Ambassadors of Music


Knowing that music has the power to cross borders and that musicians can be ambassadors for their creators and countries, the US public diplomacy initiative entitled the Center Stage program recently chose three Egyptian bands and artists to showcase their talents in the US for the first time.

Dina el-Wedidi, Youssra el-Hawary and Karkade were nominated and selected for the fourth edition of the cultural exchange program Center Stage, which gives participants the opportunity for a month-long individual tour across the US that kicked off early September and runs through October.

“It is a very good opportunity for us as . . . many of the audi- ence members did not know much about the new generation of musicians in Egypt,” el-Wedidi tells us.
As part of the tour, the artists take workshops, visit schools, and run question and answer sessions with the audience.

Dina el-Wedidi and her band perform at J.F. Kennedy Center in Washington as part of Center Stage program – Photo by Nourhan Magdi/Egypt Today

“What is great about the program is that the schedule has other events, besides the performances. So, we talk with chil- dren about Egypt, the history of music in our country, and our instruments,” Karkade’s Mohammed Abozekry says.

Karkade’s founder AbuZekry performs at Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont in United States – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

“I wish I can give them this honest image about a woman my age living in Cairo, my thoughts, my dreams, what I like to change, and what I am experiencing on a daily basis in Cairo,” el-Hawary says.

Youssra el-Hawary performing at Globalquerque festival in New Mexico – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

Cultural ambassadors

Launched in 2012, Center Stage has brought a range of 154 artists in 24 ensembles from nine different countries.

Organizing the tour is an almost two-year process of coordi- nation and preparations, says Lisa Booth, the general manager of Central Stage program. Booth adds that the Department of State first proposes their country preferences to participate each season, and then nominations come next, followed by the final selection, made by music industry experts.

“We believe that each [Egyptian artist and band] selected has something to offer for the American public; they seemed eager when we met them to engage with the Americans,” says Booth. “We felt that their work and personalities would make for a suc- cessful exchange.”

Lisa Booth, the general manager of Central Stage program during orientation session to Dina el-Wedidi’s band – Photo by Nourhan Magdi/EgyptToday

The US Embassy’s Press Attaché Samuel Werberg adds, “Each group chosen from Egypt to participate this year brings some- thing unique that American audiences would not normally be exposed to…The groups are also chosen based on their level of professionalism, their ability to sustain a lengthy tour across America, and their potential to move to a much higher level of international recognition through this program.”

The Center Stage program aims to expand the audience of the participating artists globally, and to expose US audiences to different types of music and cultures from around the world.

“We are very excited to have Egypt featured at Center Stage,” says Jay Raman, the director of the Cultural Programs Division at the U.S. State Department in Lyons. “I think it reflects the very rich culture that Egypt has that we want to share with American public, and also to show Egyptian artists what is it like to perform in America.”

From Nebraska to New Mexico: The universal language of music

As part of the tour, ensembles get to perform at different ven- ues across the US.
In Washington DC’s Tropicalia Lounge, el-Wedidi and el- Hawary performed breathtaking informal concerts with their bands, and the crowd of Egyptians and Americans cheered throughout the night.

Audience chanting as Dina and Youssra rock the stage at club gig in Washington DC-Egypt Today/Nourhan Magdi

“I found out about this amazing concert on Facebook, I came here with my friends to support Egyptians in the industry, and it really was a phenomenal experience,” says Hanan Fawzy, an Egyptian who has been living in Washington DC for 30 years. Other members of the audience expressed their admiration of the music and the rhythm, even if they couldn’t understand the lyrics performed.

All Center Stage ensembles, including Karkade, also per- formed on The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, one of the most prestigious venues in Washington D.C. Founded in 1971, the Kennedy Center hosts a wide range of different performances, including theater, dance, ballet, jazz, popular and folk music. The center provides live streaming of the concerts it hosts through their website.

Alicia Adams, the vice president of the international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center, tells Egypt Today that the center has a very different mission from other cultural institutions in the US in that it brings the best of different cultures to its stage. She adds that the Kennedy Center has held different festivals, including one in 2009 called “Arabesque,” bringing in some 800 artists from 22 Arab countries, including Egyptian musicians and literary figures.

Alicia Adams, vice president of the international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center – Photo by Nourhan Magdi/Egypt Today

Dina el-Wedidi and her band perform at J.F. Kennedy Center in Washington as part of Center Stage program – Photo by Nourhan Magdi/Egypt Today

“It was a different feeling, and I was glad to perform at Kennedy Center. The sound, the venue and the audiences’ interaction with us were all great. I also liked that we had the chance to meet our Middle Eastern fans coming to us in Tropicalia,” el-Wedidi says.

Arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 20, el-Hawary and her band recharged their energy to give exciting concerts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which hosts the fourth New Mexican World Music Festival “Globalquerque.” The Egyptian band shared the stage with a Hispanic- American band called Ladama, a group of four women from different countries, and who like to be identified as sisters in song, rhythm and spirit.

Youssra el-Hawary performing at Globalquerque annual festival in New Mexico – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

A young girl dancing to the music at Globalquerque festival – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

The kids attending the show expressed their excitement about the Egyptian music played at the festival, with some speaking about their knowledge of Egypt’s hot summers, hieroglyphic language and Mohamed Salah. Armed with an accordion, el- Hawary tells us how happy and excited she was about the response she got to her music from the children, who asked for her signature after the show.

Children attending different concerts as part of a school field trip to Globalquerque festival – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

Tom Frouge, one of co-founders of Globalquerque festival, says that “seeing a woman leading the band, and the music fused with different global elements speak volumes.”

He adds that the goal of such events is “to recognize our similarities and celebrate our differences, and I think Youssra [el-Hawary] and her band captured that.”

Before Albuquerque, the band stopped in the small town of Lyons, Nebraska. “It was truly beautiful. I was very impressed with the talent and personality of Youssra [el-Hawary] and the band. I have little experience listening to Egyptian music, however, after experiencing it first-hand ,I think I’ll research more artists of the genre,” says Corbin Wheaton, a resident of Lyons and an event coordinator.

El-Wedidi likes to define music as a healer to her country’s issues, and says that it transcends language barriers. “We were surprised by the number attendees coming to us to ask about how we played a certain track,” she adds.

Karkade perform at Union Episcopal Church in Claremont, New Hampshire in United States – Photo by Nourhan Magdi

Abuzekry also points out how the American audience “reacted amazingly to the music, and I felt the people’s surprise with the different rhythm. It’s beautiful that we perform a classical music piece, which is takht, and we still get this enormous applause.”