by Tanya El Kashef
photos courtesy of Aya Metwalli
Despite her tens of thousands of followers on Soundcloud and a large fan base in real life, Aya Metwalli displays no awareness of her considerable popularity as she pours me a cup of tea in her kitchen with a kitten climbing up her leg. As soft spoken in conversation as when she sings, the twenty-six year old is an embodiment of her art rather than someone who wears it on their sleeve. Quick to laugh, she prefers to talk about cats than be discussed as a musician, and it is precisely this unassuming quality that she projects on a personal level that makes her considerably poised art all the more endearing.
Working, writing and recording music out of her bedroom, Metwalli is what one could call an intrinsic musician, whether or not she would concede to that classification. Though the piano was always a part of her childhood, it was during college that she decided to pick up a guitar and learn to play. “I have no idea where these numbers came from,” Metwalli admits about her Soundcloud followers, “But I started off as something completely different.”
“Aya Metwalli displays no awareness of her considerable popularity as she pours me a cup of tea in her kitchen with a kitten climbing up her leg”
Her first performance was back in 2008, and for a while her work was mostly collaborative and collective projects; including in 2010 when she and Wael Alaa (Neobyrd) began a trip-hop collaboration and performed live several times before eventually separating. Then in 2011, Metwalli took part in Salam Yousry’s Choir Project, a theme-based collective where participants write their own lyrics, which played in an important role in her step towards writing and singing in Arabic. Using prose from Yousry’s blog, as well as other writer friends, Metwalli began the puzzle-like activity of matching the written words to her music compositions. By late 2011, Metwalli had compiled a complete set of Arabic songs and performed them for the first time at Bikya Nasr City, but over the years, the list continued to change, resulting in a completely different set of songs – all of which were entirely written and composed by Metwalli. In discussing her lyrics she says, “Back then, I thought it had to be something complicated and very serious, but now I don’t see it that way, I just write whatever comes out.” With a little laugh she adds, “I’m becoming more satirical and more of a nihilist.”
The quickest and most effective measure of how much she has developed since the start of her career is to compare the song ‘So’al we El Salam’ (‘A Question and a Greeting’) from last year with ‘Khara Lelbei3’ (‘Shit for Sale’) of this year. ‘So’al we El Salam’ represents the core of Metwalli’s sound: a simple, stripped down ballad of her singing along with a guitar. ‘Khara Lelbei3’ on the other hand, is a good example of the sarcasm and humor that Metwalli has introduced to her music, not to mention the new musical direction she is steering towards. “I grew as a person, I’m expanding emotionally and it’s showing up in my music,” she says as she observes her own progression. What began as the simple folk sound of a girl and her acoustic guitar has evolved into something grimier, more dynamic and more experimental with the use of an electric guitar, a drum machine, and more complex guitar equipment such as pedals and modulators; her latest release, the intricately fluid yet eerie ‘W Ana Ethadeit,’ (‘And I’ve been Exhausted’) introduces a basic keyboard line as well.
“When it comes to music as a science, I’m not that knowledgeable, so I don’t like to label myself as a musician because I respect the science … I just like to play with things that produce sound, it’s a very childlike thing for me”
Metwalli attributes a lot of her creative changes to a music production course she took at Epic 101 Studios that delved deep into the technical facets of sound; she says that the course “opened up portals in her head.” “I became obsessed with gear. I would get my pay check and go buy something new to play with,” she says of herself after taking the production course. “I’m not interested in learning a new instrument per se, I’m more into discovering the different variations of sound through the guitar or through keys.” Her performance at a recent Sofar Sounds music event in Cairo debuted her new pale-blue Gretsch; an electric guitar with a semi-hollow body that Metwalli found herself instantly drawn to because of its electrical quality and capacity to alter sound, yet still generate an intimate feedback – a perfect fit for her.
In writing music, Metwalli finds it most comfortable to work with a loop; becoming immersed in a loop that might pop up in her head, she continues to build on it bit by bit, allowing the piece to grow in whichever direction it dictates. Layering is another approach she takes in composing, where she’ll have an initial idea and continue to add to it until it solidifies into a song, which is how ‘W ana Ethadeit’ came about. However, as much as she produces original musical content, Metwalli is still hesitant to be categorized as a musician. “When it comes to music as a science, I’m not that knowledgeable, so I don’t like to label myself as a musician because I respect the science … I just like to play with things that produce sound, it’s a very childlike thing for me”, she explains with a gesture towards a kid’s xylophone in her bedroom/studio. Though the idea of formally studying music has come up, Metwalli would rather study literature and find her inspiration in books than in learning music theory. She attended a contemporary dance school for a year and a half and wrote a lot while she was there as a result of getting to know her body and its movements; she also cites her job as a schoolteacher as source of inspiration, feeling stimulated by her time spent around kids. “I don’t have to study music to become inspired,” she concludes, and evidently she’s right.
Apart from her solo work, Metwalli still enjoys collaborating with other artists and musicians under varying genres of music; in the past year she recorded with local indie-rock band Living Too Late as well as the Jordanian trip hop / experimental project The Swamp. As opposed to her collaborations in earlier years though, her voice has now become more distinct and reflective of her musical identity, allowing her to bring more dynamism to her collaborations, making it an admittedly more enjoyable feat for her, as well as for listeners.
There’s an intimacy in speaking to Metwalli face to face, and the impression that one gets from listening to some of her quirkier releases and her superbly confident sound is strangely at odds with who she is in person. Her ability to get up in front of a crowd of people and perform is in itself paradoxical to the quiet, cat-lover who likes to spend most of her time at home. But Metwalli has the instinct to make music, take away her guitar and keyboard, and she will still find a way to produce sound.