Fellow-to-Fellow: Shereen Abdo x Sara Lucas

Shereen Abdo (OneBeat 2014) is a Cairo-based vocalist, composer and activist, who recently launched a new solo project of her own compositions. Sara Lucas (OneBeat 2014) is a Brooklyn-based vocalist, who recently toured the Americas with the OneBeat alumni ensemble LADAMA. Fellow-to-Fellow is an ongoing interview series featuring in-depth discussions between OneBeat alumni. 

This interview was transcribed from audio.

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Sara Lucas: Why do you think it’s important for people from different cultures to share an experience through music?

Shereen Abdo: It’s natural. It happens spontaneously between people. We were made to communicate and get to know each other. The process of acquiring knowledge and getting to know someone different and apart from you is really exciting and it’s the purpose of the whole thing. Communication in its purest form is music. It doesn’t take a certain understanding of language to get to it — its sensitivity and delicacy can pass feelings and beliefs through your energy. This happens from the ancient lullabies to today. Music can really give you that experience from 300 or 400 years ago from people you’ve never met. When people communicate, music is the purest language they can use. I think of music as a whole piece around the earth, the universe, and in getting to know different cultures, the first thing you can experience is music from that culture — it’s like collecting the puzzle pieces to reach a higher state of existence.

SL: What drives your own music-making? Why or how is collaboration important for you art?

SA: It’s not optional for me — what drives it is my being. It’s a part of me. It’s the only thing that I do, that when I do it, it feels right. I know it’s not a good thing to listen to people praise you and judge yourself by that — it’s not about praising. People assure you that you’re on the right path, but I tried so hard to quit before. And it’s really hard for me as a working woman in this community here in Egypt, that doesn’t even admit that music is a career — it’s very rare to make a living out of it. I tried quitting a couple of times and couldn’t, so I just confessed: That’s me, this is what I do best. It’s not optional, and I’m tormented if I try to escape it. I’m very happy and very fulfilled if I do it. So it’s not an option.

What drives my music-making technically is either that I have melodies to write (no lyrics) or it just happens to me. I started composing two or three years ago. If I see the right lyrics, I know it immediately, and from that second, a melody is born. I cannot work on it again if this doesn’t happen from the first time I am reading the lyrics. I know it’s different for more professional people, who may work on music in order to bring out melodies, but I see it better this way.

Collaboration is important for my art as I try to study music theory (pretty confusing). But I’m actually applying the rules and breaking them before studying them. I don’t mean one should not study, but I believe that it should complete one another in the same way a puzzle does. As you write a piece, with every melody, every phrase, it is totally satisfying, fun and noble to communicate (with another musician). Working with someone is like bringing a child into the world. To bring out a melody or a composition with this idea of having a team, a band — it’s so human and so noble to share music-making. And even in the gigs, the performances — it gives your life meaning. So musical partners are even more important, and sometimes more loyal, than real-life partners. They are somehow real life partners (laughs) — music can never fail you. It’s even more noble and important, this collaboration with other cultures. So in every way, the music-making process is based on communication and collaboration. And this is the purest form of existence.

SL: What is your favorite or most meaningful memory from OneBeat?

(Sighs) There are a lot. My favorite one: As we drove back from the performances or workshops in the minivan, all of us, from across the world, of which we could not imagine the distance — it gave me goosebumps when we all sang the same song, “Down by the Riverside.” We all chose it somehow from the share sessions, and somehow it became our anthem. And I was thinking about why we did it, and you know how we did it — you were there — how everyone, without planning, took a line or harmony or whatever, and it all just merged together and… Ok, it has brought tears…(pause). It was like the proof that we’re not different at all, and we don’t have to feel different. We’re connected somehow, and all humans are the same, and I was happy that we could have a chance like this. Our souls were in harmony as well as our voices, and it was great.

And I have a couple other (favorite memories). The echo valley (outside of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico): That was one of my favorite memories as well, though I was experiencing really intense feelings because we were about to leave. Finally, the final performance: I had an infection in my voice and I was on stage for only the first and last songs. I was feeling bad about this, and so during the last one I sang, I was feeling the whole group and our emotions were intense. We were at the Railyards, and I felt how I always had this doubt about me being too sensitive or maybe hysterical sometimes, but I realized that we all — 25 different persons and the great staff — we shared the same degrees of feeling, of humanity, of communication. It had been thirty days, and we were deeply in love with each other and we were seeking chances to keep it going. So these were my favorite and most meaningful memories from OneBeat.

