Legendary stage and opera director Peter Sellars asked former Rolex protégée Dina El Wedidi to sing at the 70th Ojai Music Festival in California after hearing her sing at a Rolex Arts Initiative event in Venice. El Wedidi was mentored by Gilberto Gil in 2012–2013.
In 2013, Dina El Wedidi took to the stage in the panelled hall of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice. No one who was there will ever forget it, as this young Egyptian singer performed a concert that shone with joy and defiance, blending lyrics in Arabic with bossa nova rhythms, winding stories of love and dreams of political change into a compelling and entrancing set.
The stage director Peter Sellars was in the audience at the event, which marked the culmination of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Initiative for 2012–13. “I was knocked out by her,” he says. “Everybody was just stunned. The performance was both powerful and completely charming, with real generosity of spirit.” On the spot, he invited her to perform at the 70th Ojai Music Festival in California, which he is curating, and which runs from 9–12 June 2016.The festival, which also features the music of another former Rolex mentor, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, is a perfect forum for El Wedidi’s music, which fuses traditional Egyptian genres with a wide-ranging set of global styles. That was part of the appeal for her Rolex mentor, the legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, who performed with her on that memorable Venice evening. He chose El Wedidi as his protégée after she had become part of the hopeful events of the Arab spring, singing to the crowd in Tahir Square in 2011 on the day President Mubarak stepped down.
He said at the time that he chose her to work with because of her voice, her interest in both Egyptian folk music and the bossa nova, and her desire to work with Egyptian musicians in popular and folk music. Over the mentoring year, they developed an enormous respect for one another and have remained close ever since. Last July they met up when he was playing in Italy, performing with Caetona Veloso and he invited El Wedidi to come to see them. “It was amazing,” she says. “Just wonderful. Gilberto is not the kind of mentor who tells you what to do and what to think but by inviting me along to see him and how he works, I get knowledge from the whole experience.
“What I learned from him was how to be more passionate and give music time. I saw him rehearsing for six hours at a stretch, having fresh ideas for his new album.”
Photo: © Timothy Norris
El Wedidi could never be accused of lacking passion. Music is her life and she seeks constantly to extend her abilities. Since her first album Turning Back – to which Gil contributed a song – was released in 2014, she has continued to work on original material. For three years she toured with the Nile Project, which brought together a variety of musicians from countries running along the Nile basin, contributing one song, My South (about the need for cultural and environmental harmony), to the first album, and two songs to the second. She has performed also in Britain and Sweden.
Currently, she is working on ideas for her second album, which she wants to make with the Ethiopian saxophonist Jorga Mesfin. “I don’t want to talk about it until I have the whole idea,” she says. “But I am thinking of making one long track.” Mesfin is also performing with her at the Ojai Festival and she can hardly wait to get there. “I am very excited and very happy,” she says, laughing. “It’s a very cool festival and I am not only looking forward to performing but also to seeing other performances as well.”
Peter Sellars, former theatre mentor, invited Dina El Wedidi to perform at the 70th Ojai Music Festival.
This was very much what Sellars, who was a Rolex mentor to the Beirut-based theatre director Maya Zbib in 2011, had in mind when he invited El Wedidi to the festival. “All of us as artists depend on working abroad,” he says. “It is very important. The great thing about Ojai is that it is a small festival that has a big ripple effect totally out of proportion to its actual scale. I think there will be key people there who can also invite Dina to choose some next steps. We all want young artists to take those next steps.”
El Wedidi admits she has found it difficult to establish an international career. She is doing well, but progress is slow. In part, this is because of her own search for perfection, for finding ways of saying exactly what she wants to communicate lyrically and musically. “It would be very easy to release a new album every month but it’s not easy to get out what I really want to do,” she says, thoughtfully. “Everything takes time. I am trying to write songs and to produce some stuff and it is the most difficult thing to do.”
But El Wedidi, who is still based in Cairo, also suffers from problems specific to her homeland, where the democratic aspirations of 2011 have been subsumed by the new realities of living under a military regime. “Musically it is not difficult; you can perform and record,” she says. “The Egyptian audiences are really supportive of me. But the situation is a little weird because the censorship has been increased. Like all artists, I don’t have any idea about the future right now. We are still waiting to see what happens.”
The difficulties of life in Egypt are another reason why Sellars feels international support for El Wedidi is essential. “It’s just so exciting when you hear a young voice coming from the Arab world at this time,” he says. “The whole world thrilled to the idea of the Arab spring and then that was so shockingly overtaken by the installation of more repressive regimes all across the region, and everything was silenced, though things are still moving online. But just in terms of voices from this part of the world that are speaking to the world but also speaking there, one is really grateful."
“Dina is not only such a huge talent and irresistible vocally and in terms of her sheer presence, but also the music itself is this amazing thing, keeping everybody alive and in a forward-looking state until there is another opening.”
What impressed him about El Wedidi’s music, from the moment he first heard it, was its maturity. “She is in it for the long haul and not for this week’s fight,” he notes. “Her music isn’t about fighting, it’s a longer-term series of life choices. And one of the things a festival is good at is that it gives you a context where you realise you’re not alone. You’re meeting artists from different parts of the world and you realise you can share things, compare notes and get inspiration from each other’s presence.”
For El Wedidi, such opportunities are to be treasured. Her music draws its sustenance from a mix of influences. “I love travel,” she says. “I am inspired by artists doing different work from mine. I think that is very important.”
Next year, she hopes to live in Berlin for six months, “just to stay in a different place for a time”. She acknowledges how much she has developed since she embarked on her musical journey. “In just two years, you are so different. You are changing all the time. I have to work a lot, I have to concentrate. It is a hard thing to build a career.”