi and Egyptian, contemporary and traditional influences. Playing a range of instruments, including violin, electronics and the theremin, Mounir brings the versatility of her experience, which has traveled through various genres including heavy metal with Mascara, and contemporary folk with Dina El Wedidi on her album Tedawar w Terga. The album features guitar contributions by Adel, who also joins this iteration of Found in Translation, weaving in his rich and dynamic musical experience as a recording and performing artist across Arabic pop, alt-rock and contemporary folk genres.
As Mada Masr was getting ready to prepare a text for the musicians to respond to, we were in the midst of covering incidents of censorship on works of art. We found ourselves veering toward Georges Henein’s manifesto, Vive l’Art Dégénéré (Long Live Degenerate Art), signed in 1938 by 31 artists, writers, journalists and lawyers, as a reaction to the elitist position of art institutions deeming some works of art repulsive and a broader rejection of forced nationalism in light of Nazi power. Challenging notions and terminology used to describe cultural production like “lowbrow,” “repulsive,” or “vulgarity,” the manifesto unearthed a surrealist driven counter-culture in the arts, one that highlights the torment of the individual and the collective versus traditional aesthetics of the times.
We ended up also selecting Joyce Mansour’s poetry, particularly poems like Screams, through which she unravels her surrealist writings on love and pain. A manifestation of what Henein and co-signers were set to oppose, Mansour’s poetry is often described as “blunt,” “erotic” and “degenerate” by those in “high culture.”
In connecting Henein and Mansour, we looked at their triumph over human and individual emotion in their quests to produce work that neither carries a message, nor seeks to be successful.
Below is part of a conversation between the artists and music journalist Maha ElNabawi earlier this week, including their impressions of the chosen texts, how they connected them to their practices, and the broader music scene in Egypt. They also speak of the process of collaborating in an attempt to create music out of these old surrealist meanderings.
Maha ElNabawi: OK, let’s jump right into it. It’s kind of an odd assignment. What did you think of the text and the idea overall?
Youssra El Hawary: When given the title Yahya al-Fann al-Monhat (Long Live Degenerate Art), there was silence at first; nobody answered for days. We knew that we were going to read these texts as a source of inspiration, instead of literally translating them to music. So we didn’t immediately speak about our impressions of the text we read until we met. First, we started thinking of the title, of what al-fann al-monhat (degenerate art) actually is. Do we have the right to say that anything is fann monhat? We discovered that we’ve almost never used this word to describe any art before. To try to be somewhat reasonable, we thought of asking ourselves which of our works could be called al-fann al-monhat. Up until now, like this morning, we were thinking that describing something as monhat usually connotes a moral judgment. We realized that we are actually against categorizing any art as monhat because there’s good art, bad art and poor art, but monhat always stems from a moral stance toward art, which is what eventually led us to say, yes, long live degenerate art.
Nancy Mounir: We also had other debates on al-fann al-raqy (high art), messages within songs and this big argument around the question of conceptual art — the technicality of which might not always be great, but it is still accepted as art. We are still thinking about it.
Yasmine Baramawy: When I was thinking about what monhat means, I asked a friend of ours, “what is fann monhat?” and he said, “we should not judge,” but when I brought up specific productions that glorify certain people or politics, we thought that this might be fann monhat.
NM: But I disagree, actually. I’d like to say that [making art for money] isn’t monhat at all.
YB: I am not referring to [making art for money]. If someone is doing it to get good money, that’s one thing, but for me to produce something to specifically appease ‘the king,’ that’s something else. I am talking about glorifying something as being beautiful, even if it’s not beautiful, just so that the big boss is happy with you.
Mohamed Adel: You might categorize this as fann monhat. But for me, art always presents these binaries: monhat art/high art, bad art/good art, deep art, real art, silly art — it’s all there. But the opposite of “long live” is to die. I don’t think these binaries should kill or cancel out any form of art.
YB: Things that bully others, like if you make fun of a particular gender or someone’s ethnicity, this might be fann monhat. But this is my personal opinion of fann monhat, and I still don’t know if that means it should disappear.
