INTERVIEW: Where are you really from? Rain over Nubia artists find the question complex

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 29 Mar 2021

Rain over Nubia, launched in August 2019, was first performed as part of the American University in Cairo’s online concert series last month

Folk

Rain over Nubia is the debut music album by Egyptian flautist Fayrouz Kaddal and British violinist Daniel Merrill.

The married couple created a safe musical realm where different music notes from various origins seemed in perfect harmony. Reaching out to their own roots, a lot of interesting and quite similar notes flourished.

Folk
Folk

The title of the album is the name of the last track which is a tribute to old Nubia, as Kaddal’s great ancestors were among those displaced in the sixties. The displacement created a new genre in Nubian music, with the track sounding a lament of old Nubia.

The nine music tracks in the album are complemented by the couple’s narratives over the question of identity -- or rather questionings of their identity. The stories narrated as part of the repertoire are reflected in other themes. 

Ahram Online talked to the artists behind this unique musical mélange.

“We’ve first met in Alexandria in 2013, and I guess our musical collaboration started in the year following that, but we were in different countries back then. Fairouz was in Egypt and I was in the UK. So we were sending ideas to each other,” Merrill told Ahram Online.

“Our first performance together was in the UK in early 2016. I lived in Nottingham, which is a very ethnically diverse city, so we went into the different religious groups and recorded their practices, because in the UK it is different than here. Here, you walk in the street you can hear the azan (Muslim call of prayer), but in the UK, you can see the diversity religious groups but you cannot hear any of them,” Kaddal noted.

“You may hear church bells, but they are used to mark time other than call for prayers,” Merrill explained.

“So coming from a country where all the noises are in the street, you are suddenly seeing people who look differently and wear differently. The English Buddhists are different than Tibetan Buddhists. This project was aiming to bring all this diversity in one place, so we did the sound installation in a stairwell in 2016. Going up and down you can hear all the different religious mix sounds,” Kaddal added.

Shortly after, in 2019, the married couple released their debut album and embarked on a tour.

“To me, the album is very personal, because we met and we fell in love and got married and part of that is us coming from different cultures. Part of that process was can this work? What aspects do we struggle with with these cultures? What aspects do we like of each other’s cultures? How has our entire marriage been a continuous understanding of this culture? We are both musicians, and we both love making music together, we both have this passion for tradition music of different places, so it was natural that this will become part of the music. Our music is a way of understanding each other really,” explained Merrill.

The album sails smoothly with tunes that are so familiar, yet they come from totally different cultures, such as the track titled Sedi Donka. The rhythm and beats of the drums are unmistakably Nubian, even the name translates in Arabic as Saint Donka. “It is a folk song from the region around Bulgaria,” explained Merrill, adding that he was teaching a course about global music when he first learnt about it from a student there. The word Sedi-donka actually means sit down in Bulgarian, he added.

Another track, carrying the title of the album, Rain over Nubia starts with a soft harp-like tune that melts into the melody of the flute, reviving all the memories of old Nubia.

“The harp sounds in the beginning are actually Daniel playing two violins at the same time, with different notes,” Kaddal explained.

While Track 5, titled Together when Apart, reflects a true British classic flair where the violin is deeply engaged in a sincere conversation with the flute, reflecting the agony of departure.

The CD and performance include story-telling by the artists on their personal accounts on identity. “Where are you really from?” is a question that lingers on.

“That’s the story I wrote about. When foreigners talk about the racism they sometimes face in the UK, I believe them because I have experienced it,” commented Merrill on the story he narrates when he was subjected to racist bullying in the metro in England, although he looked like the standard English man.

“When I was at school, my colleagues used to ask me where I came from. My maternal grandmother is Alexandrian-Italian, but I don’t look Italian. When I grew up, I realized why, it was because of my dark skin. In Egypt, Nubians are not regarded as mainstream. I was at Cairo airport and I was asking the guy for something and then he asked me if I came from Mauritania,” Kaddal, born and raised in Alexandria, remembers laughing.

The harmony in this artwork proves that humans have more common traits in music than they really know. Even the design of the CD cover and brochure reveals such harmony. The way palm trees stand by the side of English-style houses made with William Morris motifs in bright colours is quite inspiring.

While most people are still entangled in questions of identity, music seems to have solved this riddle by taking the liberty to explore and mix tunes. This is simply because music depends entirely upon the wise and ancient art of listening, an art barely practised these days.

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