Maestro turns Egyptian children in need into songbirds
Article by Salwa Samir, originally posted on Al Monitor
When renowned Egyptian-Lebanese maestro Selim Sahab passes a street child selling tissues or when he visits orphanages in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, he reminds himself, “If this boy has an opportunity, he could live a better life than me.” Sahab’s experiences on the streets and in children’s care homes inspired him to reach out to help some of the young people he saw in his own special way. He continues to do so, offering them a place in Egypt’s Children’s Choir, which he established two years ago.
“When I first met these children, they were in desperate states of mind and had no idea how to think of tomorrow,” Sahab told Al-Monitor. “They hated society and the family as a concept.” According to Sahab, these children did not need a psychologist to help them, however.
“They only needed one thing: love,” he said. “When they feel they are loved and taken care of, they change into better humans. Now they love life and learn how to dream about their future.”
Sahab drew inspiration for the choir from Venezuela’s El Sistema, the publicly financed music education program founded in 1975 that offers free classical musical education to marginalized children to promote their development and hopefully provide them with better opportunities in life. At the moment, Egypt’s Children’s Choir consists of 150 youngsters 6-18 years of age. The Ministry of Youth and Sports and Social Solidarity Ministry welcomed the program and as a result decided to fund the choir.
The choir performed its first concert two years ago at Cairo University, Egypt’s oldest state-run university. More than 3,000 people attended. Thrilled by the choir’s performance, some audience members asked the university’s administration to host similar events in the future. Cairo University and the Youth and Sports Ministry thereafter signed an agreement for the choir to perform at the school on the last Tuesday of every month.
At each concert, Egyptian and other Arab singers are invited to join the choir, in part to provide its members encouragement. Among them have been Egyptian singing star Hani Shaker, whose repertoire consists of more than 461 songs, Emirati diva Ahlam and Lebanese singing sensation Walid Toufic. They appear in the hope of bringing the children some joy and happiness.
In the Egyptian media, street children are usually viewed as “ticking time bombs” and threats to society. Sahab, however, thinks otherwise.
“They are the victims of society,” he said. “We can overcome and eliminate this phenomenon by using art and music in order to let these children feel the beauty of life and learn tolerance, peace and love.”
The choir was not Sahab’s first project to bring music to the masses. In 1980, Sahab had founded the Beirut-Arab Music Ensemble for Arab Music. In 1989, he established the National Arab Music Ensemble, based at the Cairo Opera House. Also in 1989, he founded the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir. He then went on to establish the Organization for the Arabic Creator, also in Cairo, in 2007. All of these groups are still in existence.
Sahab does his best to strengthen the children’s bond to their country by filling their repertoire with patriotic songs. “I don’t want these children to sing for the sake of singing,” he said. “I want this singing to be a bridge between them and their country.”
Sahab’s work has not been in vain. In August 2015, Egypt’s Children’s Choir was selected to perform at the inauguration of the second channel of the Suez Canal, attended by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and a host of other world leaders.
Sahab, who has a diploma in symphony orchestra conducting, from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, currently serves as director of the Misr Opera House, the first private opera house in Egypt, which opened in 2011. Located in 6th of October City, on Cairo’s outskirts, the performance space is affiliated to Misr University for Science and Technology, a private school established in 1996. Two members of the children’s choir have received scholarships to study at the university, and the university’s hospital offers free medical care to choir members.
The choir rehearses once a week at the Misr Opera House. At one recent rehearsal, the children sat reading the lyrics to “Vola Vola Palombella” (“Fly, Fly Little Dove”), an Italian-Arabic song. The piece had famously been performed by a six-year-old Lebanese girl named Nadina in 1986 in Bologna, at the 29th Zecchino D’oro Festival, sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Fotna al-Naggar, a piano teacher assisting at rehearsals, had written the lyrics of “Vola Vola Palombella” in Arabic and handed them out to the children to help them understand the song’s meaning. “I then performed it solo while they listened,” Naggar told Al-Monitor. “They memorized it within 30 minutes and sang it.”
Naggar, a former student of Sahab who studied at the Cairo Conservatoire, is teaching the children Italian and French songs for their next concert, on Dec. 22 at Cairo University’s Grand Hall. The performance will mark the choir’s second anniversary. Naggar said, “I was ecstatic when the children told me that they are happy that they know other languages.”
Karim, an 18-year-old choir member, said he has been fond of singing since he was a child. He used to sing with other children at an orphanage in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig. Nevertheless, being a member of Egypt’s Children’s Choir is a special experience for him.
“I can’t describe the feeling I had when I stood in front of an audience applauding for me and my fellow choir members,” Karim told Al-Monitor, recalling his first performance with the group. “I think I will be very famous in Egypt very soon.”
Fatma, 14, said that after joining the group two years ago, she learned how to love, respect and help her friends. “I didn’t learn this before I met the maestro, who is also a father to me,” she told Al-Monitor. “I dream of becoming as famous as the Lebanese diva Elissa.”
Tags: Ahlam, Beirut-Arab Music Ensemble for Arab Music, Cairo Opera Children's Choir, Cairo Opera House, Egypt's Children's Choir, Egyptian Lebanese Maestro, Hani Shaker, National Arab Music Ensemble, Selim Sahab