Secrets of the Accordion with Youssra El Hawary
Singer-songwriter Youssra El Hawary grew up playing classical piano before she discovered her true destiny as an accordionist. After studying in France, the Cairo-based artist now fuses French chanson, indie rock, jazz, traditional Egyptian melodies, and more into a musical blend that is uniquely her own. Before she and her five-piece band make their Lincoln Center debut at the David Rubenstein Atrium on October 4, El Hawary spoke to New York City's own accordion maven, Ariana Hellerman, about the magic of the squeezebox.
Ariana Hellerman: Youssra, it's such an honor and pleasure. I've read that you "sing and perform bellwethers of everyday life in Cairo, mixed with charged alchemy of the Mediterranean basin." I would love to hear in your own words about your artistry, how you describe your music.
Youssra El Hawary: I'm a singer-songwriter, and I play different kinds of music, mixed styles. I'm especially influenced by Oriental music and Egyptian songs I used to listen to. In terms of accordion influence, I have a mix of French rhythms with the Arabic style of singing. Together I think they make something new. But there's also something folk-ish in my music.
AH: And in terms of your lyrics, what do you write about?
YE: Well, it's mainly things that I've experienced myself. Even if I don't write the lyrics myself—sometimes I do and sometimes it's my friends—it's always something that I've experienced personally in my daily life in Cairo. It's always something that comes in the right moment, about something that I'm currently going through or feeling. I've never pre-planned what I'm going to sing about next.
"For me, the revolutionary song is not the song that talks about revolution."
AH: There's a lot of storytelling in your music, and what you're thinking, what you're feeling. It creates beautiful images. Do you feel like politics also enter into your music?
YE: I've been described as a revolutionary artist or political artist, especially back in 2011 and 2012 and, you know, I don't really like this description. For me, the revolutionary song is not the song that talks about revolution. Punk for me is the song that is daring enough to talk about anything, and also the artists who choose their own way of recording and producing. This is also very revolutionary, every step in making music, choosing the lyrics, and the performance itself. So I don't necessarily talk about politics all the time. When I find something I want to say about an event that happened in Cairo, it's about politics by chance, not because I always want to do that. I hope I can always speak about anything that comes to my mind without care.
AH: Is it common being a woman musician in Egypt? Do you face stereotypes?
YE: The problems I face as a musician are problems that we all have, because it has to do with the support we should have, or the places or the venues or the freedom of speech—and that we all suffer from. All musicians in this generation of independent artists, I think we all face the same problems. But being a woman in Egypt has to do more with daily life. In this society, it's not very easy for a girl to live alone, especially while young. You know, as a young woman you can't really have this freedom, so you have to fight a lot with your family and with your society and because we are out of the norm, if you know what I mean. Just like in any other field, you have to choose to be strong and make your own choices, and be responsible. I actually always say I wish I could be like my accordion, because it's strong, it's loud, it's beautiful.
AH: What about more specifically being an accordion player? Is that common?
YE: With this generation, we don't have many accordionists, and I've seen that also in France. It used to be very popular but now with the younger generations, they kind of find it a complicated, big instrument and they prefer to do electronic music and things like that. But it used to be very popular, and it exists in Oriental music. We still have this Oriental accordion that has quarter-tone tuning. It was invented in Cairo, the way to turn your accordion into a quarter-tone accordion, and this is actually my current project, getting to know the Oriental accordion and using it in my next project.
AH: Could you explain how the Oriental accordion is different from the traditional piano accordion?
YE: It's a normal chromatic accordion, but the thing is that they manually sort of "ruin" the accordion inside. They choose one of the orientations of the bellows and they cut the reeds on some notes, so it creates quarter-tone notes. So when you play you have to think if you need this note to be a quarter-tone or not, and you either open the bellow or close it, depending on what you need. They have this also in Turkey.
AH: You mentioned that there has been a decline in interest in accordion, and it's similar in the United States. It's a generational thing. Some people say that The Beatles killed the accordion, because once they became so popular, everyone wanted to start playing all of their instruments instead of wanting to be like Lawrence Welk.
YE: Yeah, I think in the last decade people are more interested in playing rock and using guitars and keys instead of the traditional instruments we have, like oud and the grand piano and accordion. It's cooler to play guitar and keys, I think you can imagine. Accordion is also considered an expensive instrument and it's not easy to find in Egypt now. We don't have a manufacturer or place where you can buy accordions, so you have to get it outside Egypt, and with the taxes and everything it can be very expensive in the end. After I started playing I started getting a lot of messages from fans, people asking me if I could teach them or give them a workshop or something. I was very happy to be the reason for them to like the accordion again. After I came back from France, I had this idea to start a school for accordion because when I started learning accordion, I couldn't find a place in Egypt to learn. This is why I taught myself for five years before I decided to go to France and study jazz manouche.
