|Sax, drums and rock’n’roll
Cairo’s own music festival rocks the riverside
On 21 June, Cairo’s 11th Fête de
la Musique gathered singers, percussionists, a jazz band and a Frenchman
with an upright bass for a night of music beside the Nile. The event was
part of the international Fête de la Musique, which started in Paris
in 1982 and quickly spread to over 120 countries around the world.
Intended to “democratize” access to live music by providing
free outdoor concerts, the Fête takes place simultaneously across
Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and South America on the evening
of 21 June—the summer solstice.
Cairo’s Fête is run by the city’s French cultural center,
the CFCC. Vincent Martigny, a charming, energetic Parisian, has worked
on the event for the past three years. Organizing Cairo’s own Woodstock
or Glastonbury has its own difficulties, he explains. “Egyptian
audiences aren’t used to the idea of outdoor festivals.”
Despite this, Cairenes have been quick to embrace the festival. The 2004
event attracted a 3,000-strong audience, a third bigger than last year’s.
Originally held at the CFCC, the Fête transferred to the Cairo Opera
House before finding its present niche in Zamalek’s Ryadi Gardens.
“There’s a psychological barrier associated with the Opera
House,” Martigny says. “People think that if you’re
too baladi, they won’t let you in. We want to make this an event
Sloping down to the Nile near the southern tip of Zamalek, the Ryadi Gardens
are usually gated securely against the unwashed masses. For the Fête,
however, they were thrown open in fine democratic style. As the sun dipped
towards the water, the gardens steadily filled with Cairenes ready to
celebrate the longest day of the year. The program switched between two
facing stages, eliminating set-up time between acts as the crowd moved
happily from one to the other.
At 6:30pm, Egyptian chanteuse Donia took to the southern stage. A professional
singer only since 2001, Donia Massoud has traveled the Delta, Suez and
Upper Egypt gathering traditional songs unfamiliar to a Cairene audience.
In the difficult opening slot, she performed a sophisticated set including
a soulful tribute to film icon Soad Hosni, the “Cinderella”
of Egyptian cinema, who died three years ago to the day of the concert.
The highlight of the show’s first section came with Gafaar Harkal,
a 15-man ensemble of Sudanese origin, performing traditional Nubian folk
songs. Pausing in Cairo before departing on tour to Nairobi, the 10-year-old
group has also played across Europe, in India and most recently in Japan,
which the eponymous Harkal describes as “very, very nice.”
“We play very old—ancient, in fact—Nubian songs,”
Harkal explains. “They’ve never been written down—they
are preserved only through musicians’ singing and playing.”
With complex, repetitive drum lines and hypnotic snatches of vocal, the
ensemble’s music brought a distinctively African flavor to the festival.
The songs are intricately layered, with cross-rhythms that build and fade
beneath spare lyrical sketches of loss or celebration.
Building on the recent success of Nubian rhythms in international world
music circles, Harkal is intent on taking his ancient songs to the widest
possible audience. His group is currently working on its first studio
album. Watch out for this ensemble—they are highly recommended.
Following Harkal, the program moved north from
Nubia to Upper Egypt with Saïdi, a stage-crowding outfit playing
traditional music from the region. They were swiftly followed by Sagattes,
a percussion team of virtuosos on the eponymous sagat, or cymbals.
As the night wore on, television crews mingled with the crowd, interviewing
excited groups of teenagers and seizing on musicians as they came offstage.
Press photographers crowded the fronts of the stages and backstage tents
offered tantalizing glimpses of stars sipping cool drinks. In other words,
there was something of a buzz in the air.
Much of this was due to the next act. The godfather of Egyptian jazz,
Fathy Salama hails from the so-called “Harlem of Cairo,” Shoubra.
Celebrating the critical success of his latest album, a collaboration
with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, Salama was returning to a
home crowd during a hectic summer tour of Morocco, Sweden, France and
Italy. He attracted a devoted crowd used to following their idol around
Cairo’s live music venues. “I love jazz, and I’m from
Shoubra too,” said Tariq Sherif, a bright-eyed 18-year-old who’d
come with his four friends to see Salama’s set. “We go to
see him every time he plays in the city.”
Joined onstage by Karima Nayt, an Algerian singer who fuses Rai with Western
styles, Salama delivered an eclectic jazz set spiced with superb accordion
playing. Things, however, did not run entirely as planned. After the final
chords died away, Salama apologized to the crowd for the sound quality.
“I hope it’ll be better for M,” he added charitably.
Headlining the festival was a bona fide French rock star—the laconically-named
and extravagantly-coiffed M. The CFCC invited M to play the festival three
years ago, but the birth of the singer’s daughter kept him in France.
This year’s Zamalek appearance, however, was a kind of homecoming.
Grandson of poet Andrée Chédid and singer Louis Chédid,
both born in Cairo, M is famous for the oft-quoted lines “Du Nil
dans mes veines, dans mes artères coule la Seine” (The Nile
[flows] in my veins, the Seine flows in my arteries) and the cryptic remark
“du Sphinx dans mon rimeur,” which loosely translates as “some
Sphinx in my rhyme-machine.”
Whatever M’s physiological peculiarities, his heart is certainly
in the right place. Accompanied by a besuited upright-bass player and
a towering bald drummer dressed in a feathered red vest and fez, M played
good-natured rock with a few epic guitar solos and plenty of stagemanship
thrown in. Nodding his twin-peaked head to the music (his hair is carefully
crafted into a giant letter “M”), M pulled the keenest audience
members onstage to dance with him while a breakdancer threw shapes in
front of the drumkit. The audience went home happy.
Satisfied with the record audience for this year’s show, the CFCC
has great plans for the Fête’s future. “We’d like
to make it a truly international festival. Yes, the Fête started
in France, but now it’s moved far beyond that,” Martigny says.
In coming years, the CFCC hopes to invite artists from all over Europe
and Africa to play with Egypt’s best musicians. “We want all
Cairo’s people to open their minds to new music.”
Rachel Aspden and Matthew Hall