The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Interview with Cantor Naeem Boulis

Bishoy K. R. Dawood.
January 25, 2006

An interview with Mo'allim Naeem Boulis, where he talks about the beauty and the potential of emotional expressions in the Coptic Church's hymns.

Duration: 42:23· Filesize: 53.98 MB · Download: mp4

English-language Transcript/Translation

English translation of the interview

(Partly translated - upto 30 minutes of the video)

Cantor Naeem: Botros Hanna Boulis is Naeem Hanna Boulis. He was born in 1926, raised in Cairo, studied at the Clerical College, worked in the Monastic School in Helwan, then at Port Said, and finally in the Church of St. George in Alexandria around 35 years from now. I am 70 years old. I have 7 children: 4 girls and 3 men, or 4 men and 3 girls, whichever is right…

Interviewer: In America and Canada.

Cantor Naeem: Pardon?

Interviewer: In America and Canada.

Cantor Naeem: In America and Canada. Some of them are born in Egypt. I’ve worked in Church of St. George in Sporting for 37 years. I’ve experienced the time of our father the Rev. Pishoy Kamel for 18 years, and I learnt from him what I never knew before. Later, there was Fr. Tadros [Malaty] and the rest of the fathers of the Church. What else would you need to know?

Interviewer: That is sufficient. After this introduction, permit us to ask you about the lesson you gave yesterday on the three schools of hymns, that is, of Alexandria, Cairo, and Upper Egypt. Can you tell us something generally about this?

Cantor Naeem: Concerning the hymns of the Church, all the hymns of the Church are for the service of the Church, despite the variety of schools, such as the Sahidic hymns school that is distanced miles away from Cairo. So, there are differences in the hymn, but not in the lyrics. This occurred because of the difficulty of traveling in the past, and for this reason every region in the country specialized in a certain coloring of the hymns – such as the Sahidic, the Cairene, and the Alexandrian. Perhaps there were other differences in smaller villages, but they did not reach the cities, and for this reason we don’t know much about them – there are people in the villages of the farmers in Upper Egypt who have the same lyrics but use a different music, since the environment of the region he lives in is different and this environment plays a role in causing a change in the vocal traits. For instance, the Sahidic vocal traits are different than that of someone in Cairo, and from that of Bohairic, the farmers or the Alexandrian. This is not only the case in hymns, but every environment causes its inhabitants a certain vocal trait. As for the differences in the hymns, the major factor was distances between the cities in a period when traveling was limited. So, they would recite what they learnt, and the person who makes a mistake doesn’t feel like he did a mistake, and continues to hand down the hymns in that way. Originally, though, the hymns were united, but like I said the distances and the lack of revision between the cantors (with each other) and the deacons (with each other) caused a few musical differences, but not the lyrics. This is all the difference among each of the hymns.

Interviewer: Yesterday you talked about something beautiful: the effects of music on the listener…. For example, the part on the Monastic School, where the people don’t care about the hymns… the things about the effects of music on the soul. So perhaps if you can give us some example like this.

