After 20 years of absence, the musical ensemble al-Massreieen (The Egyptians) is back. The ensemble, led by the veteran Egyptian composer Hany Shenouda, was launched in 1977. Its innovative use of musical methods and lyrics to create a thoroughly modern, purely Egyptian, musical experience acted as an inspiration to later ensembles, music writers, and singers. In other words al-Massreieen, in a matter of ten years, contributed to the foundation of a movement of singing to music which, though westernised or internationalised, never lost its original Egyptian character and rhythm, and words that were the outcome of real everyday experiences. One song tells of a young woman whose lover is late for a rendezvous owing to an extended traffic jam; another of a son whose faults his father persists in criticising until he finds out that his son has faithfully inherited all his traits; a third of a grandmother relating fairytales to the little ones; the list goes on and on.
Now the good news is that, after a two-decade-long disappearance, al-Massreieen is back and has been warmly received by fans.
Watani visited Mr Shenouda in his home near the Giza Pyramids, and had a long talk about the ensemble’s history and future.
• Watani: How did the ensemble come to reform its activities after 20 years’ absence?
Shenouda: During an interview I gave on the FM radio programme, one of the young people working there mentioned Iman Yunis, a past member of the ensemble who retired singing a long time ago when she got married. This brought back a yearning for the good old days; I directly called Iman and couldn’t believe it when she said she wanted to sing again. “I want to come back, Hany,” she said. “So do I,” I replied. So the ensemble has re-formed and presented the first performance last November at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where we were very well received.
I later happened to meet Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, and he said he would like to come to one of our performances. I thought we should perform on the open-air stage at the Cairo Opera House, so we did this last January and followed it with another at the Sawi Cultural Wheel in February.
• How did the ensemble succeed to create the same style considering that most of its members have passed away?
When we decided to make a comeback, we had to find a number of promising young talents. It wasn’t hard; Afaf Atef, Iman Yunis and Mona Aziz have lovely voices, while the young Fadi Alfi has a soft, warm voice, along with Ayman Serdar and the young musicians Mohamed Adel and Hamid Sabri on guitar, Mustafa Kerdani on drums, and Hany Bedeir.
• In the 1970s, singing in Egypt was dominated by solo singing. How were you able to go so successfully into group singing?
The idea of forming the ensemble was an attempt to bring out a new style of singing, and at the same time to use a modern form of colloquial Egyptian. We were lucky at that time to have wonderful vernacular poets like the late Salah Jahin, who introduced lyrics that represented the public mood. This was the real beginning of this Egyptian singing, when I was just starting to compose the first album of the Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir.
The first song was “I don’t love you”, released on 8 December 1977. It had an unprecedented reception. The idea of naming the group “al-Massreieen” came from an article written by journalist Mohamed Qabil under the title “The Egyptians are coming”.
The ensemble was made up of the late Tahseen Yalmaz, Mamdouh Qassem, Hany al-Azhari and Amr Fathi, as well as the talented singer Iman Yunis who was then at the Conservatoire. The lyrics were written by the shining knights of colloquial poetry in Egypt such as Mursi al-Sayed, Omar Batisha, Salah Jahin and others.
• What was the aim of al-Massreieen, and what kind of songs did they introduce?
The ensemble tried to get away from traditional love lyrics, delving deep into Egyptian society to tackle unusual topics such as difference of generations, overcrowding, marriage, and freedom. This found a place in the Egyptian soul, which has kept these songs alive until today. Jahin once said about the ensemble, “It is a revolution in the world of Egyptian song”.
• Despite all your success the ensemble’s activities were frozen after few years. Why was this?
After the great success achieved in the 1970s and 1980s, Iman Yunis got married and retired from singing to devote herself to her children, while Mona Aziz left to Switzerland, and Tahseen Yalmaz and Mamdouh Qassem died. The ensemble thus ceased to be.
• What is your opinion about the new groups and new singing trends?
I respect every collective work, especially because our group was one of the first. Differences in these groups are a healthy sign because solo and collective singing complement each other.
As for the trends in pop music these days, such as the song Bahebak ya humar “I love you, ass” sung by Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, I welcome every work that reflects reality. Egypt has been a market for songs that find popularity.
For myself, I listen to these songs and I love them.