Egyptian indie singer and actor Maryam Saleh on her new super group and distinct vocal style

Running under their first names, the group surprised fans with the release of debut single Ekaa Maksour (Rhythm Broken) last month.

One of the leading figures of the Arabic indie music scene, Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh, is a member of the Praed Orchestra.. Courtesy Sarah El Miniawy
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One of the Middle East's first indie super groups formed recently with a collaboration between Egyptian chanteuse Maryam Saleh, multi-instrumentalist and fellow national Maurice Louca and the Palestinian singer-songwriter Tamer Abu Ghazaleh.

Running under their first names, the group surprised fans with the release of debut single Ekaa Maksour (Rhythm Broken) last month.

A snaky groove filled gem, the track boasts intertwining vocals by Saleh and Ghazaleh that are backed with off-kilter instrumentation by Louca, which includes a foggy sounding ney, thumping percussion and deft keyboards. The whole thing is undeniably rhythmic yet it is numbingly dissonant. Saleh explains that the music complements the socio-political themes explored in the Arabic lyrics.

“For me, I think it observes how society and power systems impose certain moulds, paths and frameworks on us, yet what is imposed is actually deformed,” she says.

"It's a paradox; you're trying to order people using fractured tools. So, the structure of the song and the composition are quite straightforward, this strong catchy rhythm, yet it talks about attempts at order gone wrong on many levels."

Saleh promises more "twists and turns" when the trio's album, Lekhfa is released on September 22.

That description can also be used to describe Saleh's career, which includes founding influential bands, running a well-regarded solo career in addition to being a screen
and stage actress.

Despite the eclectic workload, the 31-year-old says the same considerations are taken before agreeing to any project.

“It is about learning something new, even if it’s about or out of my own self. I work spontaneously and unconsciously and wait to discover what emerges,” she says.

“Then there is that participation and collaboration with others, not only with other artists but most importantly with audiences and listeners. I am not directing what I create at them, I am sharing it with them. And with other artists, nothing moves me more than their sensitivity and their art being their native language. It is about how deep within do they look in order to create.”

It’s the kind of wisdom that comes when your childhood is steeped in arts and culture, she says.

Born in Cairo to a father who was a theatre critic and historian and a mother who is a singer and actress, Saleh was encouraged to express herself from a young age.

She recalls her parents frequently hosting late-night gatherings in their home that featured a cast of actors, writers and musicians.

One of those was the legendary Sheikh Imam. Hailed as one of Egypt's first underground artists, Imam's satirical and at times caustic lyrics in support of the working class meant he was banned from radio and television airplay by the Egyptian authorities and frequently jailed during the late 1960s.

The iconoclast is responsible for one of Saleh’s favourite childhood memories.

“I woke up the next day (after another late-night family salon), having dreamt of a song, and I was adamant that I had composed that song, and my mum went along and praised me for it,” she says.

“I discovered a few years later that it was a Sheikh Imam song, he had probably sung it that night and I heard it and it went into my dreams.”

Imam died in 1995 but the singer remains an important inspiration for Saleh's work.

Driven by the goal of taking Imam’s work to a new generation, Saleh formed the band Gawaz Safar as a 16-year-old and it performed rock versions of Sheikh Imam favourites.

The positive response gave Saleh the confidence to go out on her own and release her debut solo album, 2012's Ana Mesh Baghany. The album's evocative and shimmering sounds were a success as several tacks were used as part of the soundtrack for the following year's Ramadan TV series Farah Leila, in which she played a supporting role.

Saleh then returned to Imam by reworking more of his classic material as part of her 2015 ground-breaking collaboration with Lebanese singer and producer Zeid Hamdan, the Arabic trip-hop release Halawella.

The international acclaim for Halawella took Saleh's distinct vocal style to the masses.

It has a Bjork-esque quality in that it prefers to peck at the melody as opposed to singing in tune.

Saleh is aware of claims by detractors that her voice is untrained or worse, that she is tone-deaf. She says her style is borne out of good old-fashioned parental rebellion.

“In my mum’s family circle, they all sing and put such big emphasis on the craft of singing and mastering vocal techniques. For some reason, I decided to look elsewhere,” she says.

“I wanted other explanations for what makes a singer good and so I spent years working on more stripped-down and abstract interpretations of melodies and I worked on getting rid of a lot of rules. I eventually distilled it down to what is the most powerful element into what makes a singer good, which is the feeling. My mother’s family think I’m the odd eccentric one, that there is no concept behind how I sing and
that I need more training. They don’t understand that this how I chose to train.”

That added intensity, Saleh says, is what separates her music from her film work. With a growing list of acting credits including roles in the 2007 historical melodrama Ain Shams and the 2009 surrealist indie film Bel Alwan Al Tabi'ah and string of short films.

“Mentally, in singing I am myself, which is very hard, especially that I love performing live more than recording, so preparing to go on stage as yourself is much harder than preparing to be someone else,” she says.

“Being someone else, in film or theatre, separates you from the audience, shields you in some way. There is a more direct relationship with the audience in singing and music, whereas with acting there is the character in between. But they feed into each other. My acting has helped my presence on stage and feeling what I sing comes from what I absorbed from working in theatre.”

Ekaa Maksour by Maryam & Maurice & Tamer can be heard on all major online streaming services

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