Cairo | Sitting on a rustic bench, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Touhami sings sacred songs by mixing Eastern and Western music in his innovative school in Cairo where his students come to learn the art of “inchad”, the Islamic chanting.
This “mounchid” (religious singer) has men and women rehearse gathered in the vast courtyard of the Mamluk palace in Taz, whose walls, pillars and clean doors bear witness to a rich Islamic history.
Mahmoud al-Touhami grew up in Upper Egypt (south) with his father, sheikh and “maddah” (popular singer) Yassine al-Touhami, one of the country’s most popular religious artists.
But wanting to transmit more widely the knowledge and passion for psalmody inherited, he went to the capital where he founded the school of inchad in 2014.
He offers lessons in music theory, “maqamat” (oriental tones), praise, language and diction to students of “all ages and all religions”, explains Cheikh Touhami, 41 years old.
Although attached to the tradition of his ancestors, he does not hesitate to innovate with his students and in his personal artistic projects.
Rock, pop, house
Classical language, considered noble, is used in religious discourse. By associating it with “rock, pop and house”, the artist hopes “to make it reach everyone”, especially “local youth”.
Dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans and wearing a cap and sunglasses, Sheikh Touhami flirts with his fingertips with the strings of his oud.
“I could not go to Upper Egypt in this outfit, you need the turban and the galabiya”, explains the master of the place, referring to the traditional clothes of the men of this region.
Conversely, in his school in Cairo, wearing traditional clothes could “scare the young mounchids”, says the religious whose latest creation combines words in literal Arabic with modern music.
If he says he is “in love with Sufism”, to which the mounchids are often close, he could not claim to be part of this current of mystical spirituality, because this represents, for him, a “responsibility”.
According to him, Sufism makes it possible to “rectify beliefs (…) in the era of extremism, violence and terrorism”.
To combine the traditional with the modern, the artist notably introduced, in his recitation lessons, unorthodox melodies such as the credits of the hit series “Game of Thrones”.
“I have mixed the art of traditional religious song with touches of other western and eastern music,” the master prides himself.
This rapprochement materialized for the first time in 2017 when he participated in “Origin”, a world music album awarded at the Global Music Awards, which features three pieces of contemporary “anachids” (sacred songs).
Cheikh Touhami wants the inchad to “become a humanist art again” and go beyond the religious framework.
In the same vein, he is collaborating with Egyptian artist and Grammy Award-winning artist, Fathi Salama, on a musical project called “Sufism in the face of modernity”.
At the end of their training, the disciples of Sheikh Touhami can join a group of inchad, made up of former students. Not all of them are dedicated to the career of mounchid. Four of them prefer the successful “The Voice Kids” contest.
“From there came the idea to create the first and the largest religious song orchestra in Egypt”, composed of 40 mounchids and 25 musicians, under the aegis of the Ministry of Youth, he explains.
Despite growing interest in his art in Egypt, Sheikh Touhami stands in stark contrast to his international audience.
“The Western public receives inchad better than the local public (…). They may not understand the lyrics, but they certainly feel the emotion, ”he concludes.