Carousel of dreams
London, Montreux, New York, Rio de Janeiro. When Brazil’s internationally adored singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil chose Dina El Wedidi as his protégée, she suddenly found herself on the world stage. For the young Egyptian, the mentoring year has found her stepping out from the tumultuous events of the revolution in her country to pursue the opportunity of a lifetime.
By Sue Steward
"Talent she has, commitment she has, dedication and the capacity to work hard, Dina has all that. And with her musicians, she’s open, cooperative and democratic. Her music is so varied, she has a kind of multifaceted personality, working with change. Every few months, like a different person, she brings new ideas. At her age, when you’re curious, that’s what happens, you’re finding a path to follow. It’s an amazing thing – a year ago, she was singing with local bands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the struggle, and then performing with me, in London, an appropriately bicultural song, ‘Egyptian Bossa Nova’. The mentoring was to give her opportunities to follow the way we work, how we prepare our songs, our records, our concerts, how we travel and choose audiences, and why we come to Europe and go to Africa. Dina has a great artistic personality; she’s been tailored by life to be an artist. She’s already a new-born star."
On 25 January 2012, tens of thousands of Egyptian protestors occupied Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, there to celebrate the first anniversary of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Fireworks exploded all around and in the midst of it all, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter Dina El Wedidi delivered revolutionary songs. “On that day,” she recalls, “it was a year since Mubarak had stepped down and I was singing for the first time to a huge crowd.”
Before the memory of the euphoria of the concert had faded, there was another life changing event. In the street El Wedidi’s mobile phone rang, but she couldn’t hear the caller properly over Cairo’s infamous horns. Later, she was stunned to learn that she was being invited to apply to the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. “It was a very, very big thing for me,” she recalls emotionally. “And having Gilberto Gil as my mentor – he’s a part of the international scene. This was my dream.”
Gilberto Gil – international Grammy-winning singer and song writer, 1960s political activist and Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008 – is based in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that he interviewed four candidates – El Wedidi and three others – vying to be his protégé. In retrospect, he admits that he selected the Egyptian singer almost immediately. “She’s very enthusiastic about what she’s doing and about her country, and she has a very interesting interaction between Egyptian folk and pop music,” he explains. “I also came from that folk environment – in Bahia [north-east Brazil] – and in my 20s I also became interested in Brazilian music in general and also international music.”
A couple of days after El Wedidi’s successful interview in Rio de Janeiro and before her flight home, Gil invited her to his studio. They picked up their acoustic guitars and began improvising, ping-ponging between their very different cultures and musical styles, particularly bossa nova. Gil asked El Wedidi if she wanted to incorporate other musical elements into her own songs, as a form of fusion. She told him, with a smile, that she already did. A month after the interview, El Wedidi met Gil at London’s Back2Black Brazilian and African music festival. He brought a playlist of his hit songs, and El Wedidi joined him for one that they put together and gave the name Egyptian Bossa Nova
. Dressing-room nerves were inevitable for El Wedidi at such an early phase of the mentorship, in an alien country and with unfamiliar musicians, but she glided confidently across the stage in bare feet as Gil enthused about her to the audience. Then she exhaled a long joyous opening and built it up into a soulful bossa-like oriental melange, joined by Gil’s high falsetto and honeyed lower notes. It worked perfectly. “It is fascinating that you have such a far and distant culture,” he says to her after the show. “You’re finding a path to follow; your music is so varied, but also very classic and ethnic, and that marks its character.”
After this astonishing public debut with one of the world’s music masters, El Wedidi spent the night scrutinizing film of her performance. By dawn, she said she had decided “to present more of myself, my identity and my Egyptian side, and my changeable character”, adding that she wouldn’t fully understand it until she was back in Egypt, going over the memories.
The next day Gil switched from Back2Black’s club-like atmosphere to rehearsals at London’s Barbican Centre with the celebrated Brazilian cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and the London Symphony Orchestra. El Wedidi sat motionless and often emotional throughout the sound-check and the performance, studying Gil’s ways of moving, his singing expressions and sensitive communion with the conductor, cellist and audience. Observation became a crucial element in this journey of discovery.
She duly returned home to Cairo where life was “normal”, El Wedidi says, in spite of the tension on the streets, riots and demonstrations. She still walked to cafés with friends and musicians, and continued her involvement in the underground music movement, including the Cairo Jazz Club. At home, she practised singing, playing guitar and the tambourine drum (daff
) and tried to raise money for her first album. She also began composing songs for her band, with its eclectic mix of Irish violin, flute, accordion, guitars and Arabic instruments. Then came another invitation to join Gil. Intensity of touring
In July, the musical carousel was stopping in Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival where some of the world’s most celebrated musicians – from Herbie Hancock to Quincy Jones, Björk to Bob Dylan, Juliette Gréco to Bobby McFerrin – were gathered. For Gil, there was a show, but also recording sessions for his new album. “It’s another level for Dina to sit in on,” he says. “She’s seen me performing and rehearsing, now she can watch us in the recording studio.” El Wedidi took full advantage of the opportunity, studying the processes and the equipment in preparation for her own future album.
