Huffpost College
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ahmad El Haggar Headshot

Building a Bridge Between Cultures With Carole King

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

The whole week was like a dream. The previous week I was with my family in Cairo, and now here I was performing at a Grammy event in Los Angeles with Carole King -- a music legend. My friend and fellow Berklee student Moez Dawad accompanied me on percussion. We were so nervous the day of the show. While we were waiting for our turn, the stage managers did everything they could to calm us down. Singer Lisa Fischer (from the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom), who was also performing that night, helped us to stay calm, breathe and gave us unlimited support.

We didn't know what to expect from the performance. More than 3,000 people were in the audience, and they had already seen Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and all of these amazing performers. The energy of the brilliant musicians playing behind us was electrifying. I remember looking behind me for a second, and everyone's faces were lit up. The happiest of course was Carole King. She was enjoying the performance so much, she was smiling during the whole song. It was such an honor seeing everyone so happy and having as much fun as we were having.

Because we were so nervous, we didn't realize that we received a standing ovation until after we went off stage -- we couldn't believe it! The walk back to the green room afterwards was so different than before. We went from being invisible, to everyone congratulating us on the performance, including Jason Mraz, Amy Grant and Pat Monahan of Train. Somehow, we actually pulled it off!

I met Carole King last May when she was receiving an honorary doctorate from Berklee. I was assigned to chaperone her while she was in Boston and during that time we exchanged conversations. She expressed her interest in Egyptian culture and music, and spoke about the possibility of some sort of cultural exchange between the U.S. and Egypt.

2014-02-19-Ahmad_CKRehearsal_photobyElissaKline.jpeg
Photo by Elissa Kline

Later, when Carole learned she was being awarded MusiCares Person of the Year, she contacted me and asked if I could arrange one of her songs and sing with her at the ceremony. She left me with the task of choosing the song. I chose "Home Again" because the subject felt very close to my situation of studying abroad and living alone in the US. I connected so much with the lyrics.

Moez and I initially had some ideas for the arrangement, but Carole and her musical director, Robbie Kondor, wanted to hear other options. So we tossed around various ideas and rhythmic changes until both Carole and Robbie felt that it all fit together. In the end, it's Carole's song and we didn't want to abuse the original context, so we tried to keep it simple. I was also very keen on adding a small snippet of a traditional Egyptian song. I chose a song composed in the early 1900's by Sayed Darweesh called "Zorooni Kol Sana Marra," which means, "visit me once every year."

Rehearsing was so much fun. It was amazing to see an artist like Carole King, who wrote all of these beautiful songs for so many artists, be so excited about this fusion and just simply so modest. She never had a superstar attitude around us. She treated us with so much respect and gave us the space to create without imposing.

I come from a family that's mostly musicians. My grandfather was a singer and voice instructor, both uncles teach and produce, and my father is a famous singer back in Egypt. My grandfather started teaching me voice when I was three years old. After high school, I attended the Higher Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo, where I learned mostly traditional Arabic music and music theory and graduated as a performance major in Oud.

My mission at Berklee is to learn how contemporary Western pop music works, and fuse this information with traditional Arabic music to give it a more modern feel. So I experimented by taking famous songs in English -- such as Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" -- and changing the arrangement to an Egyptian style, to see how much the harmony and the Arabic instruments have in common.

This incredible opportunity helped open the door to my dream, which is to shed some light on the culture of the Middle East. A country like Egypt, which is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has so much culture to offer, all buried deep and waiting for a chance to shine. Because of the political messes all around the Middle East, the opportunities for Arabs to study abroad are low because of a lack of funding, especially for the arts. My wish is for Egypt to have a state-of-the-art music institute that will improve education, therefore improving the industry. Most importantly, such an institute could attract donors to send more musicians to study abroad, and create even more cultural connectivity.