“If you really want to do something, it’s not that easy,” musician Shady Ahmed tells The Cairo Beat in an interview.
It’s a truth that resonates through Ahmed’s songs, one he knows through experience.
In November of 2010, Shady Ahmed found himself feeling quite disheartened at the airport in Beirut. He had just recently been featured on TV at “Arabs Got Talent,” where he was told he had none, and that he may as well give up playing music.
So one cannot blame Ahmed for believing in signs when he spotted a T-shirt that said: “Life is Hard For Those Who Dream.” It struck a chord close to his heart, one that echoed through many years, till it became the name of his album.
Shortly (almost two weeks) after arriving to Cairo, and at a time when he genuinely considered taking up the easily-doled advice to quit music, Ahmed found that he had won the Makshoof Music Competition in Dubai that would enable him to produce his first album.
After a year and a half of work with the help of Sary Hany (also a guitarist in Digla band), Ahmed released Life is Hard for Those Who Dream in January 2012. The album muses on challenges in life and relationships, even as Ahmed’s melodies retain the stuff of sheltered hopes and dreams long cherished.
“Life is Hard..” was in fact also the title for another song that – surprisingly – does not actually appear on the album. Sung in Sean-Connery-reminiscent sibilance, this song reflects on an artist struggling to keep his dream alive.
Acoustic guitars are the second most prominent strength of the album besides Ahmed himself, who derives much of his inspiration from the unabashed romance in Jack Johnson’s music, the high notes of Dave Matthews Band, and the tempered optimism of Coldplay. Ahmed knows his art, and his strengths. Consequently, his songs are often mellow and easy on the ears.
Tracks that hit home are “Amsterdam” – a song about separation caused by distance, “about people that take flights” as Ahmed says on one YouTube recording. The energetic tempo of the CD version rewards one with a contrasting floating moment at “Would you know my name?” Yet listeners are advised to also hear it in its unfiltered brilliance here:
The Way Out starts the album out on an energetic bang, but the pace only dips too quickly with “Would you mind?” – which begins with promising fat saxophone notes and percussions, yet with lyrics that don’t quite seem to hold together: “Would you mind if I took your photo tonight? / I hardly see you and I’d like something to pass the time.”
Far superior lyrics appear in the song The Wind – musing on the inevitable loss of someone once tantalisingly within reach. (If you hear something ‘mispronounced’ as “frAH-grance” don’t panic, it’s actually “frAH-gments”). This song that many fans claim as their favourite, says Ahmed, only barely made it to the album. As opposed to “The Way Out” which came out of much preparation, “The Wind” was recorded on a whim when Ahmed found himself with some extra time at the studio. “Might as well,” he thought.
“Some themes belong to everybody,” says Ahmed attempting to explain why the song is as well-liked. “I chose to speak in metaphors,” in this song about “accepting that certain things just go on to the wind.” Translated,to many it means, “I love you but cannot own you so I’ll just see you walk away.”
While his songs For the First Time and The Price of Freedom are about the revolution, he chose not to make a “revolution album,” especially when the revolution had become a one-sided argument: “Nobody came up with a song about the loss of revolution.” Ahmed prefers to be honest to his music – which is personal rather than political, and English rather than Arabic. If there is any higher purpose to which Ahmed admits, it is to ease some of the pain which everyone goes through. Life is hard enough, “but you gotta keep dreaming,” he says.
Ahmed says he prefers to write in the language where words and music come to him more naturally given his influences (DMB, Coldplay, Jack Johnson among others..) Had he had singers of today influence him at 15, Ahmed says perhaps he would have sung in Arabic.
Lyrics for his songs are often dictated by the melody, says Ahmed, but a lot depends on pure chance, “Sometimes I’m in my car and if I don’t record [a song or a lyric], it might leave me.” Ahmed says he has to “live with an emotion for a very long time,” sometimes “for months,” before it becomes a song.
Other times these songs too “belong to the wind.” Many a time on his busking gigs in streets in Zamalek and Maadi, he offers lyrics to passersby, like “drawing something on a piece of paper and giving it to a stranger…without a desire to frame.”
Ahmed recounts an old lady coming up to him, saying in Arabic, “I know you’re singing about politics.” Yet Ahmed chooses not to correct: “Who am I to tell them their imagination is not right?”
All the same, Ahmed refuses to be categorised by another’s expectations. Must I Be is a song that reflects on this decision to refuse to play up to people’s expectations, for instance in music. “I used to talk a lot to the point where I was doing stand-up comedy. Now I just sing,” he says.
With a debut album that offers real value, Shady Ahmed’s music is a diamond in the quagmire – just a little rough around the edges, honing itself, but very, very precious still.