Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

Driven by the same passion for music in all its forms and a history of creating songs with political overtones, Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi forged a close relationship as the Brazilian icon helped the young Egyptian move on to the world stage. Early in the mentoring year, the two performed together – to the audience’s delight – at Back2Black, part of the London 2012 Festival. They later met for musical events and conversations in Switzerland, the United States, Brazil and Egypt.

Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

Choosing a protégée (Chapter 2 of 6)

July 2012

Gilberto Gil, 2012-2013 Music mentor

What qualities made you choose Dina El Wedidi as your protégée?
Her voice; her appreciation of popular music in Egypt, the folk music of her country, and of Brazilian bossa nova; her interest in the connection between music and theatre; and, finally, her work with Egyptian musicians in at least two different contexts, both popular music and folk music.

What do you hope to contribute to her career?
I hope to be able to contribute my experience, my broad range of activity as a composer, musician and artist, my international work and its exposure, and my various levels of involvement in Brazilian music internationally and in Brazil itself. I hope to make this experience available to her and, eventually, also to provide a direct personal contribution in the work I can do now with her as a mentor, or even later. This is up to her!

How do you envisage working with Dina over the next year?
We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing already. She has accompanied me throughout Europe [during Gil’s 2012 tour]. Now, we’ll do the same in the U.S. Next year, she will come and experience Carnival and other summer music activities here in Brazil. We are also looking into my going to Egypt in the future to be near her work environment. For now, that’s the plan.

Has someone acted as your mentor during your career? How did that person – or people – help you to establish yourself?
I didn’t really have a mentor. I adopted references and influences from people who were indirectly mentors for me. For example, Dorival Caymmi, Luiz Gonzaga, João Gilberto, Miles Davis, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley, Caetano Veloso. The latter, Caetano, was probably the most important.

Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 3 of 6)

A charismatic, young singer, Dina El Wedidi was part of Cairo’s underground music scene until last year, when the Arab Spring liberated her, allowing her to give a wider voice to her political views through her songs. Here, she explains the origins of her music and her hopes for her country – and for the mentoring year with Gilberto Gil.

I’m part of the generation who made the [Egyptian] revolution last year, when many people died. I saw how we are strong enough to put down a corrupt system and that has influenced my thinking.

I sang for the crowd in Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo on the day when (President) Mubarak stepped down. It was an amazing moment. Three million people were on the streets. It was the first time that I’ve sung for a huge crowd.

It’s too early to judge the Egyptian revolution because every month something new happens. At first I said our revolution was a success and then I discovered that the counter-revolution was stronger than we were. Let’s see what happens.

There was a big underground music movement before the revolution, and when change came, everything improved for artists. Now our problem here is production because producers want you to be very commercial.

I started my band in October 2011 and we had five concerts in our first seven months. The audiences are very big and they want more, more, more.

Traditional Egyptian music is very rich and, in the beginning, it was my main influence and my departure point as a composer. But this doesn’t mean that I am going to stick with the traditional framework because everything changes with time. I will leave it to my musical instinct – wherever it will lead me.

I am Muslim and I have been influenced musically by Islamic chanting and scales, but that only represents a small part of my whole culture.

I believe music can change society for the better. Every musician has a message to deliver, and music is one of the best ways to spread awareness, especially as it doesn’t just communicate with the brain, but also touches people’s emotions.

Most of my songs are political, some are about the army and the government and the situation here.

Gilberto Gil -- I love him and knew his music before I was asked to join the Rolex Arts Initiative. He's one of my favourite musicians. I really need his advice, from someone who has experience.

Right before first meeting him, I was a bit stressed because I knew he would choose only one artist (to be his Protégé) and the other finalists were really talented. But, as soon as we met and started to talk about music and the bossa nova and the rhythms, everything was amazing. I could hardly believe that such an amazing, international artist would be that humble and friendly. I decided to forget about the competition and just relaxed and enjoyed the talking and the jamming – and that itself was huge. I thought: “Even if he doesn’t choose me, I have the honour of being in the presence of this amazing person.”

I was very happy that we clicked during this first meeting – musically and personally as well.

The first thing I hope to learn from Gilberto Gil is how to build my career – how to move from being a local underground artist, and how to join the international music scene.

The year with the Rolex Arts Initiative is going to be a turning point in my career and it will also enlarge my connections internationally.

In my view, the greatest musician is (Egyptian violinist and composer) Abdo Dagher.He made his house an open space for whoever wanted to learn from him, and he became a reference for traditional Egyptian music.

For the future, I have some clear targets like making my first album and planning tours with my band. I also love working on soundtracks, so I might be doing that too.

Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 4 of 6)

December 2012

Opening up to new influences

Egyptian composer and performer Dina El Wedidi has already had opportunities to observe and perform with her mentor, Brazil’s Gilberto Gil. The experience is bringing about a rapid transformation, as she explains in this interview for the Rolex Arts Initiative.

Rolex Arts Initiative: You travelled to London to sing with Gilberto Gil at the Back2Black festival and then you watched him rehearse at the Montreux Jazz festival. Has this helped you with your own music?

Dina El Wedidi: I’m really trying to make the most of this year and believe in the concept of “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”. The opportunities I’ve been given are fantastic and obviously I’m following everything my mentor does with great interest. Having said that, I don’t want to be another Gilberto Gil! I’m my own person and musician, but undoubtedly there’ve been many ways the experience has already helped me.

