By Frank E. Bartscheck II
Mohamed Mounir is widely known as a pioneer of Egyptian music. Apparently, music runs in the family.
Mounir has deep ties within the foundation of local band Hawidro, which is beginning to leave its impression on the vibrant Cairo music scene with its new and unique blend of African rhythms and Egyptian music. Not only do numerous members of Hawidro play in Mounir’s band, the lead singer, Ahmed Abayazeid (who goes by his nickname “Zizo”) is Mounir’s nephew.
I sat down with Zizo and bass player Ahmed Nazmi on a Friday afternoon in Mohandiseen to discuss a variety of subjects including their background, the band, its vision for the future and what the name Hawidro means.
I can only imagine the unique experience one might have being raised in a family with a famous uncle, so I had to ask. Before narrating a story, a wry smile crawled across Zizo’s face that demonstrated he had numerous stories he could recount but that he’d choose one in particular.
“I remember he [Mounir] took me with him when he traveled to shoot a video in Switzerland. It was hilarious. Actually, I was hilarious. I was about seven years old and Mounir gave me the title of Director’s Assistant. I was standing in front of cameramen and their cameras telling them ‘move here, go there.’ Everyone on set was laughing at me.” But Mounir’s depth of influence on Zizo runs much deeper. “I gained a lot of experience from working with him in the studio and standing on big stages [singing back up vocals] in front of his fans. Being near him allowed me to learn a lot of things, especially how important it is to be unique and think differently,” stated Zizo.
Nevertheless, with music closely intertwined with his family lineage, Zizo initially resisted listening to his uncle’s music when he was young. “I was 13 years old when I began to appreciate what Mounir creates. When I was younger I did not have the mindset that I should listen to him because he is my uncle,” stated Zizo. He credits Mounir’s fans with changing listening habits; “many of them are now my friends. They showed me there is a message in his music. Previously, I was unaware he [Mounir] had such unique messages in his lyrics. Listening to his music, I began to understand why he achieved such a level of fame,” stated Zizo. In fact, once Zizo started listening to Mounir, he was all in. “I would stick up for my uncle and get into fights with people who would tell me he is not that good,” chuckled Zizo.
Zizo’s pursuit to follow his uncle’s advice, to be unique, began at the house of Hawidro percussionist Ahmed ‘Rozza’ Ramzy. Zizo and Rozza had played together in previous bands without gaining any traction within the Cairo music scene. Sitting on Rozza’s couch they got to chat and realized that they needed to reinvent themselves, to take chances musically and become more innovative. “We needed to evolve our talent. I needed to find my own personality and voice. I have been heavily influenced by my Nubian origins and at the time I was listening to African music,” stated Zizo. With this realization, the concept underlying Hawidro began to take shape. However, it was not until they met the bass player, Nazmi, that the music really began to coalesce. “That was the point of everything taking off. He started to believe in the project. He made us realize that we really needed to do something with this project,” says Zizo. “I just saw potential from day one. I immediately was crazy for the idea,” Nazmi boisterously includes. Their encounter would blossom into a musical relationship that seems poised to influence the music scene in Cairo and internationally.
However, the final piece in the Hawidro puzzle almost never picked up a bass guitar if coincidence had not intervened. “I started as a piano player and always wanted to be a piano player in a band.
Unfortunately, I lived in a small town and there were no opportunities to play keyboard in a band,” says Nazmi. A friend from school knew of a band looking for a bass player. Knowing Nazmi was musically gifted he asked him if he would like to give it a try. “I knew nothing about bass. I just went for it and played by ear. That experience really is the foundation for my interest in bass,” states Nazmi.
As his taste for the bass guitar grew he searched out music that would fit his new found love. Initially applying his bass guitar talents within funk music, Nazmi’s musical path was inexorably altered by attending the 2007 Cape Town Jazz Festival. “That was my first trip outside of Egypt and it was a crazy experience. I met many of the musicians I was listening to and learning from, it was just surreal. While I was there I went to a lot of clubs and listened to the local bands. The African rhythms and sounds really captured my attention. There was something different about their playing. When I arrived back in Cairo I started listening to these artists and digging for more because to me they were more interesting than funk,” states Nazmi.
THE FOUNDATION OF THE BAND
With the pieces in place the band settled on the name, Hawidro. A name that leaves many scratching their heads. What is Hawidro? The name is not Arabic or English. Ironically, this proved to be an advantage in the early stages of the band. “It made a big buzz in the beginning, ‘what is Hawidro, what does it mean?’ The buzz helped because it forces people to investigate and find out what is Hawidro,” says Nazmi.
