Egypt Independent

Awakening Records’ Maher Zain debuts in Egypt

The American University in Cairo’s Help Club hosted a spring concert this Thursday starring Maher Zain, Hamza Namira and Mesut Kurtis. Over 1,300 fans attended to help launch Zain’s debut album, "Thank You Allah."

The Swedish-Lebanese star, 28, of Awakening Records arrived in Cairo on Wednesday after interviewing with Islamic Channel in London, to launch his heartfelt album "Thank You Allah," which depicts his journey from Lebanon to Sweden and then to New York’s music industry. The album gained astounding support, and was ranked among the top ten best-selling albums on Amazon UK in February.

The atmosphere was perfumed by a scent of relief that Zain’s message is resonating through countries. Tickets to Zain’s concert were sold out ten days before the concert, leaving the singer and the crew at Awakening Records touched. “I am so honored, and touched by the support. My fans’ support inspires me and tells me that I should continue what I am doing,” said Zain.

“We’ve actually had people coming here from Jordan, England, and even Kuwait, who came to Cairo just to attend the concert,” Sharif el-Banna, CEO of Awakening Worldwide told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Music is part of our everyday lives, and our vision in the cultural field is for it to be entertaining and inspiring and meaningful and which has a universal message,” el-Banna continued.

Zain’s album “Thank You Allah,” which includes tracks such as "Palestine Will Be Free," "Open Your Eyes," and "Insha’Allah," are deemed Islamic in nature, but not in cause.

“I loved his songs, and Awakening’s vision, because the lyrics are not like the typical boring nasheeds and Islamic sermons-these don’t impose religion, they inspire religion,” said Nazirah el-Nassira, 19, a Malaysian student who traveled over 3 hours from Mansoura University to see Maher Zain live.

“What I loved about his songs, especially "Open Your Eyes," is that they don’t only speak to Muslims. I am Buddhist and I found so much truth in his message of hope and to help us understand not to judge others,” said Tin, a Chinese student from Moscow.

Indeed, CEO Sherif el-Banna is an avid believer in human values, not only religious ones. “Awakening is a British company, this is important. It speaks to and about Western Muslims. It is the identity of the European Muslims and their struggles. But because of the global vacuum of clean art, a success story in the West will quickly spread to the Middle East, and our vision is simply tapping into the vacuum of clean entertaining music,” he said.

Dahlia Galaal, Awakening’s publicist in Egypt said “It’s not in the music, it’s in the message. Awakening wants to let everyone share one love, regardless of religion and social status. It inspires us to all tolerate each other. This is the message of love […] love for yourself for your brothers and sisters, love for God … and this is okay with everyone, it has to be okay with everyone. We are all humans.”

Though the message is universal, each star’s style varies. Bara Kheriji, Awakening’s co-founder and talent recruiter said, “Obviously we look for musical talent, but we also get to know them as human beings, their lives, aspirations, their character […], Maher Zain brings an R&B style to his music, Hamza Namira brings in Egyptian themes and Massoud brings in his love of traditional beats,” he continued.

“Tradition for me is a treasure. It only needs to be polished and then revived. Eastern traditions are precious, there is so much truth there that people don’t know about, and this is why I sing,” Awakening’s Turkish star Mesut Kurtis exclaimed.

Awakening however has seen its share of controversy. Islamic groups online have dubbed music in itself as haram, or forbidden by Islamic law. To these charges, el-Banna responded, “on a grassroots level, music will always be loved and welcomed because it speaks from one heart to another one’s heart. We try to stay away from the scholarly debate … Music in itself is a controversial and revolutionary platform, but it is from the heart-whether it is about the prophet or portraying basic human values … the idea is to push barriers,” he continued.

Kherigi also added that “we feel a responsibility as people look up to the artists and respect them, so we take responsibility for that. We want to make sure that they are good human beings. We are not saying we’re signing up angels, but we want to make sure they do art for the love of art,” he concluded.

British leading music video director Mike Harris dubbed Zain an “exceptional talent” and is finalizing procedures with Awakening Records to begin shooting a music video for his song “Insha’Allah,” due in April 2010.

So far, Zain’s numbers speak loud and clear: he has just under 170,000 fans on Facebook, he received 23,000 votes for his track “Ya Nabu Salam Alayka”  and received the Best Song Award from Nugoom FM, the biggest Arab mainstream radio station. He also performed at Canada’s largest annual convention “Reviving the Islamic Spirit,” which hosted 17,000 people.

“My favorite song is ‘Palestine Will Be Free’, and it is now my ringtone, said Zeina Bseiso, 19, a Palestinian student at AUC.