Rolex Arts Initiative: Your first album will be released towards the end of this year. How many songs are on the album and does it have a theme?
Dina El Wedidi: The new album will have about 12 original songs – I might add or remove one. I wrote them between 2008 and 2014. Some are social, some political, some of them are optimistic. The theme is this period of time in Egypt, both for me personally and also globally – a time of great changes. Many different things have inspired me during this period – the political situation here (we’ve had three presidents in a year), but also the people I’ve met, including my mentor Gilberto Gil, and others through Rolex, and through the Nile Project.
Do you have a set process or method for composing a song?
I don’t have a specific way. I compose the music, but not the lyrics – they come from various Egyptian writers, some from my generation, some older. The music can come to me anywhere. I can be on the Metro, in the street, or in my room. The latest song came to me on the stairs (I live on the seventh floor). When the music comes to me, I compose it, sometimes using an Egyptian percussion instrument without strings [daf]. Writing songs down can take a long time, but the album is coming together quickly. I started it last August. My producer is coming to Cairo soon, so we can arrange it and wrap it up.
Has your music changed or developed since the beginning of the mentorship with Gilberto Gil?
Yes, of course it’s changed. My thinking has kind of matured. Collaborating with Gilberto Gil was a very rich experience for me. We travelled for a year, not just composing and singing together, but also seeing this big world together. I was with him at many festivals and performances. When you see the reaction of the audience to him on stage, you see the magic that he is working. I tried to learn this from him. He’s full of power, and very good. There’s something about him that I’ve been trying to catch. Even though the mentorship is over, I’m still in contact with him by email – and he sings a song on my album.
As a musician, you seem to transcend labels. You like traditional Egyptian music, but you do something new with it; you’re interested in politics, but you don’t want to be pigeonholed as a political or revolutionary artist.
In Egypt, I’m not seen as traditional. My music is traditional, but I’m not. I’m trying to do my own kind of folk music. I appreciate traditional folk music, but I want to improve on it. It’s not my aim to reproduce old styles, even if I love them. People don’t see me as revolutionary either. I believe I have the freedom to talk about anything in my music, but I don’t feel the need to talk politics all the time. When I want to sing about something, I do. The reality is that ‘the street’ talks about many things, and I’m inspired by the people on the street, from a personal level to the general. This gives depth to the music and the subject.
I understand that over the past couple of years, apart from your mentorship and composing music, another focus for you has been the Nile Project, a musical and environmental initiative.
I’ve participated in the Nile Project for the past two years. It brings together musicians and thinkers from countries along the Nile, the longest river in the world. The idea came from Mina Girgis, who is Egyptian and lives in San Francisco. Last year we all gathered in Aswan, here in Egypt, and we performed there and in Cairo.
The 2013 Nile Project album, Aswan, was hailed by NPR Music as one of the five “Must-hear international albums of the fall” – and you’re on it.
I had one song on last year’s album, and I’ll have two on this year’s. This year the Nile Project gathered for three weeks in Uganda, and there were 14 musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. It was my first experience of living anywhere in Africa outside Egypt. After, we did a series of concerts in countries along the Nile.
Music is key to the Nile Project, but its objectives go beyond music, addressing the Nile Basin’s cultural and environmental challenges through an innovative approach that combines music, education and an enterprise platform. Why did you decide to get involved?
I got involved in the project because I loved the idea and I find, as an Egyptian singer, we’ve got a big problem with our African identity. We’re influenced more by Arab culture than African culture. But Egypt is in northern Africa, and this project has reminded me of the beauty of the Nile and Africa.
Dina El Wedidi’s album will be released by KKV.com in September. In Arabic, it is entitled تدور وترجع – Searching and coming back.