Captain Goodvibes

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 20 Sep 2022

Nahed Nasr found out about an exciting new all-female band

Bahgaga
Bahgaga

“In 2063,” so the song goes, “everything will be alright. We will crack the watermelon and realise our dreams. In 2063, the volcano will erupt. We will reach the top, and the highest summit. In 2063, all sorrow ends...”

Titled “2063”, the tragicomic hit – in the voice of a grandma prophesying the future – is a mixture of reality and fantasy that, when staged, features acting, costumes and a set. It is one of 40 in the repertoire of Bahgaga band. Other hits by Bahgaga (which is a funny way of saying “giving joy” in Arabic) include “Aunt Dosa”, in which a young woman tries to stop her aunt from organising an arranged marriage for her; “Take Me for a Walk, Mama”, in which a girl and her mother argue about concepts of female propriety; and “Twenty Pounds, for God’s Sake”, in which a group of woman employees humorously beg for their perpetually unpaid salaries.

Founded in 2015 by composer-songwriter Ayman Helmy as an attempt to revive the art of “the monologue”: a humorous, light song once extremely popular in Egypt but monopolised by male singers. According to the band’s promotional material, the band is led by four female performers – Raghada Galal and Summer Galal, also a dubbing artist and a stage director, respectively, Weam Essam, and Sherok Elsherif – in an attempt to empower women within the genre, and aims at “healing through laughter” through songs that feature satire. Welcoming collaborations, the band often features guest performers like Asmaa Abou Elyazid and Nadine.

One unique aspect of the band is the way it turns each song into a mini play. According to Helmy – who is manager, musical director and often also composer-songwriter – the process always starts with the song lyrics, which provide characters who are then clothed appropriately by art director Rehab Rihan. But room is made for each performer to add her own touch. “Most of the time,” he says, “it’s a collective, interactive process.”

A oud player and songwriter, Helmy is a graduate of the Arab Music Institute who has worked primarily in  independent theatre. “My musical career began in theatre. In fact, my relationship with art began at the university theatre where I was singing and acting, even before touching music.” He collaborated with the troupe Halah, founded by director Mohamed Abdel-Fattah. Helmy helped to make a resounding success of Halah’s Kastour (or “Broadcloth”, the quintessential Egyptian pyjama fabric), a low-budget production featuring only a tambourine but plenty of music. He also contributed to Nashaz (Cacophony) and other plays by Abdel-Fattah. “I have always loved songs that combine drama and music. I love musical theatre.” He refers to the great innovator Sayed Darwish (1892-1923) and his musical Al-Ashra Al-Tayeba (Ten of Diamonds).

Helmy feels that the format of a staged concert is a realistic compromise, however, considering the difficulty of producing the kind of musical to which he aspires. A script written for musical theatre, full costumes and sets, an orchestra are not easily to be had, especially considering the lack of funding for theatre in general.

Helmy was inspired by the silver screen. “Egyptian cinema produced great and inspiring dramatic songs that I performed and sometimes re-composed.” He would combine folk melodies with phrases from old songs, not to revive musical heritage, he says, but to discover his unique talent. For a while he worked as a studio composer with independent singers like Nagham Saleh, Sherine Abdo and others, but starting in 2013, with the turmoil besetting society and the economy, he felt frustrated and uncertain. By 2015 he had hit upon the cheerful, humorous monologue – which, though long extinct, is still “firmly rooted in the subconscious of Egyptians” – as a way to overcome frustration without giving up on issues of concern. “Part of the way the monologue is reinvented is to have women perform it, because it has always been by and large a male art. I also believe that female artists’ presence brings joy to the stage anyway. I’ve always worked with female singers regardless.”

Helmy organised a workshop leading up to a concert. Numerous women responded to his call for participants who could sing and act, but only nine participated. It was a space to practise singing old songs, write lyrics for new ones, and try out roles. By September 2015, when the concert, entitled Bahgaga, was held, six performers were ready. “My idea was that if it went well, we would announce the birth of a band. That is what happened.”

In its first year, the band included Nahla Matar, a composer, and used orchestral instruments. Professional lyricists like Khalil Ezz El-Din and Ahmed Haddad were also sought out. But the present format of collectively conceiving the music through a workshop, coming up with the lyrics as they go along, has proved better suited to the band’s comedic purposes. The instrumental makeup of the music has accordingly changed.

The band sought ways to generate income and reach a wider audience, managing the latter but not the former. Helmy says concerts proved difficult to organise lucratively, especially through the pandemic. “Proceeds go to taxes – which are the same for independent and commercial bands – as well as the hosting venue, with no more than 35 percent left to the band.” With limited production opportunities, in 2017 Helmy decided to produce his own music video, making “2063”, for YouTube. This did bring online attention to the work, but considering the production cost of LE100 thousand (US$5000), the money it brought in was negligible.

“We later produced two video clips using animation, which is less expensive. We also recently turned to online music platforms.” Those, however, require expensive high-quality studio recordings and enormous marketing and a long time to reach the hundreds of thousands of listeners needed to generate an income. “Most of our recordings are just live concerts.” Helmy was able to obtain a grant from the Nahdat Al-Mahrousa Foundation in 2021 to record three out of 40 songs for distribution through platforms.

Happily in 2020, the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) supported a project, “Bahgaga Mic”, involving a two-month workshop to train young women in comedy singing. “The workshop resulted in a concert that brought together 10 female trainees, in addition to the female singers of Bahgaga band. One of the trainees, Nadine, later joined the band as a main member. It was a great experience.” Helmy feels such opportunities may be the most practical solution, though many funding opportunities are complicated by the fact that Bahgaga is neither a band nor a theatre troupe: “There is a classification dilemma that keeps grants directed to music or theatre from seeing our work as a priority.” And yet Helmy remains hopeful:

“Maybe it is time to think again of musical theatre, who knows. The one thing I know is that we won’t stop.”

   *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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