Based in Cairo, Nadah El Shazly is a young multi-instrumentalist, composer, singer and electronic musician who debuted her singing career fronting a punk rock cover band. She has since collaborated with Egyptian artist Mohamed Shafiq as the Shorba Duo and started making a name for herself on the Cairo’s underground and electronic scene.

Two years in the making, recorded between Montréal and Cairo and articulated through a wide range of musical idioms, Nadah El Shazly’s Ahwar is an outstanding and multifaceted début. The album was released as a download, Vinyl LP and cassette on 10 November 2017 last on Nawa Recordings, the London-based independent label founded by Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami and specialising in alternative experimental music from the Arab world.

Nadah El Shazly - Ahwar (2017)
Nadah El Shazly – Ahwar (2017) – Cover artwork © Marwan El-Gamal

Featuring Nadah El Shazly on vocals, keyboards, piano, kalimba, saz, electronics and programming alongside a 15 piece ensemble including a string, woodwind and brass sections as well as harp, synthesiser or oud, the production is closely associated with Egyptian Canadian composer Sam Shalabi and Cairo-born composer, arranger and guitarist Maurice Louca.

Sam Shalabi is the leader of experimental quartet Shalabi Effect and the founder of the 30 member orchestra Land of Kush, an avant-garde project which blends classical Arabic modes with Western free jazz and electronica.

Maurice Louca is another prominent composer and arranger on the Egyptian experimental arts scene with three solo albums to date to his name. Both himself and Sam Shalabi also play together as part of the Cairo-based trio The Dwarfs of East Agouza.

Ahwar is rooted in the classical and popular Egyptian singing championed by Sayyid Darwish in the early 20th century and later on by Umm Kulthum. The song “Ana ‘Ishiqt” for instance is originally a composition by Sayyid Darwish, and “Barzakh” features an extract from “Dawr Afrahh Wesalak” by Abd al-Hay Hilmî (1857-1912) sampled from a recording on Baidaphone – one of the early middle-eastern record companies originally set up in Beirut in 1907 and Cairo in 1914 recording popular singers of the time and pressing 78rpm records.

But this is not to say that Ahwar indulges in nostalgia. From the onset, the distorted vocals, reverb-drenched beats and dissonant leaps on “Afqid Adh-Dhakira” propel the album to a contemporary, multi-layered and gravity-defying lyrical journey across six astonishing tracks.

First underpinned by a looped motif on “Barzakh” played on the saz – a long-necked string instrument related to the Turkish bağlama – Nadah El Shazly’s voice is joined on the 5’30’’ mark by the Montréal-based community choir The Monday Night Choir. The combination of an oriental voice with the harmonising choir is dazzling.

Lamenting the tragic destruction of the Syrian city, “Palmyra” swerves towards drum & bass with an addictive keyboard hook while Nadah El Shazly’s voice meanders magically over cello, harp and kalimba on “Ana ‘Ishiqt”. Devoid of vocals, “Koala” enters the realm of prog rock and cosmic jazz at times with its free-flowing conversation between brass instruments.

Ahwar is a type of land, like marshlands. But Ahwar is also associated with this idea of a place that has a lot of water. You can easily get lost in it. If you’re not from here, you won’t know your way back. Nadah El Shazly

The surrealist artwork for the LP cover was designed by Egyptian visual artist Marwan El-Gamal. The latter also produced the chimerical video animation illustrating the last song on the album “Mahmeya”. The same animation could well serve as a visual charting of Ahwar as a marshland – a transition between distinct ecosystems but also a fantastic environment populated by spirits, fairies, deities, mythological creatures and supernatural beings in pagan or pre-islamic traditions.

Nadah El Shazly’s Ahwar is a sonic interpretation of that journey through these mythical marshlands – an exuberant, otherworldly and holistic musical experience.

Since the release of Ahwar, Nadah El Shazly contributed to vocals on Maurice Louca’s February 2019 LP Elephantine. She can also be heard on three songs from Land of Kush’s latest release Sand Enigma (Nov 2019).