Artist Feature: Dina El Wedidi
Singer, composer, producer and daf player from Egypt, Dina El Wedidi has gained a prominent following with her ‘new Arab folk’. With a background in traditional theatre, her unique sound combines Egyptian storytelling and folklore with shades of rock, indie, electronica and classical music. Keen to begin touring, composing and writing her own original music, she established her own band and also featured in ‘Khalina Nehlam’ (Let Us Dream), a song that became a popular anthem during the Arab spring. Since then, she’s expanded her solo work and continued her ongoing collaboration with Nile Project, a music and touring initiative of musicians from the twelve countries spanning the Nile.
Her anticipated debut album Turning Back, released in 2014, draws together influences from a broad spectrum of mentors, education and projects. Meanwhile, her latest release ‘Slumber’ in 2018, is an experimental electro acoustic album that followed “an intense and interesting” two year period in which she dissected and re-assembled the acoustic journeys and sounds of Egypt’s national railways. In this month’s feature, we hear about clandestine train recordings, role models, the value of stories and how inspiration can come from anywhere.
“It’s always about a story!”
After her studies in Turkish and Persian Literature at Cairo University, Dina began training with Cairo’s Warsha Theatre Group. Founded in the late 80s, the independent theatre company played a key role in the development of Egypt’s free theatre movement and gained prominence through its popular ‘Egyptianised’ western plays and insightful portrayals of everyday life in Egypt. With repertoires going back to the 14th century, the group specialised on reviving classical Arabic music and Egyptian folklore from the culturally rich region of Upper Egypt, Sa’id. Under the mentorship of Warsha’s director Hassan El Gereitly, and vocal trainer Maged Soliman, Dina delved deep into the unique range of accents, phonetics and performance dynamics techniques of Sa’idi music, absorbing and adapting the region’s rich musical legacy.
“[At Warsha] we learned about the importance of stories. About wars, wisdoms… all these things. I sing songs from the perspective of the heroes [of Egyptian literature]. I have to feel these lyrics and this story. It’s always about a story!”
In the process, Dina understood the pivotal role that stories play in our understanding of past and present. Adapting conventional narratives and stories’ original contexts, her lyrical observations and powerful voice added a memorable depth to her interpretations. This folk and songwriting approach has deeply resonated with her audiences who celebrate her narrative and penchant to create new perspectives on old stories. But she’s not reached this place alone. She says that three role models have been most important to her artistic and personal formation: Gilberto Gil, Kamilya Joubran and her mother.
“The mentorship with Gil was really magical”
Shortly after Dina began touring Egypt with her band, Dina received some astounding news that would jumpstart her international career. She had been chosen for a year-long mentorship with Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil as part of Rolex’s Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
“[I thought to myself] I have to follow my mentor wherever he goes. I was so lucky because [Gilberto] was touring every minute, every day; on stage, in recording sessions, speaking with fans, sleeping in vans, being on the road. The mentorship with Gil was really magical because he’s not the kind of mentor that talks a lot. We didn’t really communicate through talk, but actions. A lot of information was coming to me. It was so amazing”
Almost a decade later, Dina still maintains a close friendship with Gilberto, who went on to feature on the song ‘El Leil’ from her first album.
Dina also credits Kamilya Joubran as a key influence in her development. Kamilya, a renowned oud player and social activist, has been a key figure in Palestine’s music scene since the 1980s. Dina admires Kamilya’s focus on process: she always values the journey of music creation over the final result. Kamilya and Dina recently collaborated on ‘Sodassi’, a sextet of Middle Eastern musicians led by Kamilya.
“Inspiration comes from everywhere”
Yet ultimately, her mother, who she considers her backbone, has been her source of support from the very start of her journey. “She has nothing to do with a music background but I consider her one of my favourite ‘artists’. She’s such a funny, strong and independent woman”. Dina also added the ‘very important note’ that her mother is a magical cook.
Sooner than later, her next inspiration would come from one of the most unexpected sources – the soundscapes and stories of Egypt’s national railways. As she puts it:
“Inspiration comes from lots of different people and places; they don’t have to be old and mature. Young people have wonderful ideas that can guide you. Inspiration comes from everywhere”.
On the heels of her debut album, Dina began studying music production between Egypt and Berlin. Fine tuning herself to the intricacy of sound, she embarked on new sonic challenges with her handheld recorder to sample, dissect and tune in to the world around her. When a friend asked her to record some sounds for an archive, she went out and listened more closely than ever.
