It is not often that you come across a singer/songwriter who is a former psychology teacher, but that is who Ahmed El Sourani is. This rising star with a captivating voice and great charisma, is also an intellectual, who spent multiple years teaching psychology and is poised to earn his master’s degree from The American University in Cairo (AUC). After spending years uploading covers of famous songs that ended up gaining a lot of traction on the internet, Sourani recently released his first single, Matar (Rain), and is getting ready to release his EP (Extended Play) with multiple original songs soon. eniGma’s very own alumnus Mohamed Hesham had a lovely sit-down with the singer, to hear all about his journey so far and his plans to take the music scene by storm.
Raised in Egypt by his Palestinian father and Iraqi mother, Ahmed El Sourani showed an interest in music at an early age. “I think I started off listening to pop, and then to Fairouz with my dad. Then I gravitated towards alternative music… I used to sing a lot, but I never imagined myself doing it seriously. It was always like a dream,” Sourani recalls. All of that changed when he was in middle school. “In class, we were assigned to sing songs, so I covered Grenade by Bruno Mars, which was very cheesy of me, but it was quite the experience. It was very nice. I was actually the only kid in class to ask my teacher if I could go again, just because I really loved performing.”
Sourani’s musical experience remained classroom-bound until he started to have more confidence. “I was still in middle school when, on a family trip in Gouna, I asked the singer at the hotel if I could sing with her and ended up singing Hello by Lionel Richie. I did it twice thereafter on the same trip,” he recounts. Sourani recalls that, for the following few years, he would just sing to himself, “basically singing covers on Photobooth.” It wasn’t until he was in university, that he took his hidden hobby to the next step.
“I met a friend who was into playing the guitar, and out of nowhere I asked him ‘What do you think about jamming at some point?’ So, we ended up singing at AUC,” he recalls. They set up a tripod, and sang Chelsea Hotel #2 by Leonard Cohen, put it on Facebook, and a lot of people started engaging. After that, they started taking gigs with a production company. “It was mostly covers in English at first, and then I started writing in Arabic. That was my transition period. I had always wanted to do that, but I didn’t really think it would come off as natural. However, I discovered it was a lot more natural for me than writing in English. Writing and singing in Shami especially came to me very intuitively. Not that I have a problem with the Egyptian accent at all, but it felt a lot closer to me,” he reveals.
Sourani’s parents never forced a specific career path on him. Even when he studied Psychology at AUC, it was of his own accord. “I remember my fascination with psychology, going all the way back to high school. I always thought it was so cool to understand the mind. After that, I went into the Counseling Psychology programme, which has more practical hands-on work in psychology, and now I’m in the final year of my master’s degree,” he says.
When it came to music, Sourani’s mother was always his biggest cheerleader, encouraging him to pursue his passion, and supporting him when it became clear that it was more than just a hobby. “I used to perform a lot in front of her. I would have her listen to the songs that I liked and I would sing along. Whenever I released any covers of songs, she would encourage me to pursue this and take courses. On the other hand, she thought it was great that I was also passionate about psychology,” Sourani explains. “It took my dad more time to convince about my music, but at some point, we reached common ground and he said, ‘I want you to actually work on it.’ So, I ended up having a support circle at home,” he adds.
While they may seem like different paths, to Sourani, both his passions, music and psychology, ultimately serve the same purpose within him. “An aspect of psychology is to ultimately be there, helping, being present, connecting emotionally with empathy and so on. Music, for me, also feels like it’s a different medium to connect with emotions and experience. I want other people to get their own narrative from what I’m writing or saying,” he explains.
Sourani’s studies in psychology led him to four years of teaching at a high school. “I didn’t think I would like teaching as much as I did. I wasn’t like a perfect teacher; that was never my goal. What was really nice was spending time with the older kids. That was genuinely my favourite part of teaching. They connected with me because we were all close in age. I never claimed to be a role model. They saw me with my nooks and crannies. I and had an emotional connection with them. You find yourself getting attached to the students before you part ways,” he says.
Eventually, Sourani felt the need to get back on track with his musical aspirations. “I had put a huge pause when it came to music. I kept pushing it off, until at some point I was like, ‘it has to happen now. I feel like I have something to say’,” he recounts. This led to the birth of Sourani’s first ever original single, Matar (Rain), as well as his upcoming EP, currently in the works.
