September 5, 2018 at 10:00 AM
In the spring of 2012, Youssra El Hawary wrote a song about something new in her neighborhood. She uploaded a video onto YouTube of her singing the tune, accompanied simply by her accordion.
“I started my musical career a few months before this song,” El Hawary recalled last week by phone from Cairo. “I didn’t have a big base of fans. I thought just one or two hundred [viewers were] going to see it.”
But the then-fledgling singer’s neighborhood is near Tahrir Square, focal point of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Her song was about the tall concrete barricades that had been erected to contain protesters. The video of “El Soor,” which means “the wall,” was an instant sensation; six years later, it’s been watched more than 600,000 times.
Now El Hawary is headed to Washington, where she and her five-person band will perform at the Kennedy Center and the U Street club Tropicalia. The tour, the musician’s first in the United States, was organized by the nonprofit Center Stage, which for the past six years has brought notable international performers to this country for month-long tours. Its 2018 lineup features two additional acts from Egypt and two from Ukraine.
This year’s program begins with the group Mohamed Abozekry and Karkade, the most musically traditional of the three from Egypt. They will perform Saturday at Bossa Bistro and Sunday at the Kennedy Center. El Hawary and vocalist Dina El Wedidi will appear the following week.
The Ukrainian acts — the musical group Kurbasy and the cabaret-theater troupe Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh — will visit next month.
Center Stage is a collaboration between the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which picks the countries, and the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), which selects the performers. It sends participants to big cities and small towns, to marble-clad arts centers and colleges, churches and libraries.
“This is not one gig a night for 30 days. They’re in communities for three or four days,” says NEFA executive director Cathy Edwards. “There are meals in people’s homes and panel discussions and workshops. This isn’t for the artist who doesn’t have a genuine interest in connecting.”
The chosen artists are generally not well known in the United States, says NEFA program director Adrienne Petrillo, but may have performed here. Both El Wedidi, who Petrillo describes as a “powerhouse vocalist,” and Abozekry have toured stateside as part of the Nile Project, a group of players from several countries touched by the river.
Because the goal is cultural understanding, Center Stage attempts to cross language barriers. Some of the visiting performers, like El Hawary, speak English; others distribute translated texts. Teatr-Pralnia has worked up new material in English for its musical puppet show.
Although this will be El Hawary’s first time visiting the United States, she has been onstage in countries where Arabic is not widely spoken. She studied accordion in France, and has performed there and in other European countries.
She remembers wondering, “ ‘Should I translate every song? Should I say the details of each story I tell, or the story behind every song?’ I decided to leave it to the moment and go with the flow.”
She does offer explanations when singing a tune that “has to do with a political event, or something that happens in Egypt that’s maybe not the same in other countries.”
El Hawary is a traditionalist in some ways, notably in her use of the accordion, which she concedes is not so popular with younger Egyptians. Yet her sort of instrument, with quarter-tones so it can produce Middle Eastern melodies, is well-established in Egypt.
“You know the music that goes with belly dancing?” she asks. “You have to have an accordion there.”
The singer-composer says her first inspirations were American jazz and blues, and she didn’t add the Parisian chanson that’s now integral to her style until she moved to France. She’s also an actress, and theatricality is “part of the French school in singing,” she notes.
If her musical style is a bit old-fashioned, El Hawary is dedicated to the spirit of the 2011 uprising. She and her band insist on independence — in their industry and from their government — and turned to crowdfunding to make their 2017 debut album, “No’oum Nasyeen” (“We Wake Up Forgetting”).
Politically, the musician says, the situation has only gotten more tense since the walls she sang about six years ago appeared. “I don’t have a direct or clear problem with the government,” she explains, but “a lot of arts places are getting closed. It’s very hard now to arrange a workshop or do a concert.”
Yet El Hawary’s gloom about the current situation is countered by her optimism about the cultural awakening that began in 2011. “It was just the start,” she says. “New ways are found, new bands and new movements and new musical styles. I believe that it keeps changing, and no one can stop it.”
If you go
Mohamed Abozekry and Karkade
Saturday at Bossa Bistro and Sunday at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.
Dina El Wedidi and Youssra El Hawary
Sept. 15 at Tropicalia. Additionally, see them each solo at Millennium Stage: El Hawary on Sept. 16 and El Wedidi on Sept. 17.
Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh
Oct. 16 at Millennium Stage.
Oct. 24 at Millennium Stage.