Singer Hany Mustafa on making music that is inspired and true versus the dangers of being commercial.
by Nehal El-Meligy
Hany Mustafa’s cozy modern studio is tucked away in an antique-old apartment in El-Manial. Mustafa is a talented singer and songwriter. He is the lead singer of a Beatles tribute band Glass Onion, plus two other bands: Egoz and Majarra. He sings in both English and Arabic under the pseudonym HanyMust. We caught up with Mustafa in his cool and quiet studio to find what he’s working on, and what inspires him.
The first time I saw you perform was in Cairo Jazz Club with Glass Onion. Were you with them in 2013?
Yes, I was. I’ve always had a knack for harmonies, and so I like the Beatles because they have a lot of harmony. They had the formula; no other band that followed had the same formula because it is hard. … I love the Beatles. I love the guys who are with me, they’re my brothers.
What formula did the Beatles have?
The formula is great music and songwriting, beautiful lyrics, and four funny and relatively good-looking guys! They all had harmony and they blended well together. Their chemistry was impeccable. They had everything a band can have to succeed. They had a sense of the time. They knew it wasn’t only Rock and Roll and Elvis, they knew music was moving on to something else. They knew Psychedelia was ending and Summer of Love was coming. They knew Provo was coming, so they started developing to more progressive rock elements plus the normal sounds. So the Beatles had it all, and it is very intriguing for me to portray them in one way or another. But at the end of the day, Glass Onion is just a tribute band. I am there because it makes people happy.
Your last song, ‘Time to Go,’ was released in April. What is the story behind it?
It is a celebration of a break-up; a celebration of ruins, just looking back and asking ‘what have we done?’ I wrote it at the end of last year. I recorded this song at home to give it more of a personal feel. I wanted to do everything from scratch; no one was involved in the song at all. I don’t release a lot of songs generally. I always have the feeling that things should be kept. It’s a lot of revealing that I’m not sure I’m always ready for. So actually I released this song a month after recording it.
How do you write the lyrics for your songs?
It’s difficult. You try to sum up your feelings and turn them into words and sentences that rhyme, and that somehow make sense to other people instead of just riding with your thoughts and letting them flow. You have to be careful that every word counts, because too much of it is self-indulgent. So we really need to keep it to a certain duration. Sometimes you can write a whole poem and sing it the way you want, sometimes you want to go on and sometimes it should not feel that way because sometimes khayra elkalam ma qal wa dal [the best words are the significant few]. And this is what ‘Time To Go’ is. It’s only two and a half minutes and it’s really there. As an artist, there is always a fear of being too short, of being what you give or of being too self-indulgent. I never want to be any of that.
Can you tell us about your upcoming releases?
There are two songs that I am releasing soon. One is called ‘Morning Coffee.’ I wrote this song a couple of years ago and recorded it over the past year. It’s about a man who is in love. His significant other is good at everything but he’s good at making her smile. And the second one is in Arabic. It’s called ‘Ghazl El Banat’ and it’s about the writer of the song trying to solve the mystery of a woman.
When you think of a new song, what do you think of first: the lyrics or the music?
Whatever I feel like! It has worked both ways for me but sometimes they come together. I feel privileged when this happens. I feel like I’m one of God’s special people! Lyrics are secondary to me. Music is number one. They are just a medium to translate the music to me. Music is a universal language, lyrics are just a part of it. If you read most of the lyrics to songs without music, they’ll read like childhood rhymes. Hut the melody carries the depth that a word has.
What inspires you?
I watch TV, I go out, I gather as much experience as I can and I know that my subconscious is a very big part of me. And one day when it comes, it comes like diarrhea! I’m sorry for the word, but that’s how writers say it. It really just comes flowing. Something that’s been held for so long and is suddenly freed. But there is nothing I do to get inspired, because if you force it then it becomes a craft, which is not exactly what I want.
Where do you work?
I work in a company that distributes audio, video and lighting equipment. Equipment wise, it’s very media-related. I am the assistant audio department manager. The reason I’m there is not because I need work, but because it leaves place for my subconscious to wander and so when I return home it’s like I was in another world. This is the difficult method of doing it, the other one is travelling. But I thought that if I had the freedom to travel, I’ll take it for granted and I don’t want that. I love that I’m releasing a song or two every four months or so.
Would you ever release an album?
I’m working on one. I’ve been releasing singles from the album, but there are some songs I haven’t released. I like physical copies. If there is a band I really love, a band that means something to me, I buy the CD.
I have a commitment with Egoz, who is releasing a new a song in a few days actually and an EP next month. The EP is called Aldebaran—which is a name of one of the songs in the album. It’s also a name of a star.
Do you think someday you’ll do this full-time?
I hope so. There is a good and a bad thing about it. The good thing is I’ll be free to do whatever I want at any time because now my time is scattered between my day job, Egoz and Glass Onion. But the bad is that I don’t want to rely on music for my financial stability. I like music to be inspired, meant, felt, tried and true. But if I rely on it, I’ll have to force something. But then again, it depends on how you do it. You can release an album per year and that’s all you need. But releasing an album while working a day job is really hectic.
Is there anyone in Egypt’s music scene who inspires you?
There are artists who work their fingers to the bone, but there are others who use the easy way. I think there are a lot of good artists here with a sense of quality and commitment to the art, and they could be releasing the best music ever. But they need to focus.