By Chitra Kalyani
“I often ask myself if I believe what I’m doing. Do I believe that I sing? Am I really doing this?” Maryam Saleh says, explaining her puzzling concert title. “Ana mesh baghani” (I Don’t Sing) was also the opening song at Saleh’s act at Rawabet on Thursday night.
The packed and dim-lit Townhouse venue lends an intimacy better suited to Saleh’s grungy underground sound than Al-Azhar Park’s open air Genaina where the featured act opened in August.
Rawabet also proved to be a more interactive venue as the audience requested Saleh’s vocals to be louder than the supporting music. Later, an audience member jokingly pushed the request for an encore to saying that he had paid LE 25 for the ticket.
“Mesh baghani” is Saleh’s adaptation of Mido Zoheir’s lyrics “Ana mesh ba-salli” (I Don’t Pray). The lyrics “I don’t sing. I don’t speak. / I don’t sleep. I do not wake” express the contradictory nature that characterizes the artist’s thoughts and style.
Many songs in Saleh’s line-up are penned by Zoheir. Themes chosen by Saleh are at once personal and universal. She sings of isolation, of loss, and of political oppression in a voice that is alternately loud and gentle.
“Contradictions produce art,” says the singer, who has also acted in many theater plays (most recently Laila Soliman’s “Lessons in Revolution”), a few short films, and appears in Ibrahim Battout’s highly-acclaimed sophomore effort “Eye of the Sun.”
In one of the scenes of El Battout’s film, Saleh sings a Shia’ religious mourning song. “There are many kinds of mourning [songs],” says Saleh, who researched the topic for a year, and finds she may have a melancholic disposition.
To insert one more contradiction, among one of Saleh’s many occupations has been that of a clown at a street theater company called “Suradaq,” referring to the tent under which marriage celebrations and funereal wakes are held.
The concert at Rawabet began with a minute of silence commemorating the Beni Suef theater fire at the in 2005 that claimed over 30 lives. The casualties included renowned playwright and novelist Saleh Saad, Saleh’s father and mentor.
“Ya baladi tool il tareeq” (O My Country, Along the Way), the heartbreakingly reticent finale in Saleh’s set, refers to Beni Suef, mourning a personal loss while subtly passing comment on the negligence of the state that resulted in a national tragedy.
Saleh was also mentored by Sheikh Imam, known for his forthright and sarcastic songs, and she carried on his legacy when the singer-composer passed away, by establishing and fronting her musical ventures Gawaz Safar and Baraka.
Currently, her sister Nagham Saleh is vocalist at her former band Baraka, which held a concert at Geneina the same night as Saleh’s performance. While Baraka married her musical style of rock with Sheikh Imam’s songs, it is through her independent project with the production house “Eka3” that Saleh ventured into more original compositions.
“Sheikh Imam had his time to which he spoke,” said the artist, “I have my time where I speak [to my generation].”
Writing her own lyrics was a difficult step, says Saleh, since her work is not commercial. Being a true student of both Saleh Saad and Sheikh Imam, Saleh prefers live singing which marries theater with music in a “moment of acting onstage.”
Her vocals are powerfully complemented by the mature rock accompaniment with the piano of Shadi el Hosseiny, Mohamed Darwish on guitars, oriental and western percussion provided by Ayman Mabrouk, and the bass that Tamer Abou Ghazaleh, her producer at Eka3, stepped in to provide.
Saleh’s lyrics address issues to which audiences relate. “Wahda,” (Alone) one of the songs she sang in her encore, speaks of isolation, moving from gentler sounds into distortion and loud vocals.
“Ghoda” too varies in tones, going from a carefree tottering tune, albeit describing a chaotic day out on the street, to a more somber note when the subject hits his head and forgets his name.
Another number, “Eslahat,” (Under Construction) possibly popularized further by its music video, speaks of the hypocrisy in society and mocks politics that create conditions in which people are forced into drug-abuse. In the video, the singer appears in two forms: “Fatma Echarb” (Fatma the Veiled) and Saleh herself.
Saleh has three renditions of the “Eslahat” in her repertoire; the one played on Thursday married oriental drums eloquently with pure rock. The lyrics came spontaneously to Saleh, who finds the song may owe its popularity to the fact that “it reaches people quickly.”
“It was by chance that I discovered I can write lyrics,” said the singer, who admits she was afraid and unsure if audiences would appreciate what she had penned.
Given her boldly critical lyrics, it is surprising to learn of her hesitance. But the contradiction is easily witnessed when after delivering a powerful song with eyes closed, the singer with a shy and nervous smile greets the applause, almost as if she were expecting quite the contrary.
For more information on the artist, please visit http://www.mar-yam.com/
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A graffiti of Maryam appeared on Cairo streets before her performance in Geneina, marking her as an iconic figure in tune with the underground scene.