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Middle East Near You

Coptic soprano: ‘Christianity originated in the Middle East ... We keep forgetting that.’

How familiar are you with Middle Eastern Christian chants?

When Merit Ariane Stephanos was a newborn her mother would sing the same melody over and over again every time she fed her. According to a Japanese method if you sing a child the same song every time you breastfeed they will grow up to have perfect pitch.

“I didn’t get perfect pitch”, admits Merit. “I’ve got really good hearing but I can’t say this is an A or this is a B – musicians with perfect pitch can say this is an A or this is a B. I don’t have that but I’ve got really good relative pitch so my hearing is quite developed in that way.”

Merit’s mother, who is German, is actually a psychoanalyst but loved music whilst Merit’s father, who is Coptic Egyptian, went to an all-boys school where he was too afraid to sing, but also has a good voice Merit tells me. Her mother would sing folksongs to her in the morning and her father would watch her play the violin, encouraging her to put more energy into her performance.

All these years later, Merit has taken on board her parents’ passion for music, fused her German and Egyptian heritage and is now a singer and composer who plays in festivals and concerts across the UK. Originally Merit studied classical Western music, before learning and performing traditional Arabic melodies for Western audiences. “When I got to this point I was like, that’s not me and that’s not me. I’m a hybrid. I’m not rooted in one thing but what I really love is storytelling.”

Three years ago Merit was offered the Gerald Finzi Scholarship to study Middle Eastern Christian chants in Lebanon. A type of worship, the chants form part of the Christian service so there are different songs for different parts of the year. “It’s devotional music,” explains Merit. “They don’t even say I sing it, they would say I pray the music.”

A number of musicians have incorporated them into their music; inspired to do the same Merit deciphered Aramaic with the help of a priest in monasteries across Lebanon then returned and performed what she had learnt in concerts. “I felt I really needed to find out more about this music because it’s not that well known here and it’s so beautiful and there’s all these rich traditions that really need to be brought to life. And that’s why I went.”

There are three main Christian traditions in the Middle East, each with their own specific type of chant. There is the Byzantine tradition, in which the chants are sung in Arabic and Greek, and there’s the music of the Syriac churches that is built like Arabic music but also sung in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Merit describes the Orthodox chants within the Syriac tradition as more ornate and melodically developed and the Maronite chants as simple yet beautiful.

Finally, there are the Coptic chants, accompanied only by symbols and triangles, which Merit also describes as beautiful and but very long. “The Coptic chants are a bit tricky,” she adds: “many of them are sung by men and the ones that are not sung by men are choruses.”

Despite the fact that there are different denominations across the region, each with their unique traditions, they are united says Merit: “There is a feeling that we are Christians in the Middle East as a whole even though they have different Popes.”

The word Copt comes from the word gibt, which is the term for Egyptians from the time of the Pharaohs. “They’re some of the most ancient inhabitants,” she says. “There’s this line that traces through and the Copts say we were originally there. It was Coptic before it was Islamised. The Copts form such an important part of Egypt’s fabric.”

Some of the chants even predate Christianity; the liturgical prayers have actually been applied over the top. “For me it’s like a dialogue with history,” says Merit. “Keeping this link going and not this idea that everything’s cut up, but there’s continuity.”

Also the link between the fact that Christianity originated in the Middle East and came here, we keep forgetting that. There’s this narrative that there’s them then there’s us; that’s not true.

Neither is the fact that Christianity and Islam are two separate entities. “You sing this music and it’s shared music. They use the same modes, these chants, that the call to prayer is in. It’s the same language musically and language wise. Even though of course the church chants weren’t originally in Arabic, there are church chants in Arabic. I know that people know about Christians in the Middle East but when they hear the music they think it might be like Islamic prayers, it might be Arabic music. They don’t realise it’s traditional church music.”

This shared history, however, has been all but forgotten in certain parts of Egypt – in recent months Wilayat Sinai, Daesh’s Egypt affiliate, has stepped up attacks on Copts across the country. Hundreds have fled their homes in northern Sinai after being targeted by the terror group, whilst on Palm Sunday in Egypt over 40 people died after twin bomb attacks hit two churches, St. George’s in Tanta on the Nile Delta and St. Mark’s in Alexandria, the seat of the Coptic papacy.

Copts in Egypt have this huge identity despite the fact that they’re a minority. Maybe that’s why they’re being attacked to eradicate that.

“Already after the revolution there were so many people leaving because it got really difficult.” Copts did a lot of trade before the uprising, she explains, but things got difficult afterwards because they were associated with the old regime.

“At one point 1.5 million Copts had left the country – huge amounts were leaving. There is already a huge Copt diaspora in Canada, in America, in Australia; they’re dispersed. A lot of people were leaving because it was getting really difficult. It was already quite tragic.”

Perhaps this constant threat to their existence has helped keep Christian traditions alive and integral within the community, she suggests. “It’s holding on to who they are. It’s a really strong part of them. For me it’s also bringing awareness because I live here.”

Despite the fact that so many Copts have left Egypt, some of Merit’s family have stayed in the country. On a particularly memorable visit to see them Merit was invited to Abdo Dagher’s house, Oum Kalthoum’s first violinist, who played with a group of musicians into the night. Dagher has also played with the Egyptian icons Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez. “Halim is the one who when he died lots of girls committed suicide,” explains Merit. “He was an Egyptian heartthrob, an Egyptian Frank Sinatra basically.”

Merit’s music is in part inspired by these great Egyptians musicians and although she doesn’t perform Oum Kalthoum – “you have to be so embedded in the tradition to really do it justice” – Abdel Halim and Abdel Wahab were musicians from the fifties who sang in Arabic but played with European traditions and incorporated tangos and waltzes into their music.

The Egyptian side of her loves communicating, she tells me, but ultimately, as she said earlier, she is a hybrid. Her performances, then, are about being in a place where it doesn’t matter which language she’s speaking:

When you speak different languages different strings vibrate in your body and different parts of your character come out. It’s about bringing out these different characters in the story and making them part of this dream world. I’m still figuring it out but I just want to take them with me.

Merit Ariane Stephanos is singing in Bushra El-Turk’s opera Woman at Point Zero – an adaptation of Egyptian author, feminist and doctor Nawal El-Saadawi’s novel – as part of the Shubbak festival on 13 July.

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