Nadah El Shazly is happy playing the long game.
Her debut album has been popping up in media reports detailing brilliant releases that have been neglected or dormant in 2017. Not that the Egyptian singer-songwriter minds; released in November, Ahwar is a heady experimental record that reveals itself with repeated listens.
“You need to spend some time with it,” she says, on the phone from her home in Cairo.
“Once you do, you kind of understand where I am trying go with it. But I do sense a bit of buzz happening now and there is a ripple effect with more people picking up the album.”
Ahwar's challenging nature is not down to some petulant artistic statement. Instead, each of the six tracks is packed with enough ideas to form an album in themselves.
First thing, however, you need a good pair of headphones to appreciate all the sonic nuances.
The impressionistic opener, Afqid Adh Dhakira (I Lost Memory), is true to its name: the experience is akin to falling into a black hole. After a series of distorted and manipulated vocal samples, the track settles on a noirish groove of cello, bass and pensive drums as El Shazly croons: "I lose memory, I live the future and walk beneath it, To drown in a sea of the saliva of lunatics."
That promised blend of progressive electronics and ornate Arab folk instrumentation comes into fruition with Palmyra, which acts as a loose tribute to the ancient Syrian city destroyed through conflict with ISIL. A deft husk is discovered in El Shazly's seemingly improvised vocals here; it swings and twirls in anguish over dancey-keyboards and solemn percussion. The instrumental Koala, on the other hand, employs a free-form jazz aesthetic: over seven minutes it builds up to a clashing of horns and percussion before it tapers off again somewhat gracefully.
With so much going on on Ahwar, and El Shazly being a kind yet somewhat enigmatic interviewee, it takes a while to get some context into the album's unbridled adventurism. With lyrical themes of travel and suffocation, El Shazly explains that the songs are sequenced to resemble a journey fraught with danger. "It is a very vivid place that I hope is audible to the listener," she says. "That's why I called it Ahwar – the marshlands. It comes with this idea that if you are unfamiliar with a certain place then as a newcomer you might get lost and not know your way back. The album is basically about that journey."
Shazly’s own ascension to become one of the luminaries of Egypt’s burgeoning indie-music scene is one of exploration. Born and raised in Cairo, it was her mother – a non-musician – who encouraged her to dabble in music. “She was adamant about me playing the piano and learning music,” El Shazly says, with quiet chuckle. “Of course, she was in for a shock when I told her that this is what I wanted to fully focus on.”
That realisation came two years ago when she started working on the songs for Ahwar. El Shazly was known on the music scene as an eclectic talent. As well as piano lessons, she also undertook soprano vocal training and, as a 17-year-old, fronted Sick Gdrch – a punk band that specialised in covers by genre legends The Misfits. Following her "why not?" ethos, she also landed a gig as a singer for a jazz covers band at a Cairo hotel in 2009, before making her first concentrated foray into electronica with the short-lived cult favourites Shorba.
All that musical movement wasn't just down to a creative restless spirit but is what happens when you are part of tight-knit music community. Indeed, Egyptian keyboardist Maurice Louca, who is part of indie-music supergroup Lekhfa, featuring acclaimed singer and actress Maryam Saleh, as well as a solo artist, also lends his talents to tracks on Ahwar.
“It is a very small scene; but because of that we all influence each other, regardless of the direction of music,” says El Shazly. “At the moment, there are a lot of things happening on an electronic music level and some really interesting artists are coming. I am talking about acts like Zuli and The Invisible Hands. I listen and see a lot of these artists live and work here and they just keep creating new things, and that is inspiring.”
While all of Ahwar's electronics and modern production are of the here and now, some of El Shazly's compositions hark back to another time, from the jazzy stylings of the aforementioned Koala, which recalls the great jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, to the lingering Barzakh, in which she adopts a more operatic style recalling early 20th-century classical Egyptian music.
It's the later era that inspired El Shazly's newest musical fascination. Working on Ahwar, she researched Egyptian music pre-dating the 1940's. With the country's musical golden age classed between the '50's and '70's, with artists such as Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, El Shazly discovered that music pre-dating that era was equally as rich. "It is a time that not many people are talking about, and it was just so full of interesting music. When I was researching I was asking myself if this was just down to me being nostalgic over a lost time? But listening to the music I realised it was almost futuristic," she says.
“Two of my favourite artists from that time are Abdul Latif Al Banna and Mounira Al-Mahdiya. It wasn’t just because of their amazing voices, but because of the great dynamics in the musicianship. They had an understanding of what it means to play with another musician.”
With Europe and North America becoming increasingly aware of Ahwar's pedigree, El Shazly is gearing up for a series of shows throughout the year. But with all the album's various styles, she would need a budget-busting 10-piece band (including horn section) to fully recreate its sounds.
Hence, El Shazly’s decision to reinvent some of the songs for the stage with a quartet including keyboards, electronic effects, guitar and double bass.
“Then there are the solo shows which is just me, keyboards and some effects, and that too will give a different feeling to the songs,” she says. “This is also a cool thing, I always like taking different approaches to what I do.”
El Shazly is wary of being viewed as an ambassador for the Cairo indie-music scene and dismisses suggestions the great music that has emerged in the past two years is purely the result of societal tensions.
Such generalisations take away from the talent and creative drive of a generation of young Egyptian artists, she says. “I am sure I’m influenced by a lot of things that are happening, but not just at this moment, but ever since I was born and raised here. Ever since I was able to walk and talk, or maybe even before that,” she says.
“But to describe what Cairo has given me as a creative person, that’s a difficult question because we are going through worse times at the moment. I can’t simply say that it has totally inspired me because the situation here has also destroyed a lot of things. The best way to describe my relationship with Cairo is that it is complex.”
Ahwar by Nadah El Shazly is out now. The album can be streamed on Apple Music and Anghami