Hawidro is a Nubian word meaning ‘return’. The idea of a return, “has become the philosophy of what we do—we want to return to our heritage, particularly our African side that was long left behind,” states Nazmi. Zizo chimes in, “if you look at it geographically, Egypt is the only country in Africa that does not have a band that represents its African ancestry.” The motivation for a ‘return’ springs from the musicians noticing that Egyptians consider themselves musically related to the Gulf Region and Turkey. There is a broad truth in this assertion. The majority of musical scales in Egyptian popular music are derived from these regions. “However, Egypt does also have African origins but they have disappeared in popular Egyptian music. If you go to south Egypt you will hear these influences. You are going to hear the pentatonic scales and the rhythms that are influenced by Africa but with the Egyptian sensibility,” states Zizo. Through music, Hawidro is attempting to reveal “there is an African soul in each Egyptian. We want to prove that we as Egyptians are truly a part of Africa. To be an African does not mean you are not Egyptian. We want to showcase both sides of Egypt,” specifies Zizo.
The unique blend of African rhythms with Egyptian musical sensibilities led them to invent the genre Afro-Egyptian. “It does not exist. It is unique and original,” indicates Nazmi. Like their predecessor Mounir, who creates unique music through the combination of different musical influences within his Egyptian musical sensibilities, Hawidro melds diverse traditional African rhythms with Egyptian influenced music. The combination is not something currently found in popular Egyptian music.
The merger of these unrelated sounds creates a very unique soundscape that is equal parts danceable, upbeat, fun and energetic, yet wholly Egyptian. “We are mixing our individual backgrounds to be able to create something truly unique and not done before,” states Nazmi. Zizo is taking the desire to create something distinctive even further by trying to, “create a new type of accent, a mixture of Egyptian and African but still understandable.” Zizo is crafting this accent with Mohamed Abdallah (“Sony”) and Khaled Helmy, the main lyricists for the band. “We really like working with them because they really complement and complete our vision for Hawidro, to be unique,” states Zizo.
The African musical aspects of Hawidro’s work are drawn from West and North Africa as well as Nubian and Sudanese rhythms. “For example, we use an ethnic Nubian or Sudanese rhythm and overlay music we create on top of these rhythms. This creates a brand new sound,” states Nazmi.
Hawidro draws inspiration for their grand vision from the international success that Moroccan Gnawa music has achieved. Originating with the Hausa ethnic group in West Africa—primarily Morocco—Gnawa music consists of traditional Sufi spiritual songs with strong African rhythms. “Gnawa is ruling and known everywhere, the sound is instantly recognizable and identifiably with Morocco. We want to create the same thing here, exist internationally and hopefully inspire others to do the same in the future,” states Nazmi. The band specifically credits percussionist Karim Ziad as profoundly influencing the desire to reach a wider audience. Karim Ziad is internationally recognized for uniquely integrating a western style drum kit into Gnawa music.
“There was never a western drum kit in Gnawa before him. He is extremely unique because he developed his own method; Hawidro is seeking to do something similar. Without Ziad leading the way, we may not have had this inspiration. I would love to meet him someday to thank him for what he did,” states Nazmi.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Looking toward the future, Hawidro is taking aim at international success. Drawing on previously living and working as a bass player in Holland, Nazmi indicates, “we are planning to play festivals in Europe. I have a lot of connections. It helps me a lot knowing how to position this band in Europe.” Zizo is also hopeful that Hawidro’s music will reach a large audience and “touch people’s souls, have people love our music and become influenced by African music and African musicians.”
The band is on its way with invitations to play 3alganoob Festival taking place April 10-12 in Marsa Alam. “We didn’t expect it but are very excited. There are only a few bands from Egypt and the rest are big name international bands so we are really excited,” Nazmi indicates. The band is also scheduled to play at Cairo Jazz Festival at Al Azhar Park in the near future. Everything seems to be falling into place.
Hawidro’s novel music combines elements of Egyptian music overlaid on a backbeat of African rhythms that allows audience members to dance to music that is seemingly brand new, yet instantly recognizable. Hawidro is accessible physically through the innate desire to dance to the African rhythms, but also accessible emotionally through the recognizable Egyptian musical sensibilities. The powerful combination could see them jump to the international level in the very near future. If their recent shows at venues like El Sawy Culture Wheel and Cairo Jazz Club are any testament to audience response, then judging by the number of people dancing and enjoying themselves, Hawidro may very well succeed in their music mission. I suggest checking them out on a small stage while you still can.