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 for everyone.”
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.”

Issue 15 vol 8
Photographs by Claude Stemmelin

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