"It's like a magical box that you always find surprises inside."
AH: Are you teaching now?
YE: No, it's not easy to teach while touring and working on my own music, but I sometimes give workshops about songwriting and collective composing and things like that, but not accordion. When I say I have this idea of starting a school, it doesn't have to be me that teaches there, I just want to have this place where people can come and learn about accordions because—like you—I want people to know about accordions and to discover them.
The accordion has a lot of secrets—every time you're surprised by how it changes from style to style. You know, the way that you play, the sound that comes out of it… as if it's a different character with every style. I don't find that in other instruments. For me it's like a magical box that you always find surprises inside.
For example, two months ago I was in an in an accordion festival in Germany called Akkordeonale. And I was there with a Brazilian accordionist and a Greek accordionist and also an Argentinean who played tango, and when we played together, it's like we're playing different instruments, because the sound is so different.
AH: That's what’s so beautiful about the instrument—it's so versatile. Do you play any other instruments?
YE: I started playing piano when I was eight, but I used to play classical music. I had to pass exams every year and I just hated the idea of exams, so I hated classical music. Later I was interested more in observing the character of artists and how they started or how they ended their careers, and how they changed in the middle because of success or failure, or huge steps they made and how it changed their music. I think that regardless of the music, there are some characters in the scene that I adore. I really love Nina Simone. I really like to watch all her concerts and just think about her character and the lyrics she chose and how strong she was as a performer and that she really managed to be a reflection of her life.
AH: When did you start playing accordion? What drew you to it?
YE: It was in 2010, eight years ago. I think it was just a magical moment because at the time I was thinking of an instrument that I could move with. It was hard for me to play piano everywhere, and I just wanted to play with my friends and with other musicians. So I was thinking of guitar and mandolin, trying to choose a new instrument to learn, and then I found this small accordion that my mother had gotten for me when I was very young. I found it in the house because I was moving, and I tried playing it and I couldn't really use the bass buttons. This is when I thought, "Why not play accordion?" I think I just fell in love with it. I was very motivated to search for lessons on YouTube and try to teach myself. It was not an easy process, but I forced myself.
I remember in my first concert I was not even good at playing both hands together and singing at the same time. I still have these videos on YouTube and I've never wanted to remove them. For me, there's something I like about my fans actually witnessing all this with me. You know, like how I started loving this instrument and how I kept running after this relationship and this dream of playing the accordion and singing at the same time. And it happened, and they can see the whole story if they want.
AH: And when you were learning through YouTube videos, who were you watching? Who were your role models?
YE: I think the first thing was trying to play the soundtrack of Amélie. When I wanted to discover more, I started with Jo Privat, the French accordionist who used to play jazz manouche. Yvette Horner. There's also Claude Thomain—he plays more like blues on accordion, and bossa nova and different rhythms. They are all French, maybe that's because I was studying in France.
AH: And when did you start pulling more Egyptian musical traditions in?
YE: The past two years. When I was in France, I think being nostalgic about Cairo pushed me to search for Oriental music and to learn more about it. And because people there were interested to know more about the Oriental accordion and about Egyptian music, I felt responsible somehow to search and let them know about it. So this is when I also discovered things that I didn't know before.
AH: You've been inspired by where you're from but also where you've studied, and also just being a touring musician and being able to meet people from all around the world. What about accordion makes it so universal?
YE: I think because it's an instrument that stands on its own. You can just use the accordion and have a full rich sound. Also the idea that you can hold it and move with it, which goes with the idea of traveling so, you know—singing in the street and traveling and moving cultures. I think that's it, the thing that makes it that universal.
AH: What do you hope audiences get from your performances?
YE: First, I hope they like the music, that they enjoy listening to it. I hope also that they don't find it hard to get engaged with songs in Arabic, if they're not familiar with the language. I try, from time to time, to explain a song and why I wrote it and what it talks about, and sometimes it just depends on the people—if they'll get the feeling of the song. So I hope they find that easy. Second, that I give them an honest image about me and about my life in Cairo.
AH: And what is that honest image? What's a day in the life of Youssra?
YE: Not pretending to be anything. It's just me. I'm not trying to give any pretentious image. Cairo is a large city, and Egypt is much larger, and we have this variety of different circles, different religions, and in the end, I'm just one of them. What I mean by honest image is just a girl my age living in Cairo: What could she be thinking about or dreaming of or wanting to change in her society? Observing the streets and everything else.
Ariana Hellerman is a cultural music event producer and founder of Ariana's List. Among other projects, she programs and produces the Accordions Around the World Festival in Bryant Park each summer.