Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cairo Journal: Wrapping Up

Banning, Mariam, Sayed Rikaby of Jaafra
Well, it's the eve of our departure from Cairo, and I have fallen off badly in my blogging duties.  Here's why.  We've been having 2-4 musical adventures every day--ranging from interviews with composers (Fathy Salama, Mohamed Refat, Hassan Khan, Moody El Emam) to producers (Hamid el Shari, Mohamed Sakr, Khalid Nabil), new bands (Estakasat, Eskenderella, Wust Al Balad, Arabian Knightz, Destiny in Chains) and amazing traditional groups (Jaafra, Bedouin Jerrycan Band, Nuba Noor, Rango, El Tanbura), concerts (Wust Al Balad, Nass Makan, Naseer Shamma) and much more...  We typically get into the hotel around 2 or 3 AM, and by the time we get all the data downloaded and hit the hay, we have about 4 hours to sleep before it all starts again.  This has been the case pretty much consistently for the past 30 days, and it is taking a toll!  So we will be spinning out reports on our work over the coming months, but I wanted to send one quick postcard while we're still in this noisy, rich, sleepless gem of a city.  Bottom line: We've really fallen in love with Cairo and Egypt and hate to leave (even though it means we will finally get some sleep).

Meanwhile, we have got some local coverage in the form of an article about Afropop in the English edition of Al Ahram.  

Sayed Rikaby at Makan
We've spent some lovely evenings at Makan, a small, atmospheric traditional music venue that has done fantastic work in making young and elite audiences in Cairo listen to marginalized traditional music with new ears.  Makan and Mastaba (of which much more in coming posts) mark a big change on the Cairo music scene in the past decade.  Both are champions of this country's diverse folklore and traditional music, and we've been blessed to spend time in the presence of truly great musicians at both venues.  To take just one example, Sayed Rikaby and his group Jaafra perform the folklore of Aswan, the southernmost Nile River town in Egypt, and a unique seat of culture.  Rikaby's improvised, sung poetry and tour of that regoion's tricky rhythms will make a gorgeous segment on an upcoming Afropop program.  And there's so much more...

We met with the veteran composer and bandleader Fathy Salama, the Egyptian arranger behind Youssou N'Dour's 2004, Grammy-winning CD, Egypt.  Fathy is a wise veteran these days, a skeptical analyst of Egypt's political and cultural revolutions.  We have had deep discussions about the latter.  In a nutshell, veterans like Fathy tend to be a bit dour in their prognosis for the future, feeling that Egypt is suffering from decades of poor arts education that has sapped talent from the market, and dumbed down audiences.  Happily, there are far more optimistic voices coming from younger observers, like Karim Rush of the hip hop act Arabian Knightz, who believes that the openness of young Egyptians will allow them to work together and bring together the mainstream and the marginalized to create truly new and exciting music in the years to come.  It just might be that Egypt's Youssou N'Dour will emerge from the Sufi/sha'bi wedding singers of Cairo's ghetto neighborhoods.  Observers as diverse as Fathy and Karim have pointed here when asked for the most exciting new music in Egypt.  This ghetto music, full of techno artistry and over-the-top vocals is truly a revelation to us, and, again, the subject of much future writing and radio.

Fathy Salama

I must say a word about one especially rich field trip.  Our key Hip Deep advisor, longtime Cairo resident Kristina Nelson, drove us to Port Said, the northern reach of the Suez Canal for an evening of Delta folk music with El Tanbura and Rango.  Both of these groups are within the Mastaba stable of artists, overseen by veteran activist and folklorist Zakaria Ibrahim.  We met Zakaria at WOMEX in 2006, and he was one of the people who put Egypt in our heads as a prime destination.  All that paid off bigtime when we caught a double bill of these two remarkable bands on August 3 (the day all of Egypt was riveted by the televised trial of Hosny Mubarak).

El Tanbura are champions of Delta music, reviving and developing instruments that go back to Pharoanic times.  We saw 4000-year-old simsimiyya and tanbura harps in the Egyptian museum, and it was a treat to hear them played along with rowdy songs sung by hearty men of the sea, and accompanied by most excellent and joyful dancing.  Tanbura had just returned from headlining the "Night in Tahrir Square" concert at London's Barbican Center, and were in fine form, despite a lite, Ramadan audience.  The venue, by the way, was across the Suez in Port Fouad.  When we took the free ferry across to the gig, we technically (geographically) crossed from Africa to Asia, a provocative thought.  But that gig, by the Mediterranean, was decidedly African in its spirit and ambiance.

Crossing to Port Fouad

Zakaria Ibrahim

El Tanbura

El Tanbura

As part of this show, we also had a set from the Sudanese-rooted band Rango, named for the ancient xylophone once used in healing zar rituals.  This instrument was all but lost until recovered by Zakaria and Hassan Bergoman, leader of Rango.  Deep stuff!

Hassan Bergoman

So much more to come.  Afropop's Egyptian revelations are just beginning!

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