Cantor Naeem: Regarding the effects of the hymns on the person generally – whether the music was religious or secular – music has its effect. Generally, in everything. As for the Church’s hymns particularly, it has an effect on the person when he listens attentively. Like we find some people complaining about saying “o o o o” without understanding anything. But if the person who is listening to this “o o” attentively and thoughtfully, and knows the words of what is being chanted, he would understand how the Coptic Church operates. This is because the Coptic Church’s hymns are not modern, but are ancient, perhaps even before St. Mark went to Alexandria – there are hymns chanted by the ancient Egyptians before the arrival of St. Mark, and they are still chanted today. But, they need to be studied and researched, since these hymns did not come out of a vacuum, nor did they come without any reason. These hymns were established originally in the barbarian, that is, pagan temples, and the hymns that we say – not all of them, but some of them – were affected and taken from the barbarian hymns. So, when St. Mark arrived in Egypt and preached, he was not preaching with hymns; he was preaching with words. In a sense, when the shoe-maker [Anianus] got injured and said “O Theos,” this was the beginning of St. Mark’s preaching to him: when he inquired about what the shoe-maker said of the One God, he stated that he preached about the one God. This preaching wasn’t in music or hymns, but was in the form of words. But after that, when the early Christians saw that the people were leaving the Church to attend in the temple, they observed what attracted the people to the temple. Of course they didn’t find anything doctrinal that attracted them, but they found that there was music that would leave an effect on its listener and attracts him to the temple. He would leave the nice faith of the Church of St. Mark and go attend the glorifications and feasts in the temple. Hence, the first Fathers of the Church attempted to transfer the hymns of the pagan temples and applied them to Christian lyrics. They chanted these and set them in rites. For instance, we have in the Church the hymns for the Praise, the Divine Liturgy, the seasons, Kiahk; for every occasion there is a color of music and hymns. For example, when we say hymns for Kiahk (which are chanted in winter), the person feels that these hymns are suited for the winter. We have experiments for this scenario: people who are Muslims and who understand music well met once with me, and we were listening to some deacons chanting a hymn, and the person who was with me, who was the late Sheikh Sayed el-Makawy, was standing and listening with me, and he said that this hymn makes me feel cold. And really, the hymns that was being chanted in the Church was the hymn Tenen, which is said in the 7 & 4 Praise in Kiahk. This man was of course a non-Christian, except that he is a musician and understands, and felt the value of the music in this hymn – that it makes one feel cold. The Fathers placed the hymn Tenen to be chanted in the 7 & 4 Praise in Kiahk. Thus, when they placed the hymn Tenen, they didn’t place it there to let the heart feel emotional and joyous, but they placed it after considering its musical effects in the 7 & 4 Praise in Kaihk, and the month of Kiahk is winter (that is, December and early January). The hymn itself – perhaps they intended this, or not – has music that a person would feel and understand that it is a hymn for winter. It is said in the month of Kiahk, and thus it is for winter…. (cough)…. They were Fathers who thought and studied music, and knew when the hymn is placed and its occasion; that is, he wouldn’t come in a feast and place a hymn that is sorrowful or not suitable for the feasts. Even if you didn’t learn the Coptic words of the hymn or the Church’s music, if you listen to the hymn of the feast, you’ll be joyous by yourself without anyone telling you, without a recording of this hymn, without explaining what this hymn is for. If you listen to the hymns that are chanted in the feasts, as long as you’re a person with feelings and emotions, you’ll understand that you’re joyous, alone. If you listened to the sorrowful hymns in the Church, you’ll feel sorrowful. There is a sorrowful music you’re listening to, but sorrowful music unlike that in the secular world… the secular music is beautiful music, and makes me feel it and move along with it very well. It is touching, and may cause tears, but still it is no match to the sorrowful hymns of Pascha and Good Friday. I’ll tell you a small story about the late Cantor Girgis Saad, who used to play his music on the radio also: on one of the days when he was going to play music on the radio, which he did every week, one of his friends departed and he went to attend the funeral service. He came back from the service to the radio station, since he played live on the air. They don’t ask him to play anything they wanted, but he would present 5 minutes of a hymn, and 5 minutes of his own composition. For the 5 minutes of the hymn, he presented a part of the hymn Pek-ethronos. This hymn is well-known in the Church and is chanted in the Pascha – on Tuesday evening and on Good Friday. Of course, a hymn that is chanted in Pascha means what? It means that it is a very very sorrowful hymn. So when the Cantor presented a part of this hymn on the