Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

by delarue

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding, foggy behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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