BELGRADE: Since 2004, Brussels-based Mophradat has been an invaluable source of support for artists from the Middle East. Previously operating as the Young Arab Theater Fund (YATF), the organization was instrumental in creating some of the first independent theaters in the Arab world. It evolved into its current form in 2015, striving to provide opportunities for creatives from a wide range of disciplines through funding and grants, and to foster networking, curation and new artistic spaces.
Last year, Mophradat brought together a group of children’s book authors – Palestinian novelist, poet and teacher Ahlam Bsharat, award-winning author Hadil Ghoneim and Egyptian writer and researcher Yosra Sultan – and connected them featuring six of the region’s most prolific musicians and songwriters.
Huda Asfour, Rehab Hazgui, Maurice Louca, Aya Metwalli, Sam Shalabi and Aalam Wassef then collaborated to create “Affratta”, an imaginative and eclectic album featuring sonic interpretations of the stories penned by the three writers.
Sultan was first brought in to help the director of Mophradat, Mai Abu El-Dahab, organize a workshop bringing together people interested in children’s literature. But with a few of her own children’s books coming out soon, her role was quickly promoted to one of the contributing writers.
“We identified thematic gaps that we, as authors and young progressive parents, would like to see more of in children’s books,” she says. “We wanted to make sure the songs sent the right messages to kids, and that they were fun, engaging, and respectful of different musical interests and tastes.”
The writing process then took off. “We had a lot of freedom and everything was really fun. Whoever came up with an idea just followed it along, with a few comments from the other writers and from Mai,” says Sultan. “And we were all excited to see what the musicians would do with the lyrics.”
Egyptian-Canadian composer Shalabi, whose work fuses experimental and modern music with Arabic, shaabi, noise, classical, text, free improvisation and jazz, was one of those who translates words into intriguing soundscapes.
“Mophradat and Maurice (Louca, Egyptian musician and composer) brought us all together, precisely with the aim of creating something different,” recalls Shalabi.
Due to the pandemic (and geography), communication took place online. “We all had Zoom discussions about tone and what we wanted to do with the texts. Then it was decided quite intuitively who would take the lead on a particular track. Someone would start and the others would join us. It was very collaborative, almost improvised and really fun.
As per the brief, Shalabi and her peers did not specifically plan to create music for children. “We wrote what we thought would be interesting, not limited to what people usually assume children would understand.
“Mophradat and Maurice trusted us not to be too forgiving and do something that we thought was cool but would end up alienating or confusing the kids. They cast some great people for it, so it was very organic in that regard – each of us contributing a piece of who they are musically in an interesting, non-hierarchical way.
Appropriately for the project, the composers sought to find their inner child in the writing process. “It was a fantastic experience,” says Shalabi. “You have to try to remember your own childhood and think about what you would have been in.
“It’s usually a pre-made style — something only becomes children’s music if someone says it. The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” is often thought of as a children’s song, but it’s a wonderfully weird and experimental piece of music.
Indeed, the idea of play is a defining characteristic of “Affratta”. “It became a kind of common thread,” says Shalabi. “You can be playful growing up and keep that. Kids get it, because they’ll listen to adult music and enjoy it. It was definitely an abstract trend that we were going to tap into while working.
For Sultan, the unconventional approach to songwriting is what makes the album special. “Not all the songs are the catchy, upbeat stuff you’d expect to hear in children’s music, but I play them for my four-year-old daughter and her friends, and they love it,” she says. .
“Kids don’t lie when they’re that young, so from my perspective, it’s a job well done. I don’t think anything like this has been done in the Arab world for a long time, and I really hope people take notice and do more of this stuff.