Lebanese-American brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour are kicking off the new year with the release of their independently produced album “Flap My Wings: Songs from We Live in Cairo,” the musical they co-created. The album features songs from their Richard Rodgers Award-winning musical, which was inspired by the events of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath. We Live in Cairo made its world premiere in May 2019 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was directed by Obie-winning Egyptian-American director Taibi Magar.
The story follows six young Egyptian revolutionaries as they take to the streets calling for a new democracy. When writing the score, the Lazours drew inspiration from protest songs and rock anthems that were birthed in Tahrir Square, the nucleus of the protests forwarding the Arab Spring.
For this unique take on a musical theater album, Daniel and Patrick reached out to prominent Arab activist songwriters and musicians to each interpret a song from the musical. In addition to featuring original cast and orchestra members from the vibrant A.R.T. production, the album will include artists like Ramy Essam, the Egyptian rockstar who was deemed the “singer of the 2011 revolution”; Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila’s Hamed Sinno, who has come to represent queer resistance in Arabic music; feminist singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi from Tunisia; and others.
“Flap My Wings: Songs from We Live in Cairo” amplifies Arab and Middle Eastern voices and identities calling for justice. The full release was on January 25, a decade after the Egyptian uprising that began in Tahrir Square. I spoke with Daniel and Patrick about what it was like to collaborate on an album remotely in the midst of a pandemic, the social and political role of their art, and their seven-year journey with We Live in Cairo.
Lama El Homaïssi (Rail): How did the pandemic affect your plans for the year 2020? What prompted the idea for the album?
Patrick Lazour: We have always had a plan to record the music because it was as important as having a production for us. After we had the great privilege of the production at A.R.T., we were looking for ways to integrate all the best parts of the process of the show: collaborating with Arab artists. It had to be a dialogue, and it feels like this year, the worldwide pause, is why this project was possible.
Daniel Lazour: I think this album has been an incredible sanity saver. We were planning a university tour with the show, which obviously fell through because of COVID-19—and, not to get too dark, but you don’t know what theater’s going to look like after this so we thought we’d be remiss not to document the show.
Rail: You conceived the album to be unique from a cast recording. How would you characterize it?
Daniel: We’ve been throwing around a lot of different terms, one of them being a “concept album.” Because it’s the concept of the conversations, of the process, all documented in the album. It’s a musical theater album, but it is not a cast recording or a record of a live production.
Patrick: Totally. I also like the word “collaborative.” We soon realized the show would not be special for us and special for others if it wasn’t for the relationships we cultivated during its writing. We’ve been developing We Live in Cairo for seven years, and this album is a document of the multi-year dialogue that has unfolded around the show.
Rail: What has carried this project so strongly over the seven years you’ve worked on it?
Patrick: This show is our child and we’ve always listened instead of telling the show what to do. After the A.R.T. production, there was a push to get the music out there as protest songs and have the music respond to the humanitarian crisis that was happening in Egypt in 2019. That was the beginning of the moment when I realized this is kind of what this show is meant to be: a collective, an experience, an event. The stories are so important and the stories have to live. It’s how music can transcend, how music can be a part of a communal experience, and I think that was seen at the community concerts at A.R.T., at Club OBERON, and at Joe’s Pub.
Rail: Who did you connect with first and how did that come to be?
Patrick: We befriended Ganzeer, one of the most influential street artists of the Egyptian revolution, after we asked him to create the cover art for the A.R.T. production. After the run, he connected us with Ramy Essam and we ended up opening for him in concert at National Sawdust last January. We started the conversation with Ramy that night; he’s so generous and he’s collaborating with us on the track “Tahrir Is Now,” which was written as an anthem of celebration and remembrance. It was at that concert that we happened to meet Tunisian songwriter and activist Emel Mathlouthi, so we had coffee with her in New York the following week, and now she’s contributing her gorgeous voice to “Living Here,” the final song in the musical about endurance and resolve in times of struggle.
Daniel: I actually met Ramy Essam in 2014, right when we were starting to write We Live in Cairo. An Egyptian friend said Ramy would be speaking at NYU. It was a very intimate talk, he played some acoustic songs, and a lot of Egyptians in the community were in attendance. I told him I was starting to work on this musical about the Egyptian Revolution, and speaking to your point, Patrick, about generosity, he said, “That’s amazing, feel free to use any of my music.” Could you imagine any musical artist just saying that? It speaks to his politics around music and art, too. “Use it! This is to be shared, this is to be propagated.” That’s the person who came on board.
