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Music

Light, hope and sound

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Most of the orchestra's 40 members have more than one university degree

Backstage, it's cacophony. The 36 members of the Al Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra haul their instruments about, test them. Hala lubricates the outer slide of her trombone and tries it. Satisfied, she plays a snatch. Shaimaa Yehiya works her violin and Ziana Khalil, oboe across her lap, feverishly munches on what looks like an airline snack " pre-show nerves, perhaps. They have every note memorised.

The Egyptian Blind Girls Chamber Orchestra " the only one of its kind " has no use for music sheets or the conductor's baton. But at the Kamani Auditorium, they play without a glitch, a mix of western and oriental classical music " Mozart, Brahms, Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

"My siblings are normal people, they don't have any disability, " says Shaimaa, 26. They don't have her gift either. She'd joined the Al Nour Wal Amal (Light and Hope) Association, a Cairo-based NGO for blind girls and women, at eight. After just one year of training at the 'Music Institute', she was inducted into the orchestra and delivered her first international performance at 13 in Toronto.

"I grew up listening to Western music on the radio, " says Shaimaa. She mostly got English pop but also a fair amount of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. "I love the violin, " she says smiling. As with most of the others, Shaimaa's family is ordinary. Her father's a labourer and mother a homemaker. With a degree in English language from a Cairo university, she's the "highly educated one. " "My parents are so proud. They think I'm the best. "

A group of women volunteers started Al Nour Wal Amal Association in 1954 for the education, vocational training and integration of blind women. Its Music Institute was founded in 1961 by Sanaha El Kholy of the Academy of Arts, the Cairo Conservatory and the Egyptian Opera House. The orchestra has played in 17 countries, even Vienna and Paris;audience sizes ranged from 500 to 5, 000.

They can't see the expressions of delight or wet eyes but can hear the spontaneous applause, perhaps even sense when listeners are rising to their feet. The claps and hoots after her solo bit puts a grin on Vasma Faad's face that'll stay till the end. The orchestra's Sudanese conductor Ali Osman, 50, has taught at the Academy of Arts. "' Conductor' is not the right word. I'm a coach, " says Osman. On stage, he's remarkably unassuming: he names the piece, clicks fingers for the count and withdraws to a corner.

Teaching the girls is different but not difficult. "It's easy, " he says with a snort of laughter. "They know Braille and their ears are sensitive, they never go wrong taking dictation. Play any note and they can tell whether it's 'c' or 'd'. " He dictates the relevant sections from the music sheets to the four parts. The musicians note them down in Braille, memorise and practice individually before being put together.

Their problems have come from elsewhere. On their way to Qatar some years ago, they were stopped by the airline;the maximum number of blind passengers allowed on board was 30. "Six members of our orchestra are halfblind. They were tested and we went, " says Osman recounting the harrowing experience, now an amusing anecdote. In Delhi, the bridge shoots out of the double bass ending the concert for Shehnaz and Zehen. They fumble to their seats and wait to be led off the stage.

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