Soon after Montreux, El Wedidi joined Gil’s month-long American tour, an introduction to the intensity of touring life and her introduction to the United States, which passed by in a memorable blur of long journeys, mostly by bus. Oakland, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami flew by. Their arrival in New York coincided with the excitement of Halloween, the dramatic New York landing of Hurricane Sandy, and the razzle-dazzle of the American election.
The long journeys had yielded many moments for meandering conversations. “We discussed a lot of things on the bus, not just music, production and albums,” El Wedidi says. “What really touches me about Gil is his political history and personal background.”
He recounted to her his similar struggle against a dictatorship that led to his brief imprisonment then exile to London. “Music was part of the fight,” he told her. Later he says: “Dina is interested in connecting politics with art and music because it’s one of the things that Egypt is engaging with now. That was also one of my reasons for picking her.”
The mentorship now consisted of two friends conversing honestly and with great humour. Gil understood which direction to move her towards – and when and how to leave her on her own path. He asked if and how his mentorship had affected the organization of her band. She agreed that largely due to his advice, she had developed a stronger identity for the band and herself.
Returning home from America was an emotional experience. By then Cairo was in greater turmoil, with the future looking even more unpredictable. El Wedidi stayed at home for two weeks and worked on her album. “I thought about what Gil had said and I decided, ‘OK, I have to find and work with a manager so I can be relaxed and just concentrate on the music’.” His phrase, “At a certain moment, you have to start sharing” worked for her like a mantra, and finding that perfect person, El Wedidi’s mood was transformed. El Wedidi and Gil next met in February at the carnival in Salvador, Gil’s home town. He had performed there for decades, and this time his wife Flora invited El Wedidi to stay at the family home. There, mentor and protégée had precious time to plan the programme for their forthcoming concerts in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, and for El Wedidi to hear Gil’s advice on her first album. They even compared notes about how and where they compose songs: “Anywhere. In hotel rooms, in the studio, in the middle of the night, sometimes walking the street,” says Gil. For El Wedidi, it is when her mother argues with her sister. “I go to my room and don’t want to hear [the argument], so I bring my guitar and take the rhythm I’ve stolen from my mother’s voice!”
Later, the cacophony on Salvador’s streets, all part of the festival, floated up to a camarote
, a balcony stage where the family and guests overlook the processions and Gil performs. “Their music inspired me,” says El Wedidi, “But I didn’t sing with it because it’s local and completely different from the Egyptian mix I’m working on.” Looking down on the crowded streets below reminded her briefly of Cairo where the next act in this astonishing story was set. Challenging journey
On Gil’s first visit to Egypt in April, El Wedidi was excited about re-adopting her student role as tour guide – and this time it was the mentor who looked around in awe. For two intense days of rehearsal in the city’s trendy Vibe Studios, Gil, his guitarist son, Bem, and percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva set up alongside El Wedidi and her band’s accordion player Wael El Sayed. They were practising as the headline act at the Cairo Jazz Festival and planned a mixed repertoire of Gil classics, including the 1970s hit Apalá
, and El Wedidi’s song Ya Ganoubi
“She has grown up with bossa novas, they are in her system,” Gil teases, knowing she could perform his songs instantly, but he had to work hard to back hers. He practised plucking Arabic guitar chords continuously all day as El Wedidi sang a subtle back-up guideline. Gradually he and Bem resolved the staccato rhythms and unfamiliar melody structures. The 70-year-old mentor laughed aloud: “I’m too old!” But after the coaxing and instruction, he left smiling. “You are never too old to learn a new musical language.”
Arriving at the lush Al-Azhar Park for the festival, El Wedidi performed with her band first, in a small outdoor stadium to an audience cheering her songs, her musicians and her courage. Wearing a black tunic and patterned leggings, she stood at the microphone and, as the guitarist tore into a rock riff, she bent over, shook her long curly hair and emerged transmogrified into a metal rock chick, singing blazing lines like Janis Joplin. Then came Ya Ganoubi
, a song written during the Nile Project festival last year when she was one of 18 musicians who came from 11 countries situated along the Nile to study each other’s musical heritages. Several hours later, El Wedidi moved to the main stage and the more mellow Brazilian set-up. Their hours of practice paid off and the easy flowing voices of Gil, Bem and El Wedidi floated over the park in the warm, evening air.
Looking back on this magical, ecstatic, confusing and sometimes challenging journey, El Wedidi says, “All the travelling and touring have made me more open and I can feel it in myself and my music. The most important thing I learnt this year was how to listen; Gil knows how to listen.”
Gil’s method of mentoring was typically unconventional. “It adjusted moment to moment, step by step, and the format was shaped by that process,” he says. “I have seen our relationship develop organically. She was a born star and I know I will learn from her.”
For El Wedidi, it has been a momentous year. “I went to his house and he came to my city,” she says. The journey has only just begun.Sue Steward is based in England and is a writer and broadcaster specializing in world music.