NM: I also feel like I cannot judge. This is a misuse of music as a medium to shove an aggressive message down our throats. No, we want to listen to good music, written in many layers, with interesting scales, key changes and nice grooves, without trying to provoke or incite listeners with a message. To me, enhetat (degeneration) relates to situations where I don’t have to do something purposeful or meaningful. Because if I create productions void of purpose or meaning, but it has something interesting musicality, then that’s okay too — that’s what I personally want to do.
MA: This is OK if we are trying to say that not everything has to be meaningful or purposeful. Al-fann al-monhat would be rebelling against [the notion of forced meaning]. Eventually, it is all in the interest of keeping all forms of art alive, regardless of whether or not they have purpose. Art can be shaabi or opera, so another argument would say that these categorizations matter. I am against the notion that the presence of one form of art should cancel out or kill another.
YB: And we also agree with the sentence, “long live degenerate art.”
YH: On the second or third rehearsal, we realized that whenever any of us work on our own music, we are sometimes scared that a song will be too direct, too conceptual or too commercial. It’s as if we are constantly scared that the work will turn out monhat one way or another. We started thinking of the work we have let go of in the past because we thought it was monhat. So we decided that we want to create music without our own judgements.
YB: That’s the best part of this idea, that we feel like we can do anything now.
MN: I always have a problem with such restrictions in writing music. I never studied music and I don’t play an instrument very well. There’s so much saying that I shouldn’t be in a critical position of music. So I often ask myself, why am I positioning myself as a judge of music? Someone else might say it’s about criticality and that critique is important. I am a little lost between judgment, critique and criticality and where does one come in and where should they stop? And what does that mean for my music journalism?
YB: The problem is when self-critique stops you from pursuing or continuing something.
NM: When we start thinking of constructive art, or these productions that are full of conceptualization, we sometimes don’t have any music or visuals because they are too focused on concept, this is very frustrating for me. If I have to take sides, I would take the side of art that doesn’t have much purpose, but has nice sounds and visuals, without profound meaning.
MA: The whole thing is a risk. Our intention isn’t to cancel out judgements. Once you produce a work of art, you open it up to useful/useless and right/wrong judgments, which entails taking a very real risk.
YH: That’s half the idea; to decide that instead of keeping this in your room, you let the public see it. You released it, so I suppose you have to answer to it.
MN. What kind of instrumentation and sound setup can we expect at the event?
YH: Nancy already plays like 75 instruments. I will be on vocals, accordion, and a vocal looper. Nancy is bringing her theremin, and Yasmine her electronics and possibly her oud. Mohamed will be on guitar.
MN: Have you worked on a few songs already? When did you start working?
YH: We have worked on a few songs, but we are constantly shifting things around. Some things change the more we discuss them together. For example, we had worked on some of each other’s older songs, playing around with them a bit. We started thinking, “what does it mean to place certain pieces under this title?” Does it mean that we have categorized them under fann monhat?
NM: But we still kept some of them. There were things we stopped working on individually before, so we are revisiting them and collectively challenging them through this project. Some things arise when we jam together, like the song we wrote about you being late to the interview.
MN: Is there anything else you guys want to add about the projects you’re working on, or how this experiment has been going?
YH: Don’t take it too seriously!
MN: It’s an experiment, you know. To give you some ease, I think the audience knows that you have a short time. It’s a really odd commission.
YH: This is the biggest challenge for me. I feel like if we had more time, we could have done so and so. I always think about this. But more time isn’t always a good thing.
MN: Sometimes too much time dilutes the project.
YH: You think too much about it and start adding things. With little time, it is more honest. There’s less of a chance to rethink things or to adjust them.
MA: I am nervous that this will backfire badly, but I am also very excited and I have no confidence in anything, which is exactly why I want to work on this particular project. With other projects, I know what I will be doing, but with this one, I don’t know. Maybe everyone will be upset, maybe we will be upset. It is worrying, but that’s why I am going into this. I need something that isn’t too certain or defined. It’s part of the experience.
MN: I’m getting the vibe that the songs are going to be very strange, which I think is exciting. Is it like anything you’ve done before?
YH: No, we are trying to create something that looks very different from what we’ve done individually before.