Nancy Mounir
Photo: Courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Nancy Mounir Mines Music from Egypt’s Past to Write Its Profound Musical Future

Sampling recordings over a century old, Egyptian composer Nancy Mounir delivers an album where the past and present converse to help write the future.

Nozhet El Nofous
Nancy Mounir
Simsara Records
3 June 2022

As an editor for a music publication, a common thing I tell writers is not to write the sentence you’re reading right now: the one that includes “I” in it. While personal opinion and unique perspectives are inherent in any critical text, the subject and focus should always be the artist, the music, and the art itself. Writers, by their nature, are rarely going to be as interesting to read about as the subjects they’re covering.

Yet I am breaking that rule here because writing in the first person is the only way I can articulate the experience I had with Nancy Mounir’s astonishing debut album, Nozhet El Nofous. Born in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria but currently living in Cairo, Mounir’s talents extend beyond her ability to play a litany of instruments (including the violin, Theremin, bass, piano, and an ancient Egyptian flute known as the kawala). She is a historian, a researcher, and someone deftly aware that the future can be predicted only when the past and present are in conversation with each other.

On Nozhet El Nofous (the title translates as “Promenade of the Souls”), Mounir takes several archival recordings from Egyptian singers who released music in the early 1900s and gives them new life. Taking the emotional tones sung by performers like Mounira El Mahdeya and Naima El Masreyaz that sometimes feel like they’re barely being held together by the reels they were initially recorded on, Mounir adds new instrumentation. String sections, chanting vocal choirs, and delicate synths are used to give these voices new meaning.

To hear some of these songs is to be overwhelmed with emotion. There is a sadness to these performances, but Mounir is always deeply respectful, never changing the pitch or tempo for the purposes of recording. Instead, her new arrangements and instruments dance around the original masters, giving our modern ears a new context, as if poking a patch of firewood embers to see if they can grow again into a mighty flame. Having researched these songs and even composed a live-stage theatrical version of these numbers, complete with out-loud diary entries being read, Nozhet El Nofous feels less like an album you put on so much as a time machine that lets you mingle with the past. These may seem like heady descriptors, but this album shook my core in ways I was not expecting or prepared for.

Knowing I couldn’t be at peace without writing something about this record, I reached out to see if Mounir would want to do a “Fave Five” for us, wherein an artist picks their five favorite albums, favorite concert venues, favorite anything really. Measured and practiced, Nancy responded, inviting us “to hear how I listen to five of my favorite string arrangements. I would recommend doing this as a deep listening session, not on the go, with some good headphones or speakers and deep diving with me into closely listening to these tracks full of very moving arrangements.”

She has prepared very specific recordings with precise timestamps, and we encourage you to follow along with her notes. That may strike some as a bit academic, but after listening to Nozhet El Nofous, you too will want to know everything about Mounir’s incredible thought process.

1. Stina Nordenstam – “Alone at Night” (1991)

To me, this track has the most interesting strings arrangement of all. There is no grid/tempo, and the notes are lifted. The texture is interweaving, and we hear the role of strings and vocals often swapping.

Listen closely at 01:26 — the vocal note and the feel of the triplets afterward.

When I was younger, I couldn’t name where the pleasure was coming from.

01:43 — vocals, the la note and then sol joining, double note, creating tension, and it’s the last note giving this outer tension. Slightly detuned and panned. So multilayered, you can’t hear it only once or just a few times.

02:27 — how the strings are being stretched, then the chord shift at 02:40, and so on.

My ear is doing this all time when I am listening to strings.

Pay attention to the bass strings line at 03:20

It’s a dense track. She arranged it.

2. Fairouz – “Kbera El Mazha Hai” (2010)

I find the chords/harmonies quite unusual in this track, and it’s simply a very moving love song. The lushness of the arrangements allows you to hear something new whenever your brain pays attention to many layers simultaneously after several closer listens.

01:06 – the bass slide and piano after.

There is no time at the start of the song; unmetered until the French horns kick in. Then the beautiful phrase starts with the French horns, around 0:11, and the strings join.

