Doing Hindi right: Egyptian talent taps into Bollywood’s rich musical vein

Shaimaa El Shayeb talks to The National about joining the growing list of Arab artists asked to cover Bollywood hits and her plans for a fourth album

Shaimaa El Shayeb. Courtesy Sony Music Mena
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Shaimaa El Shayeb doesn't do things by halves. Along with changing genres for her most recent single, the Egyptian singer has also tackled the Hindi language.
The 25-year-old is the latest Arab singer to be tapped by Bollywood film-industry executives to record an Arabic cover for a film.
El Shayeb will cover the signature song Habibi Radha from Shah Rukh Khan's romantic comedy Jab Harry Met Sajal, which releases in UAE cinemas on Friday.
El Shayeb joins a growing list of Arab artists lending their talent to Bollywood covers, including Moroccan rai star Douzy (Radio from Salman Khan's Tubelight) and the UAE's Adel Ebrahim, who produced a version of Gerua (renamed Telagena) from 2015 romantic comedy Dilwale.
"I am proud of being the first Egyptian," El Shayeb says. "It's a really cool thing because Egypt is just mad for Bollywood, so to be involved in this project, particularly with something starring Shah Rukh Khan, is amazing."
The initiative was put into play with the swift efficiency Bollywood is renowned for when it comes to production. El Shayeb was offered the gig about a month ago and didn't have long to learn the Arabic lyrics and the small smattering of Hindi before being asked to record the track in just two days.
For an artist renowned for her slow, mesmerising take on pieces by classical Arabic music artists Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez, El Shayeb admits her biggest challenge was wrapping her vocal chords around Habibi Radha's upbeat mesh of pop and dance music produced by Bollywood veteran Pritam.
"That not only worried me but the label [Sony Music] as well. They saw my work on YouTube and they realise a lot of my songs are longer and orchestral, so they had some concern if I could pull it off," she recalls. "So we worked hard to get it right, and [in] getting the right kind of lyrics to fit in with the tempo. At the end they were happy and surprised we did such a good job."
The song sets up El Shayeb for what will be an active few months ahead. She is presently working on her fourth album, which will see her move away from the classical Arabic standards to more original folkloric compositions.
Having performed the classics on stage since she was 10, El Shayeb says now is the time for her "to grow up".
"I wanted to work on songs that reflect where I am right now in life and my experiences," she says. "I have been doing these old songs for a long time, and it was interesting in a way because I was singing about topics such as love and heartbreak that I never really experienced ... as a child. The new songs are in line with where my life is at now."
The daughter of renowned singer Fatma Eid, El Shayeb says she was fortunate to have made her name as a child star.
She says the plethora of talent shows, not to mention the rampant use of social media, has made it more challenging to spot new talent nowadays. 
"There are so many voices that are crowding the scene that you don't know where to go," she says. "It is tough for the crowd to follow someone as there is no nurturing and no patience with young artists. When I began I felt there was a lot of people supporting me and wanted me to succeed. It is tough to have that kind of sustained attention now."
At the same time, El Shayeb praises social media for spreading the appeal of classical Arabic music.
"I don't share that feeling that people don't care about it," she says. "I see the opposite. People can hear more of it now online, and they reach out to me on my Facebook page and say how they love these songs. I think the music is still in a good place."
Jab Harry Met Sajal is in cinemas from Friday