air, the people called the radio station and told them to stop the person who’s chanting, since there were people who fainted in their homes and people who were having dinner who didn’t continue eating (he used to present from 8 to 10 pm). The music of the Church’s hymns, if it is said with the right approach – who is saying it first? The person who is chanting it should say it correctly, with feelings, and with a right approach. He should say it with his heart first, not with his mouth. This will come out with an effect even on non-Christians, just as the people who called the radio station and said that people were fainting. The music of the Church is not new music, nor is it old music. It is renewed everyday, even though it is ancient, and we took it from the Egyptians and applied Christian words to it, and chant it in the Church in its right place and time. The Coptic hymn, the Egyptian hymn, is ancient, such that if they ask to hear the music of Egypt, they always suggest the Coptic hymns. These are the chants that are still approved as such to this day, and it was notated a few decades ago: some Germans came and chose good cantors of the Church to chant the hymns and the Germans would notate the music. They took our hymns, without our knowledge – and even if we knew we didn’t imagine what they could do with it – and it became a heritage in their country, a subject to be taught in their countries: the Egyptian hymn, the Egyptian Coptic hymn, which no musician can make something similar to it, and no inventor could invent music that fits the Church like this. In the Church, when I say “Thok te-tigom” of the Pascha – the recitative tune, that small tune that the children say – when I say it, I know that I chant something very very similar to that chanted by the Ancient Egyptians. That is, when I chant “Thok te-tigom” (chants the hymn) – you will find when you go to the farmers (fellaheen) or in Upper Egypt that people hit instruments or clap their hands or their faces like mourning. But we do not mourn, we praise in the Church. Yet the spirit of our country was put into the tune so that I can say it as the mourners do. Of course, the things I say are my own, and not on someone else’s authority. Perhaps I felt it more because I lived and heard a lot from around the world how mourning is done – I would go by a funeral and hear this, with the farmers (fellaheen). So, this is the source of how we say it in Church, but we don’t feel like we’re mourning, but we’re praising. The tune is like that used by the farmers (fellaheen) and in Cairo long time ago, they clapped their hands and chanted words that concerned death and so on, but the spirit in which we chanted “Thok te-tigom” for the Pascha perhaps was taken from this – I’m not saying that the Church says so – but what I’m saying is what I felt when I lived and saw the funerals in various places, and they chanted in the same way that we say “Thok te-tigom” (chants the hymn) – but they of course chant words that concern their dead. The Christian words were put in the Church to give me joy, to give me sorrow, to give me comfort, and to give me the feeling of being cold, to give me a feeling of happiness. We have the hymns, like “Pek-ethronos”, we have “O Monogenis”, we have “Avchenon”, we have “Praxe-onton” – these are all sorrowful tunes, and it is fitting for me to hear one of these hymns with my feelings and emotions, which will let me shed the tears of the whole year. If I want to cry for my sins, for myself, for my luck, for my house, for my family, for anything, and don’t know how to let it out; if I hear with my feelings during Pascha and on Good Friday, I’ll feel that I come out of it very content, since I let out the emotions that I wasn’t able to express. So the Pascha, in its sorrowful tunes, and its beautiful pains, and its time – such as when the Praxis hymn is chanted followed by what is said about Judas, who took the money and sold and did such-and-such… in Covenant Thursday you don’t feel like you’re outside of the Church, nor are you separated from the rhythm of your life. You feel everything in Covenant Thursday. So, I want to sit once while they chant “Praxe-onton”, or when they do the Gospel readings of the betrayal, stand and close your eyes and imagine with your mind – imagine when Judas went to sell, imagine Judas when he threw his money in the Temple, imagine Peter when he denied, imagine the cock flapping its wings and crowing to warn Peter, so many things in the Church. We don’t go to Church just to say “Kirie eleison” and “Lord have mercy” and that’s all! We go in order to contemplate the Church and live with Christ, from the day of his birth when he was born in the manger – there are some people who, from the extent of their imagination of this scene, could smell the animals in the manger! The extent of their imagining Christ in the manger with cows, where the animals were eating – it wasn’t a bedroom – and were standing around them, these people who live in Christ through the spirit could smell the manger. On the Feast of the Nativity, when the Church has the aroma of the incense and the perfumes of the people attending, God gives the grace to someone who would be able to smell the animal who stood beside our Lord Jesus in the manger. I’m not saying this is my way, but I’m telling you about the feeling that is present… now what were we talking about before?

