By: Mariam Elhamy
It’s International Jazz Day, so we caught up with one of Cairo’s finest jazz talents, the inspirational Noha Fekry! The singer is a frequent performer at The Jazz Bar in Kempinski Nile, so we sat down with her before one of her gigs with the quartet to ask her all about her passion for jazz and how it became such a huge part of her life. We learned a lot about how to turn dreams into reality, and we’re ready to share it with you!
Tell us a bit about yourself and your musical background, what sparked your love for jazz music?
Ever since I was a kid I was drawn to music and singing. Early on, I always dreamt about singing, but I never actually thought I’d pursue it as a career and make the dream come alive. My whole family is musical; we’re all a part of music one way or another.
My love for jazz music started the first time I heard Nat King Cole when I was 16. I instantly loved his music and would listen to it repeatedly, not even realizing that this was jazz! When I first entered the music scene, I joined The Riff Band and they were playing jazz standards, songs from the American songbook and oldies. Over time, the more musicians I met from this scene, the more I got hooked to it.
Who are your major influences?
I wouldn’t say there’s one influence, but I can say certain people who are significant enough to stand out: Fayrouz, who I actually adore because she’s a fantastic singer (obviously not a Jazz singer), and Nat King Cole, of course, it kind of started with him. I also love Billie Holiday so much; I think she is magic.
Which songs do you perform most frequently?
We perform lots and lots of songs, but I can tell you that in this part of the world, once we switch to Arabic songs people react in a different way, something insides them shifts and you can see it in their eyes.
Do you have a favorite song to sing?
I have many favorite songs to sing, not just one. Do I prefer performing my own songs rather than covers? You may be surprised to learn that after you write your own songs, you become a bit far removed from them and they begin to take on a life of their own. But I think I like singing both. There is something very personal about my own songs because I know exactly what they are about and the story behind them and I sing them with a particular energy. But I also try to research and find out more about the cover songs or make up my own stories and scenarios for them, so I can sing them with either a feel that is close to what the writer/composer intended or to imagine a scenario and try and convey it, that would be my own interpretation of the meaning, not just musical interpretation, which are both interrelated.
Are there any recurring themes or topics in the songs you write? Any hidden meanings or underlying messages?
Hidden meaning? Yes! All the time! In a sense that you don’t really want to spell everything out so much that there is no “painting” if you will. No room for imagination. Sometimes you use images rather than a direct description of a feeling which can hold so much more at one go, and hopefully prettier too. So an image described can give you a feeling, a visual context, even a climate, and accordingly say so much more. Recurring themes… I can’t say so, because I don’t have a specific agenda, but what I try to do is to express myself or a story or a feeling that moved me enough to write about it. Perhaps what’s recurring is just that, something that moves me.
What has been your biggest challenge in the music career?
A very big challenge for me was putting together my own songs. Writing music is a very vulnerable process and it’s very personal, you don’t stop thinking about whether your songs are real or good enough or if it needs improvement. Continuing to do that, become better at it and to create new original music that speaks to people adds more to the challenge.
What is your favorite part about what you do?
Performing! Come rain come shine when I go and do the actual performance, it always lifts me up.
I was actually considering studying psychology and becoming a shrink at some point. Then I studied economics and later I was embarking on a project management career, but I moved away from all that to focus on my singing career.
Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety?
Sure, all the time! You start realizing hidden anxieties that you weren’t aware of and you start dealing with them so you get a very good hang of it with time.
What has been a career highlight so far? Your favorite concert ever?
A career highlight for sure has been starting to write and play my own music with my newest band “Janan”. It’s a different world to me and a big shift in my life. I really am grateful to have that. It is basically a very big and exciting adventure.
When I feel like I really connect to the audience, and especially when the connection between the band is right, there is nothing like the energy that I get from them and the general vibe that encompasses the place is fantastic, that’s always a highlight.
Being a part of the Jazz Festival every year is always a highlight because I get to meet different jazz musicians. Last year I performed with Kirk MacDonald quartet, from Canada, as part of Jazz tales in Alexandria, at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and it was a great collaboration.
Another one was in last October the 2018 Jazz Festival when I performed with my quintet and it was a great performance, I had a great time! Also one of the biggest highlights for me so far was the gig with Ziad Rahbani in 2013. I’ve been listening to his music and Fayrouz’s ever since I was a child, so being with him in one place and singing with him was a dream come true for me!
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I worked for a while doing something that I didn’t really love because I had to provide for my dream, pay for classes, go to performances, provide for and educate myself. I still do, it’s a process that never stops.
Jazz is a very big world and you have to keep working on yourself, meeting musicians, playing, practicing and studying. You have to practically plan for and find ways to finance your dream; it won’t go off on its own. Whatever it is that you’re dreaming about, go and learn about it and practice it… big time!
Be very aware of your ego! When your ego takes over, that’s when you start going downhill or at least you really limit yourself, so you have to collaborate, accept criticism, learn from others, find a mentor, read a lot, always raise your standards beyond local standards, widen your horizon, and always listen to music! It’s very inspiring and it just makes everything better… even studying!