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Youssra el Hawary, the Egyptian accordionist who is shaking up independent music

(Credits : Scenenoise)

With her mutinous voice and cheerful melodies, Youssra el Hawary tells us sweet stories for the ears. And yet, in a poetic manner, she makes fun of the small and big flaws of Egyptian society.

Youssra el Hawary entered the world of music at a very young age, first playing with the fake plastic instruments offered by her parents. But the little virtuoso soon abandoned her toys for real piano lessons. But it’s only after her fine art studies in 2007, that the young pianist discovered herself a new passion for the accordion. An unusual instrument that opened her the way to success with El Soor (the wall), a candid ballad with revolutionary accents which made her a unique artist in the Egyptian indie music stage.

After your piano training, what made you choose to learn the accordion?

Music has always been a hobby for me and I never thought my compositions would ever leave my room. So I went to study fine arts, but after graduation, I missed music and wanted to learn how to play another instrument. I was looking for something light that I could take with me anywhere and that I could easily carry on to friends ‘places. At first, I thought of playing the mandolin or the guitar, but by chance, I found an accordion at my parents’ house. As there were no classes in Egypt, I self-taught by watching videos on Youtube. It was quite complicated at the beginning but I liked the challenge and for some magical reason I fell in love with this instrument.

What was your path, from the accordion to your first song?

When I finished my studies in 2007, I joined a theatre company where we used to tell stories in music. After this experience, I co-founded The choir project, a musical storytelling performance with Salim Youssry. We gave a concert in Beirut and after the show; I received a lot of encouraging feedback. On the return to Cairo, my friend told me that I should seriously consider a career in music. He was organizing a festival for young talents at the time and he offered me the chance to attend, so I worked on four tracks including “Hey Bus” which became quite popular on SoundCloud. Then everything went fast, I released “El Soor” (The Wall) which got 30,000 views on Youtube in one night, and with it, I won the Fair Play competition prize in the anti-corruption music video category.

 

How do you explain the success of this track?

I never thought this song would go viral and become so popular. I was just very excited to do a song in the middle of the revolution because it was a unique thing to witness. I think I was right in the sport. At the time, everyone was interested in the Arab Spring and my songs weren’t the typically revolutionary music you’d expect. I think my sweet, childish melodies, although I was talking about serious topics, surprised the audience. But this is only a hypothesis.

Why did it take you so long to come back with your first album in 2017 “No’oum Nasyeen” (Wake up and forget)?

From 2012 to 2017, I spent all my time developing my music. I founded a band with two other musicians (Shadi El Hosseiny and Sedky Sakhr) and then we got bigger. I wrote new songs, reworked the old ones, but also composed the arrangements with the group. I also went to study accordion in France for two years, at the Jacques Mornet school, because I wanted to develop my techniques and because the music I play on the accordion isn’t oriental, so I couldn’t find a reference in Egypt.

 

What is the greatest challenge for an artist in Egypt? I know that you set up a crowdfunding campaign to finance this album?

Surviving as an artist is always difficult when you’re independent, especially in Egypt, because we don’t get any help from the government. Most of my musicians have other jobs on the side, and I get by giving music and writing workshops for children. I was also a music radio host for two years. In Egypt today, crowdfunding isn’t really familiar yet. While it helped us finance the album a bit, it was mainly thanks to a grant from AFAC (Arab Fund for Art and Culture) that we were able to launch it. Most Egyptians are used to giving to charities or hospitals, but they don’t understand the value of giving to artists. We had to convince them.