01:26 – the interlacing in the rhythmic movement of the harmonies, like a French braid, and the breath in between (inhale/silence 01:31), hugging the text and breathing with it. Silence is very important here; less is more.

Around 01:55, the horns and strings entrance pulls you in/back.

02:54 – the cello slicing through.

03:45 – the violins laying the grounds for the piano solo.

04:30 – the double bass and the strings usher in right after.

You don’t notice the strings phrase until it stands out when it’s quieter towards the end around 05:42 on its own, framed, but it’s been there all along, since 04:08. The middle note is what’s hooking you all along, the effective suspended chord. We can’t hear them until everything else around them stops, then we realize they have been there all along, carrying the rest of the arrangements. When heard alone at the end, the strings, what gets to me is the note that creates the tension within the suspended chord. So when you’ve clearly heard the strings at the end, listen to the track again from the top to hear their presence all along.

3. Kamilya Jubran and Sarah Murcia – “Balad (from Habka)” (2017)

Kamilya is nothing short of a compass, a mentor, and the leading figure in experimental Arabic music. She is one of the very few people who have microtonal knowledge and uses it in a singular and contemporary way. Her compositions are both atonal (no root note) and microtonal, and they sound effortless. The coupling of this in-depth knowledge with an experimental practice is rare in Arabic music today. You are not taught this knowledge in a school or a conservatory; it’s not readily available at all — it’s unconventional/alternative knowledge. Back in the day (early 20th century), this was passed on aurally from mentor/master to student/disciple.

My first in-person encounter with Kamilya as her workshop participant was epiphanous, and in some way, if there were ever a first step in the making of Nozhet El Nofous, what Kamilya helped us discover in that workshop would be it.

I am still stuck on this record, Habka, by Kamilya Jubran (oud & vocals) and her long-time collaborator Sarah Murcia (double bass). I still go back and listen to it frequently.

The phrase starting at 04:00 with Kamilya’s vocals, the strings keep coming in unpredictably every time; they feel almost interruptive and persistent, breathing down your neck. Then they shift in character in the section that starts around 4:57, the beginning is also like an interruption of the flow. Then towards 5:27, you feel them mellow down, but they escalate. Yet they start hugging the vocals beautifully around 5:37. At 6:13, the strings alone play on the same logic earlier (4:03) but now without that relationship to the vocals, leading us to a very emotional part starting at 6:45.

4. The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir – “Brei Yvane (Dancing Song)” (1975)

It’s not so much the harmonies as it’s the sum of so many building blocks together. The texture of violins is usually smooth and together, but the timing is interestingly dispersed here. Their understanding of harmonies is unconventional. The chromatic chords and the relationship of strings to the vocals is unique.

0:09 – starting from this section, then at 0:20, the strings come in with a very different texture in relation to the vocals and with different harmonies to both, but it works! The odd time signatures add to the charm.

The vocal harmonies have a meandering texture over the foundation of odd time signatures. The last section starts at 01:25, with three seconds of both strings and vocals together, which doesn’t happen at all throughout the song until the end!

5. Lili Boulanger – “Pie Jesu” (1993)

This is the song I felt compelled to learn to play (the vocal parts) on Theremin when I first acquired one and was about to start practicing. And it felt so good to play it; even the arm movements when playing it felt beautiful.

I love the relationship between the organ and strings, it imposed itself on me as an influence, and I think you can hear that in Nozhet El Nofous. That church sound!

She died at the young age of 24. The description in the YouTube video is a must-read.

That she could hear the composition while bedridden in her last days and her sister helping her annotate it says so much about her relationship to composing.

She also writes bizarre/peculiar notes in her scores for the musicians/conductor.

I also recommend listening to her “Vieille prière bouddhique” (1917), when she was in better health, epic in proportions. How she writes for choirs is moving. There is a third one that I also adore, for piano and vocals, “Elle est gravement Gaie”. For me, she knows how to write for different formations and in very different moods.

(The interview text has been gently edited for clarity.)

Nancy Mounir
Photo: Courtesy of Simsara Records