All-female vocalists band seeks to revive Egypt’s art of monologue

Vocalists of the Bahgaga band perform on stage

CAIRO - It is about bringing back to life the art of monologue, Ayman Helmy explained about the purpose of Bahgaga, an all-women vocalists band he founded.
The monologues and folkloric songs of the group, which features seven male musicians accompanying five female vocalists, are inspired by everyday life and conditions in Egypt presented sarcastically.
“The idea of monologues for us is basically a way to represent the people of today, their hopes and frustrations and not the aspirations of those who lived over half a century ago,” Helmy said.
“Monologue is a difficult combination of many talents. A monologist needs to know how to sing and act at the same time.”
The female singers in the band had all been theatre actresses.
Although about 80% of the monologues and songs Bahgaga performs are contemporary, its performances bring memories of late celebrated Egyptian actors and monologists Ismail Yassin and Mahmoud Shokoko. Both were known for performing monologues during the early decades of the 20th century, whether in theatres or in films, criticising the Egyptian reality in a funny manner.
Helmy, a songwriter, music composer and oud player, founded Bahgaga in 2015 after a successful show that was meant to be a one-time performance. He used Facebook to announce an audition for women “who are funny and can mainly act not just sing. My aim then was to try to develop that art.”
Dozens of performers attended the audition and five were selected by a committee of artists Helmy had gathered.
The group made its debut in September 2015 after rehearsing for three months.
“At first, I wasn’t sure the concert will lead to a band,” Helmy said, “but following the positive feedback of the audience, I thought why not set up a group that performs folkloric songs and monologues, especially that the tough circumstances and living conditions in Egypt offered a lot to say.
“I mainly intended to present black comedy and express social and political criticism. We wanted to express ourselves, our hopes and dreams and derive joy of what we performed.”
That’s how the name of Bahgaga, an Egyptian colloquial variation of the word “joy,” emerged as a possible name.
“It took us some time to come up with the band name. We kept discussing it and we decided, almost unanimously, on the choice,” band member Raghda Galal said.
In many of Bahgaga’s shows, short plays are performed as part of the songs.
“Acting and singing overlap in most performances… and the audience enthusiastically interacts with us,” Galal said.
The woman performers are accompanied by the male musicians playing bass guitar, accordion, keyboard, oud and percussion instruments.
“I like the idea of the dominance of the feminine part. We are five women singers leading a band that contains seven male musicians,” said Samar Galal, another Bahgaga singer.
Helmy said he chose only female performers to give the group a special twist. “Usually, monologues are monopolised by men, a concept I thought I wanted to change.”
Visual imagery is also vital in Bahgaga’s works. “Bahgaga is better watched than heard as usually, the performers present the songs with special movements and costumes,” Helmy said.
“The experience of reviving monologue in a contemporary way through a combination of theatrical performance and singing is quite innovative,” said theatre critic Yasser Allam. “It is a distinguished way of presenting the art of monologue.”
As with most independent art groups in Egypt, funding is one of the biggest challenges Bahgaga faces.
“I fund the group myself as much as I can. The revenues from tickets sales cover about 50% of the cost,” Helmy said. “I may resort to… crowdfunding through launching an online campaign, a means that proved to be successful with other bands.”
Helmy writes most of the monologues and composes the music. Five other people also write lyrics for the band.
Bahgaga’s latest work, a video clip titled “2063” tackles, in a comedic way, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s promises that Egypt will achieve sustainable and economic development by 2063. The songs are coupled with funny acting and costumes. The video is available on YouTube.
Marwa al-A’sar is a Cairo-based journalist.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.