When Egyptian singer Dina Al Wedidi joined the throng in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year to celebrate the fall of president Hosni Mubarak it was a moment of joy, hope and liberation. But it was also a moment that transformed her career.
“There were three million of us on the streets and I sang for the crowd,” she recalls. “That was a beginning for me. I realised that I needed my own band and to start my own projects.”
A few months later, the 24-year-old got a phone call that is destined to inspire her as she sets off in a new direction. It was from Rolex, the makers of “timeless luxury watches”, who told her she had been shortlisted for the Rolex Arts Initiative, a programme that teams up a mentor with a protégé in seven arts disciplines.
“At first I didn’t answer,” she says. “I didn’t understand what it entailed. But then I did apply and after a few weeks I was told that I would be one of the finalists.”
The mentor in the music category was to be legendary Brazilian musician and political activist Gilberto Gil, who, after a meeting and an audition with the young singer, chose her above the six other singers.
“When I met him for the first time I was very afraid and confused, but he told me to relax. He was very nice, very friendly and we clicked during that meeting — both personally and about the music.
“But even then, when Rolex told me I had been chosen I thought they were joking.”
They weren’t. The Rolex Arts Initiative is no joking matter.
The joy of teaching and learning
The programme, launched ten years ago, teams up illustrious figures from the art world with up-and-coming talent. Among others last year, charismatic theatre director Peter Sellars worked with Lebanese dramatist Maya Zbib and Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou with Palestinian Annemarie Jacir, whose latest film “When I Saw You” has been selected for this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
This year, the six categories include the Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-Min as the mentor for dance; Lin’s Cloud Gate is the first contemporary Chinese dance company. He has chosen 28–year-old Brazilian Eduardo Fukushima. Legendary film editor Walter Murch, who worked on “The Godfather” and its first sequel, as well as the design for “Apocalypse Now”, has chosen 29-year-old Italian film editor Sara Fgaier, 29. And in theatre, France’s Patrice Chéreau has picked Michal Borczuch, 32, from Poland. In the visual arts category William Kentridge of South Africa will be working with Colombian Mateo López, 33. On August 28, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima was named as the first architecture mentor.
Margaret Atwood, the mentor for literature, told a Canadian newspaper that, when she was first approached by Rolex, she said, “No, I don’t think so.”
But, admits the writer of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Cat’s Eye” and “Alias Grace”: “They are very good at being persuasive. They start laying out their wares, they tell you all about the Rolex arts profiles and what they do for protégés. Then they make you an offer you can’t refuse, because you would feel guilty if you did.”
Her protégée is British writer Naomi Alderman, 37. Atwood says, “One reason I chose her is that I can tell working with her is going to be a lot of fun.”
Al Wedidi is already having fun. She has performed with Gil, who along with Caetano Veloso changed the sound of Brazilian music in the Sixties — from the traditional rhythms of the bossa nova to a new style called tropicalia that embraced popular music from the West.
Al Wedidi, too, had started to adapt her music to new influences before she joined the Rolex programme. She says, “At university I studied Turkish, Persian and oriental languages. After I finished, I joined the Al Warsha Theatre Troupe in Cairo, where I trained as an actress and storyteller, before starting as a full-time singer three years ago.”
She drew inspiration from traditional Egyptian folk songs, and as a Muslim she was influenced by Islamic chanting and scales, training with singers of the Madih and songs devoted to the praise of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
“That represents only a small part of my whole culture,” she says. And as she told Rolex: “Most of my songs are political, some are about the army and the government and the situation here. I believe music can change society for the better. Every musician has a message to deliver, and music is one of the best ways to spread awareness, especially as it doesn’t just communicate with the brain but also touches people’s emotions.”
Now her musical message is evolving, moving away from the traditions of her culture, without altogether rejecting their impact.
Since her first appearance with her band in October 2011 at the Al Geneina Theatre, Cairo, she says, “I have been working increasingly with jazz and electronic music as I try to create fusion with oriental and rock. I love being experimental, using all sorts of instruments such as trumpets, Irish violin, bass guitar, classic piano and percussion.” She even toots away on the kazoo in one live performance to the surprised delight of the audience.
She works with contemporary poets such as Montasser Hegazy, Gerges Shokry and Ebrahim Abdul Fattah, along with experimental-minded young musicians who have emerged from the underground scene.
Her songs range from the wistfully evocative to the percussively violent. In “Ya Belad” (Oh, Homelands), which is one of three songs she has released in the past year, she laments:
“Oh homeland we left you, and my tears fled away and died / Homeland you were our hope, and one day it was you that we did not find / A rook shouted in the horizons, torn walls and houses / Wish we would have lost our eyes, and our homeland stayed and never faded away.
Her different moods and styles are captured by the jazzy “Wahda” (One) and by the moody trumpet playing in “Al Haram” (The Forbidden).
What used to be forbidden — or at least discouraged because it has always been considered a male preserve — was women singing on stage.
“I often got harsh criticism,” she says. “But the support I received was massive and gave me faith. Now we have a lot of female singers, especially after the revolution, when the underground movement increased and everything improved for artists, with more chances to sing in theatres and at festivals.”
As she plunged into this ferment of creativity, the timing of the call from Rolex could hardly have been better.
She joined Gil in London, where she appeared with him in concert, and travelled with him to Montreux for the Jazz Festival, where she was thrilled by the sight and sound of Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “It was a very big chance for me to sing in Arabic. I enjoyed the talking and the jamming — that in itself was huge — and being with someone such as Gil gives you all the things you need.”
Already spending time as the Brazilian’s protégée is making a difference — as it should, bearing in mind his experience not just as a pioneering musician but Minister for Culture between 2003 to 2008 in his homeland. Not to mention the opportunity to gain from the wisdom of a man who is, after all, 46 years her senior.
“When I came back to Egypt I really felt I was going on a new line and a new career,” Al Wedidi says. “I felt that I needed to work a lot more on myself, to think more about my projects and my new album.
“I had a concert but I was very relaxed. I used to be nervous, but I learnt from Gilberto [Gil] that if you stay calm and quiet you can do new things — everything is going to be all right.
“So I talked to the musicians, and I decided to leave out the drums and trumpets because I wanted to hear other voices from my band. We used more electronic music.
“The atmosphere was really nice and the fans said it was great, different. I feel I have found another voice.
“The first thing I hope to learn from Gilberto Gil is how to build my career — how to move on from being a local underground artist and how to join the international music scene.
“But above all, I am learning from what he doesn’t say. I learn everything from his silence.”
Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.
Dina El Wedidi will perform at Al Genaina Theatre, Cairo, on October 27.