Interviewer: How hymns like Pek-ethronos… (interference)

Cantor Naeem: Yes, yes, hymns are full of expressions for the person who wants to feel it. So the person who wants to hear the hymn and feel it and live it, will feel that when I say a joyful hymn, the heart will be joyful. The farmers (fellaheen) and people from Upper Egypt would even hold their canes and dance joyfully on the beat of the cymbals, like in the hymns of “Epouro” and these joyful hymns.
Interviewer: This happened?

Cantor Naeem: This happened many times in Upper Egypt and with the farmers (fellaheen). I attended it. He would hold his cane and dance as if he’s dancing on the beats of the “balady” music, since he likes the tune and the hymn and the beat of the cymbals, and he couldn’t hold himself, so he dances. So, the Church makes one very joyful, and its hymns are very joyful, and even the sorrowful tunes are very joyful. For instance, when I say the hymn “Ke Iperto”, or the sorrowful Pauline Epistle hymn “Ethve Ti-anastasis”, when I say this hymn or any other hymn of the Pascha, and I put myself in the Pascha spirit, in the events of the day – today Christ cured many people, or today he cured Simon’s mother-in-law, or today Judas betrayed him to take money, or today is Covenant Thursday and Judas took the fragment that got him in trouble – when I live in the events of the day, and I say the hymn that is suitable for the event, and if I feel the event, I sometimes cannot continue the hymn. When I say the Praxis hymn of Covenant Thursday, which talks about the thirty pieces of silver that Judas took – this was a story that Peter told, an event that happened that he tells – but if I feel and live the story, I…

Interviewer: There are meanings that you feel when you hear the story.

Cantor Naeem: This is where he talked about the betrayal and the thirty pieces of silver, and so on. This is repeated every year, and we remember it everyday – that he sold for thirty pieces of silver. But in the Pascha, when its time comes, the person lives through it and feels it…

Interviewer: Yesterday you spoke about something in the Institute at Helwan when someone cried…

Cantor Naeem: Yes, this was not the only incident. There are so many things that happened. Like, the incident that you are speaking about, there were Arab people from around the Helwan area, and they were crossing the road beside the Monastic School. They were doing something, while I was teaching the hymn “Pek-ethronos” to the monks. One of the ladies walked away and two or three of them stood by the fence of the School, and they were hearing the class. They waited there and they were crying because of the tune they were hearing – the tune that was chanted is sorrowful, and this is why they were crying by the fence of the School, on the tune that I was teaching to the fathers the monks and were saying it together. The Church’s hymns are full of expressions and are very effecting, but to who? To him who understands it. He who wants to hear the hymn – there are people who are affected by the secular music, and they say “wow! This tune is nice, this man sings nicely, this woman sings well.” There are also the children of the Church who feel that those tunes touch the ears and cause admiration. As for the tune that in the Church, chanted by the deacons, they chant without intentions, but they go to Church to sing to Jesus. They chant not because they’re waiting for payment, but waiting for the love of the Church. They offer their voices and their feelings to Christ. So when they chant and the people hear, surely it will affect them very much, provided that Satan doesn’t interfere and tempt them away. But, like we said, the Arab women who didn’t understand the hymns were affected and waited to the end…. They were standing by the fence and crying. It’s not me who is imagining this, but the fathers the monks I was teaching told me that these women were standing with tears in their eyes because of the sorrowful tune of the Pascha hymns, which we were chanting. So, the hymns of the Church are full of expressions, provided that I hear it with my feelings. People who say: “Man, what will I benefit from this Church that keeps chanting ‘o, o, o,’ all the time. I’ll rather go and sing some spiritual songs from other denominations.” However, people who didn’t learn the hymns will say this. But the person who learns the hymns and knows the Coptic verses, or reads Coptic and grew up in the Church in Sunday School and is used to the tune since his childhood when they taught him “Kirie eleison” and “Alleluia Fai Pe-pi” and all these small hymns; when he grows up he would have the Church’s foundations – they took him when was young in Sunday School and when he grew up he became a deacon in the Church, and when he is older he becomes a man serving the Church through the priesthood or service or preaching. Where do the priests come from? They were from among the children of the Church, from the children who were in Sunday School when they were young and grew up to be excellent servants.

(translation to be continued).