Singer takes traditional Egyptian folk tunes around the globe
Last month, hundreds of fans packed into a small downtown Cairo theatre to hear Donia Massoud coquettishly sing about a farmer happily living under his wife's thumb. With her sly smile and powerful voice, it's easy to see why the singer inspires fans and critics alike.
Almost a decade ago, the Alexandrian-born singer and actress spent three years travelling Egypt chronicling folk tales and music from the different regions of the country. Now, she's performing the songs she collected throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Gaining access to far-flung village weddings, moulids and mourning rituals was no easy feat.
"It's not that easy socially to go to a place as a stranger, to deal with people and record their music. They won't accept anyone from outside the society, and are hesitant to allow you there," the singer says.
During those three years, Massoud made recordings of traditional songs from Egypt's agricultural region in the Delta, important economic towns on the Suez Canal, Port Said and Suez City, as well as El Minya, Sohag and Aswan in Upper Egypt, and small villages along the way.
"People talk to me about my trip, but I had to do it because there was no other way to get the music. It's not about me being a heroine who collects our country's songs. I'm not that hero. I did it for myself."
Now, Massoud performs the music she spent those years studying with her troupe, playing instruments from around the region, including the qanun, a box zither, the daf, a Nubian drum, the debukah, a hand drum that originated in Turkey, and an Egyptian flute with a "wide and deep voice".
"The most positive thing wasn't the music itself, but what I learnt about our country and the people I met," says Massoud. "Most Egyptians don't visit Upper Egypt, and instead know it only from TV and movies, which characterise it as a very masculine, patriarchal society."
But, Massoud insists, much of the material she's collected shows the opposite. "There is no specific idea of how a woman looks in Upper Egypt, it can be anything.
"Their music brings up this question of 'What is the real taboo around our bodies?' It's not what we, as the middle class in cities, think. In rural areas they have another view of bodies, if you listen to the words of songs, they are about flirting with every inch of your body in a very brave and beautiful way."
Many of the traditional songs Massoud performs are bawdy, "really almost rude".
Her most popular song, Betnadeeny Tany Leeh (Why Do You Call Me Again?) pairs her lilting, sultry voice with the daf to create a sensuous, moody tune, where the singer asks an old flame why he is still calling her, since she's already found a new lover.
Aside from the limited-run 2009 album Mahatet Masr, Massoud says she has little interest in releasing albums, instead relying on internet streaming and downloads as well as the live performances to make her work accessible to fans.
On stage, Massoud is a flirtatious performer, teasing the audience and shrugging her shoulders coyly as she sings. Though she did not write the music, she says performing it has brought up a double standard for women in Egypt.
"Off the stage, people attack my morals as a woman who is independent, not religious and lives away from home, but these are the same people who come to every show and sing along," she says. "When I'm on stage it becomes a suspension of disbelief for them."
Women's rights is a sensitive topic in Egypt, and sexual harassment of women, including those who wear the hijab, is common in Cairo. Last week, women holding a march in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand an end to sexual harassment were attacked and molested by a mob of men. According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, almost 70 per cent of women are harassed daily. But many, including Massoud, question the hostility towards women in urban areas.
"My travels taught me that a lot of the taboos we hold in urban cities are fake taboos, dressed up to look like education or being culturally Egyptian, but it's not that deep. These songs deal with people's realities and their needs."
Egyptians have grown to consider folk music as old-fashioned, instead favouring international acts and regional megastars. But for Massoud, folkloric songs speak to Egyptians' cultural identity.
"How will you know how you feel about the entire world if you don't know other parts of Egypt? It's a big country, not just in numbers or land mass, but it's big in the variety of many social lives and styles. We have so many accents, different societies and ways of living that it's important to recognise that to understand ourselves," she says.
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Updated: June 24, 2012 04:00 AM