SL: I’ve noticed that you have been putting out a lot of music on your SoundCloud (www.soundcloud.com/shereen-abdo) recently and performing live in Egypt and Lebanon. What project(s) are you working on right now and in what ways are you participating­ as a composer, singer, writer, producer? All or some of the above? What is happening with the new music scene in Cairo right now?

SA: Well recently, yes. I have been putting a lot of music on SoundCloud and I started performing in Egypt and Lebanon. For now I have a couple of projects. I’ve left everything now to focus on material for my solo project, which was ready to go, finally. So I went live with my solo project — my first solo project by the way, fully me. Wow, that was like giving birth. My first gig was in Tunisia. I represented Egypt in a festival, and then I came back to Egypt and started a series of live shows. The whole project features my compositions and in some of it, my lyrics. I contribute to producing the music and I am partially an arranger, but the band members also do that with me. My other project, that I’m intending to launch in a week, is to perform jazz standards and oldies. This is a side project I enjoy. I enjoy these songs — they were my first, favorite music as a child. So I decided to perform them in order to get some money to support my main solo project. And since I enjoy it so much, it isn’t like work.

The new music scene in Cairo now is really shrinking because venues are actually going broke, and they don’t have much equipment to support performances, like drums or amps, and people are just focused on (seeing) the same (music). What I am talking about is the indie scene. People have been trying to promote what they do, but the indie audience… We had a wave of bands that were hosted by well-seen TV shows a couple of years ago — like seven bands. And while the scene has over 500 bands, those seven bands are controlling it, as a result of how many people saw the show, liked them and contributed, went to their gigs — this brought them a lot of money and fame as well, so they kept working. But that was only 7 or 10 bands. Yeah it’s a mess here. There are demands for only these people to keep going. They do not explore new stuff. Now, places are going broke that aren’t being explored. This gives us a very tight space to move in. I started my solo project 3 or 4 months ago, and I have had to pay extra costs to hold concerts — for equipment, for musicians and for replacements of musicians. And I have to pay for publicity. It takes a lot of money and I have to support it somehow. As for the jazz oldies that I was talking about, the only way to get money out of this is working in hotels or bars. That is something that is wanted. But they don’t want you going around with your own original music. That’s too risky.

SL: What is the greatest reward for you from playing, composing and performing music? In what ways does music sustain you?

SA: Well, I would say first, it’s the joy that it brings my soul, and the hope it gives me that the world can be a good place. But if I think about it all over again, I would say no, that’s not the first thing. What’s really on top of the list is… you know I’m a “hugbug,” but it’s that hug I get from someone in the audience who I do not know, or that happiness, that thrill I find on his or her face as they listen to me, or if I see someone dancing or feeling happy, excited about it — that is the real reward. The real reward is someone mentioning or making some graffiti of my songs, telling me, “These songs, or this phrase from your song has changed my life, changed something in my life, changed the way I think.” Or when they tell me they feel somehow connected to heaven. I’m trying to be as honest as I can while I sing because people need that, I need that. To be honest in every melody and word. So this is the way music sustains me.

I suffer a lot of pressures here in Egypt, in a very male society, and it’s really messed up that we have inhuman circumstances that are double for women, rather than men, so we suffer more. It really drives me crazy. I don’t even feel crazy, I feel desperate. Sometimes my will for life is lacking everyday and I suffer great depression, and the waves still keep coming. But since I launched the solo project everything is bearable somehow. I have ups and downs. I still have intense waves of depression because I cannot adapt to how inhuman life is here. I have really limited chances to leave, and music is the only thing I can do, and it’s really not appreciated anywhere in the Arab world. So I’m trying to fight every single day, from when I wake until I sleep, I’m trying to fight the struggle and the double struggle. The triple struggle happens for me as a woman choosing to be a musician or a singer — it’s a hell of a challenge. So music is what really keeps me going and — it’s not only what keeps me going— it’s why I keep going every single day. So it keeps me connected. It keeps my existence. I don’t know if it wasn’t for music where I would be.

Finally, I enjoyed answering your questions. It inspired me. I sometimes lose track, and I miss you all. LADAMA ladies, always. I’m so proud of you. I’m following your activities, OneBeat or LADAMA, and I’m so proud every time I see something about you — my god! Here are my ladies. These were my musical partners for awhile, and we shared a great memory and great experience. And I always think about how I can bring you to Egypt, or come to where you are someday, and I hope this will happen. So hugs, lots of hugs and good thoughts to you. Much love.

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