Rail: Were any of the artists on the album involved in past productions or iterations of We Live in Cairo?
Patrick: We invited the cast in the A.R.T production, including Parisa Shahmir and Jakeim Hart who interpreted the song "Movement" which highlights an intense love in a time of change, and conveys the complexity of a Muslim-Coptic relationship in Egypt. Hadi Eldebek, who played the oud on We Live in Cairo throughout readings, recordings, and workshops will be featured on “Wall Song,” an ode to revolutionary street art and free expression.
Daniel: Naseem Alatrash, who was the cellist in the pit orchestra of the A.R.T. production, brought us a solo cello version of “Each and Every Name” with a fusion of Arabic ornamentation. As we were planning the album this year, we couldn’t let go of the idea that remembering martyrs is something that has to happen for political movements to have depth, meaning, and forward momentum. We also have Jeremy Smith on percussion, and Bengisu Gökçe on violin.
Rail: In December, you released “Flap My Wings,” the title track. Can you tell us more about it?
Daniel: “Flap My Wings” was written about the deep state and the media in Egypt. The main characters have just found out about the horrific death of Khaled Said at the hands of the police. We had to choose the title of the album before the results of the US elections were announced, and we knew there’d be a different reading depending on the outcome. So we went with “Flap My Wings” because it has a brightness to it, but when you dive into the track you discover what the story is beneath it. Although it was written about an Egyptian story, I think it still brings attention to our own political landscape in the US and our relationship with the media here as well.
Rail: What’s something that stood out to you in collaborating with guest artists?
Daniel: This idea that we were conversing with each other through art. There weren’t long phone calls or long emails, they were truly like, “Yes we’ll do it, this is my timeline,” and the rest was in demos of their respective songs. For us to hear the joy, the pain, the complexity coming through I think has to do with music as a medium, and it also speaks to a sort of pan-Arabism.
Rail: You intentionally chose the release date to be January 25, 2021, which is the 10th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. What about these songs felt vital to bring back today?
Patrick: We wanted to honor one of the greatest revolutions of our time on its 10th anniversary. We are eclipsed by quite a few things in the world right now. I hope there will be people across the world and in the Arab world who can listen to this and be reassured that a conversation is still going. People are still listening, people love this music, this culture, and people want to engage with it.
Rail: How did you go about recording the album in the midst of the pandemic? What was it like to approach the challenge of producing an album remotely?
Patrick: A very sizable portion of the album was recorded remotely from all over the world and that can get pretty logistical. We were very lucky everyone had great mics, so that wasn’t a big issue in terms of having to send equipment so the artist could have a setup. Everyone realized we were in extraordinary circumstances and knew what to do.
Daniel: To start off, I think it was such a learning experience to get into the studio, to learn the process of mixing. A lot of the people working on it, without knowing it, are sort of schooling us on how it’s done. Madeline was the one who blocked out the whole calendar with when everything needed to be done, and thank god she did! We would get the tracks back, she would deal with all of the takes, share takes with us, we would all decide which was the one, and put it all together. She had a huge artistic role, but she also took on a lot of that uncharted logistical stuff in a way that was amazing and inspiring. It was a lot of making sure communication wasn’t just a mass email like, “And we’re ready for your tracks!” It had to be conversations, and thank god it was, otherwise we would have been very lonely during quarantine.
Rail: What is it like putting art into the world in 2020?
Patrick: This time has been really hard for us because we love writing, and the thing we love just as much is showing our work to the world, and it’s so much harder to do that when there’s no world, when the structure’s gone. In the darkest of days, it has felt like screaming into a void, singing into a void, or writing into a void, but on the best days, I think it really has taught us that you can create something and you can put it out into the world from scratch. That, I think, we’re going to carry beyond the pandemic.
Daniel: Especially with this album project, something that I keep coming back to, the line between amateur and legitimate is so thin. Also, it’s not even a line! Taking those things that aren’t institutionally stamped, but are good within you and within your community and within your world, well, that’s the institution. A good relationship with your brother, a place where you can have a piano, meeting that person who will introduce you to that other person who will help support your project. That’s all you need to cultivate to get that project done, to make your art.