In what ways?
Only when I returned to Egypt did I realize how all this experience was beginning to influence my own way of working. For example, when I observed Mr Gil, whether it was joining him in his recordings or in rehearsal, I saw the calm way he dealt with the other musicians. I must have picked up on this, as back home when I now work with my musicians, I’m less tense and I don’t rush around as much as I used to. My band has noticed this too – everything is more relaxed! This has helped the creative process: if things aren’t too forced or pressurized, the ideas for music tend to flow more easily.

Are you and Gilberto Gil working on a specific project?
Everything I’m working on right now is fluid. I hope Mr Gil will help me when I work on my album, whether that’s with writing songs or working in the studio. But it’s all an open book. Just recently I was working on a project with young children from a very poor area of Cairo. In the morning these children work as cleaners, and then in the afternoon they could be selling tissues in the street. They make ends meet any way they can. I worked with them singing and composing.

What do you and your mentor talk about?
I’ve had long conversations with Mr Gil about all sorts of subjects. What I’ve observed is that, despite his wealth of experience, he’s still very open to new experiences. I believe that’s partly why he chose me as a protégée. He said: “I know a lot about Brazilian music, I know a lot about African music, but I know nothing about Arab music. This will be a good opportunity to discover it.” This has taught me to be open to all musical influences.

Are you still keeping a political message in all your music?
You can’t deny that a lot of my music has a political message. I simply have to express what I’m experiencing in my country at the time in my songs. I couldn’t do otherwise. But that’s not what all my music is about: some of the music talks about Egyptian society, romance or relationships. But, after being exposed to new audiences, with more travelling around and chatting to other musicians due to Rolex, I wonder if my generation – particularly in Egypt – wants more than the kind of folk music they’re accustomed to hearing me sing. My generation is one of T-shirts and jeans, and there are revolutions and uprisings all over the world. So perhaps I feel I should offer and look at music that is more powerful, something that more adequately reflects the current situation. I’m now experimenting with electronic music and this could be a new direction for me.

What are you looking forward to in the next few months?

This mentoring year is such an intense learning period. I’m like a sponge absorbing all the new information, which is why I’ve put the actual recording of my first album on hold. I want to wait until the year is over, before starting work on it again. I feel it will only be later, when I’ve had time to reflect on all I’ve learned, before I can take it forward. But yet again it’s all fluid. What I do know is that all this experience is bound to change me as a musician, and all for the better.

Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

August 2013

A song of friendship

Egyptian protégée Dina El Wedidi and her Brazilian mentor Gilberto Gil established a firm connection during travels in the early months of their mentoring year. But their friendship was boosted by communication through a medium that transcends language.

Rolex Arts Initiative: When you first met Gilberto Gil in Rio, how did he compare with the person you imagined before that, the man you knew from photographs on record sleeves and YouTube performances, and also through the voice you loved?

Dina El Wedidi: The first time I met Gil was in April 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. Nothing was in my mind then, I let myself adrift, I was sure that I would love him as much as I loved his music. Frankly speaking, I was overwhelmed by his modesty and charming simplicity. The sweetest thing about him is that he is sociable and frank; that is why anyone feels comfortable with him from the very first minute. Gil was the main reason that I overcame my fear while singing (he made me more comfortable with my singing). We sang together from the first hour we met and we had fun! I told him about the colours of music I like.

At the beginning of the mentorship you told Gil that you did not feel confident about songwriting and suggested that that was something you wanted his help with. Was he able to help with that?
I really do not know how to write songs, but this mentoring year was very inspiring to me. Even if I still don’t master songwriting, that experience made me try and think differently.

During your time at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in those early months of your mentorship, Gilberto Gil talked about helping you to develop a stronger identity. How did he help you in that transition – and how do you see your identity a year later, has it changed a lot?
For me, experience does not come from the mentor who teaches his students the difference between right and wrong. Experience comes from the teacher who lets his/her students learn by themselves as Gil does. He helped me by offering me a chance to be with him in the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Your journeys together were often mentioned in your conversations – especially the tour in the U.S. What do you remember being most significant and helpful?
I was very delighted in America. It was the first opportunity that I had enough time to speak at length with Gil, without the conversation being restricted to music. I felt that it was important to know more of him humanly and socially. In most cases, we travelled together, sat and spoke with each other, but other times I met with him in the state where the next festival would take place. I remember one conversation on our way from Los Angeles to Oakland, when we spoke about his relationship with his mum when he was young, and how she was telling him he would be a singer one of those days, and how he responded by saying, “I know I will become a singer and I am sure I will be famous.”

When you were walking amongst the pyramids on Gil’s first visit to Cairo and its restaurants, at soundchecks and rehearsals, there was always laughter and joking. How did Brazilian humour fit with Arabic?
Brazilian culture is different from Egypt’s. However, there are some things in common such as humour, joking and light-spirited people, and this made me participate in a lot of things with Gil. It was a wonderful short time. Portuguese is completely different from Arabic, but I was lucky enough to have another language that helped me in my experience in Brazil; it was music. Music does not need translation. That is why I didn’t have any problems with conversation.

What was the most significant moment in the year – and why?
My meeting with Gil in Cairo was the most important event in the year; singing with him in the same festival [the 5th Cairo Jazz Festival] was a great honour, especially him being in my country. To be more specific, the thing that affected me the most was that as soon as I finished my performance with my band, I saw Gil standing beside Flora [his wife] among the audience and they later came to thank us. I was extremely delighted and grateful – that was a great surprise to me.

Gilberto Gil and Dina El Wedidi

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 6 of 6)

October 2013

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."

Gilberto Gil

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 (My South).

“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.