Sourani explains how Matar came to life, “My friend Bahy, whom I knew from university, was telling me he wanted to write a song specifically about rain, I had no idea what that meant. He played me the chords, and I really liked it. I started recording the lyrics on my phone. It was very new, very uncharted territory, but I was enjoying it. I wanted to connect the lyrics with the theme of rain. It ended up revolving around the feeling of needing something or someone to talk to, some sort of external higher power. When you feel trapped or desperate, you reach out to something that will be there for you, and with that being the rain, it is simply inconsistent. You’re trying to find yourself, build a home somehow within yourself, within an entity or within another person.”
Sourani reveals that they wrote the chorus on Garage Band on their own iPad, playing around with very minimal production until they met Hatem El Chiaty, through a common friend. He listened to two of their songs, and Matar was the one he went with, becoming the song’s producer. “It became a passion project. It turned into a very seamless collaboration. Hatem’s input to it added a very dreamy nostalgia and feel to the lyrics. What I loved about his work, production-wise, was that, at some point, the kicks and drums start to sound like rain in the chorus.”
The song’s popularity was helped by the gravitas of its music video. “We met a guy called Ziad Soliman, who took the initiative to work on the video. I didn’t think it was going to turn into a music video, but when we had a couple of sit downs together, he asked me about the message I’m trying to convey and the emotions I wanted to express,” recalls Sourani, who wanted to divert from a narrative of two people in love, because the song’s meaning to him changed over time. “The more I evolved, the song became more about the relationship you have with yourself. I think this is what Ziad really wanted to show in the video, by having me be alone throughout the whole thing, with very stable shots. Being separated from my body and running into myself represented the journey of finding yourself. And the beach as our location was basically connecting to the elements of nature. The sea is supposed to be open ended, with me sitting on a chair on my own and the whole world behind me…”
Another venture that Sourani has recently explored, is acting in Tasneem Elaidy’s music video for her song, Good Girl, directed by Nada Mawsoof. “It came about through Nada, who’s a friend of mine. I had a meeting with her and Tasneem. And they’re obviously two very beautiful and talented people. I had worked with Nada before when she was just starting out doing short films. Tasneem was very nice and accommodating throughout the process, so the video just became really smooth. I would say the toughest part was making sure that the character that Nada and Tasneem wanted me to portray in that video came to life. It was a challenge portraying a character that you don’t like,” he reveals.
“For me, acting is a medium that I want to pursue. This is something I definitely will be doing, but I just need to make sure I have the time with everything else. I’m down for anything that I can venture into, artistically… maybe not the dancing part,” he adds with a laugh.
Sourani is now busy with his upcoming EP, which goes back to his original influences. “What made me fall in love with songwriting was that I really love it whenever singers write their own music. You can always tell that they are creating their own world, their own atmosphere. The complexity of experiences are put together in their own worldview. Working on my EP, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I want to make sure it tells a story and it conveys a narrative,” Sourani explains.
“The EP has helped me gain confidence in my storytelling,” he adds. “I think I became more honest with my emotions, with how I expressed them and put them into songwriting. Of course, I’m excited for people to listen to Matar, which is like a good foundation for me. But because this project is more of my authentic self as Sourani, it feels a lot more personal.”
Sourani is set to release more songs from his EP this winter.
What was the last song you played on your phone?
Sourani: Good Days by SZA.
What is an instrument you’d like to learn?
Sourani: I would love to learn the violin or the cello… And to be better at the piano.
What is a song that always makes you cry?
Sourani: It’s actually a piece called Clair de Lune [by Debussy]. I remember tearing up when I was listening to it. I was like, “why am I getting emotional over this?” (laughs)
What is a song that cheers you up?
Sourani: I think Ya Salam by Marwan Moussa and El Waili, and Nazlet Seman by Karim Osama and El Waili.
Who is your favourite Arab musician?
Sourani: I think I would say the band Adonis and Fairouz.
Who is your favorite international musician?
Sourani: Tamino and Julia Jacklin.
What is your ultimate go–to karaoke song?
Sourani: Grenade by Bruno Mars. It’s a classic middle school Sourani. (laughs)
What is your favourite song that you’ve covered?
Sourani: Sofon El Bahara by Zef.
Who is a dream collaboration of yours?
Sourani: I think Adonis would be amazing. I’m a big fan and I love their music.