“I wanted to talk about traveling, about feeling strange”
From her first days of recording, she couldn’t help but revisit the sounds of the trains. She was struck by the underlying instrumentation of these machines. Yet it wasn’t just the trains themselves. The long dusty platforms, the echoing waiting halls, muffled sleeper carriages and sidewalks, all seemed to hold their own inherent sound and story. Rather than hearing background noise, she heard rhythms, strings, and melodies. Once she realised it, it was all she could hear.
If the recordings for her friend had seemed raw, audio trainspotting brought a new set of challenges. Dina had to be stealthy. If there was a unique sound passing, you had to be quick. But that’s what made it priceless. She learned a great deal about recording sound, and later – how to process some very, very distorted files.
“The project was about limitations, how I could show a train’s harmony, melody and beats. I spent two years with my software just discovering the train. Why the train? Because the train was the best place to present two different places between my personal life and reality. I wanted to talk about traveling, about feeling strange, transitioning between time. It was the best sample to use.
Unsure of others’ reactions to her new experimental endeavour, she hesitated to share this engrossing project with even some of the closest people in her life, let alone her greater audiences.
“I didn’t expect that any production company was going to take this album”
She says Steve Reich’s Different Trains quartet and John Cage’s teachings kept her going through many of those restless nights. The resultant electro-acoustic album, Slumber, is a continuous 30-minute piece split into seven ‘stations’ (songs) that feature samples from across Egypt; from Ramses in Cairo, Alexandria and Aswan and Luxor in the South.
“Each coach, train line and region had its own distinct sound. Like the train line 3 from Aswan to Cairo, the sound is so raw. But some sleeper trains give you this sound that makes you feel like you’re in a recording studio… It’s a limited instrument, but you open your imagination to different things. The lyrics were very simple but gave me the chance and confidence to talk about sad lyrics. In between those lyrics, there’s a lot of meaning and that’s for the audience, not for me.
Over a year since the album’s release, Dina expresses her gratitude for the support of her label KKV.
“I didn’t expect that any production company was going to take this album. I was having fun in the beginning until KKV said “Ah we love this, we need to take this album”. I said “Really, an album? No! [laughs] Don’t call it an album, this is my Dina’s world!” My producer took the chance and said ‘why not’ this is your chance to release it. We like your process where you are right now, and want to support you”
Although Turning Back and Slumber are musically very distinct, Dina ultimately sees them as part of the same artistic expression – hers. Yet whichever way her music goes, Dina wants to make sure she will continue to have fun and enjoy the process. She puts it simply: “When you’re happy, your audiences will be happy”.
In deciding where to debut her new material, she remains considerate and accessible to her audiences, whilst setting herself certain limitations. “You don’t have to take every chance,” she says, firmly. “You can refuse to do some shows”.
While it has not been straightforward to perform both albums live, with their divergent sounds and intentions, she has plans to make future live sets incorporate the experiments of Slumber, but a bit more of Dina’s World as a whole. Until then, she’s ready to keep her imagination open… anything can be a potential inspiration.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
What’s your favourite track you did from Nile Project?
It’s definitely ‘In Wonderland’ (Fi Balad El Agayeb).
Do you plan to release unreleased songs that you have previously sung in concert?
Yes and I also have some fresh new songs that will be out very soon… maybe even this month! 🙂 Stay tuned and excited.
Do you plan to make a part two to El Sera El Helaleya?
Yes yes. El Sera is one of my favourites and I’m planning to work on other parties and stories in the future.
Can you tell us about your new album in more detail, and the collaborations planned for 2021? Did Dina write the album, or did poets participate in writing it? I know 2021 is your year Dina, you will do great things in it!
My first collaboration in 2021 will be with Dj Totti, I really can’t wait to release it, it’s called ‘Ya Badr’. I’m working hard to get my new EP to you this year, I’ll be collaborating with 2 writers. It will also include my favourite musicians that I’ve recently discovered from around the world.
Why are the majority of Egyptian artists still not talking about more various subjects in their songs, other than love/patriotism/religion?
I’d encourage you to give a chance to the many talented artists from Egypt! I think the music industry in Egypt right now is at one of its hottest times, every month you can discover new, fresh and original voices and topics.
Dina, give us some names!
Youssra El Hawary
Abo El Anwar