19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Love to the sharksProfile by David Blake
Total inertia, miles above the ground. Suspended, in the water, held back only by a string
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Profile Travel Living Sports Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
He is great fun to be with. He's happy, healthy, and full of information, on the difficulty of finding ways to play the moods of Schumann or how to behave when you are deep-sea diving and a large greynurse shark is approaching you, head on, snout first. Khaled says, do nothing, remain dead calm, think lazy and be dead and float. Greynurse sharks love action and pounce, and are always on the lookout for a bite to eat. They will take a snap at you out of sheer interest, a bite means blood, and so there you are without arms. And it'll finish you off, swerve joyfully away, happy to have found an unexpected morsel. Khaled agrees with most swimmers that sharks are not bad; even the "great white" of evil repute can be fooled by total inertia. Khaled's friend, the conductor Sherif Mohieddin, calls him mad and affected, for his love of sports and risky activities. "You're a fool, stick to your music."
This Khaled continues to do, but with certain reservations which have formed his character, both as musician and viveur (leaving out the "bon", for the time being). He comes from a very clever family of Cairo origin. His father, Kamal El-Shweikh, was a violinist who joined the orchestra of Umm Kulthoum in 1940 and stayed with it to the end.
This was to be important to Khaled, for as a child he learned the great thing about music, which is for it to have quality -- more cruelly, class. Umm Kulthoum, a genius, had come from the age of Ellington, Toscanini and Goodman, and her Draconian discipline and sense of style gave her, and everything she turned her hand to, this same quality -- as can be heard on her records: without the slightest intention, they make today's material thin and untidy.
But time moves, and music with it. When Kamal El-Shweikh had produced two sons, that was his family, and he brought them up in the great tradition; firm was the word. No nonsense, but he was a benevolent dictator. Khaled was the youngest son. It made no difference, but both sons were fixed by the desire to be violinists. The father agreed on this, so long as the two were trained absolutely in the work and study of the European classical tradition.
Their father's reasons were sound. After years of study, the classical tradition will always be there, as a career standby and refuge. Arabic classical music, being of such a different tradition, will not; you are alone and must stick to it, success or not. The classical tradition offers great scope for clever hard workers: stay in the middle of the highway, and it won't let you down. So the boys battled on, supported by their father's manic insistence that they stick to the European classical tradition. It paid off. Both got the necessary degrees, and both left Egypt to Switzerland, Geneva, and stayed for years. Khaled's elder brother is now an honoured first violinist in a good Swiss orchestra, secure and apparently happy to be Swiss. Khaled, after years of study in Switzerland, developed a different and more questionable line. He missed his country, sun, freedom, and "the Egyptian atmosphere". Cairo is frightening, but I miss it: it's uniquely awful, but it's magic. That is more or less Khaled El-Shweikh's way. He grew to need it so much, he just packed up and left, and came back to where his roots are. They are quite firmly still there: Madinet Al-I'lam, behind the British Council, where he was born and still lives. It's a peaceful place, full of its own, a characteristic conglomerate of types and races. It seems to be everywhere and nowhere, very warm, not quite downtown but off-beat enough to have a district feel and quite imperturbably sure of itself -- very free.
It appeals to Khaled. When young, he had seen so much history going past along the tremendous current of Shari' Al-Nil. First there was the young boy with a bursting school satchel, then the dramas of the time, and now the young man in the car coping with the rip-tide of the Giza-downtown traffic, and always the same long legs to get him safely around. Of the legs, more anon, since legs are important to violinists: when the playing commences, like singers, they also have to stand and deliver, and then there is a basic tension of sympathy between the legs and arms.
Khaled's father led a dedicated and fulfilled life -- all Umm Kulthoum's team did. They all slaved for the goddess, travelled and created a music supreme in Egyptian history, unique, emotional and apparently totally related with the people of Egypt. The father's life was an object lesson in the services music demands and the benefits it repays. Both boys were happy, since their mother, who had started as a singer, played everything up to look after her family of violinists. So Khaled today, as he says, is absolutely Egyptian, but carrying apart from this a message of what it takes to be a player. His family bestowed the magic qualities; he was happy in the early days and he is still happy now, at 34.
The father had started him at the violin when he was five. He began with Verdi, soon passed to private teachers, and then began with the Greek teacher Comarianos, with whom he worked until he was 10. These were troubled, war-scarred years, in which little long-legs went stubbornly on like an archangel, playing his fiddle as the world burned.
When he was 15 it was decided by all that he would stick to the violin for life, and so he began working with the famous Professor Khatpabian. He was a late beginner at the Cairo Conservatoire and, to make up for lost time, worked eight hours a day to reach his accepted levels. Khatpabian was Russian-trained, a pupil of David Oistrakh from whom, of course, he acquired and passed on to Khaled some of the great Russian hints at performance -- especially tone.
There are three accepted tones for the violin: French, extended, suave, full and sweet, fitted for French music; Germanic, of course stemming from Bach, wiry, pure and cunningly perfected to come through large orchestras; and Jewish from Russia, bronze, warm and completely open to the other tones and surpassing them all. Fingering via Oistrakh was another mystery made clear to the young pupil -- that and stance. The feet and legs, the balancing act the player must make to elucidate the sounds coming from the Apollonian violin are endless, as he says. He is never satisfied and still thinks of the Oistrakh tone flow, inimitable and endlessly carrying the power of the harmonic bar which is part of the violin's interior. All from the scooped-out shell of a piece of wood. You cannot get more immortal than with the violin, except the human voice. Both can soar aloft, hang in the air, and seem only accountable to the soul.
Khaled's road led him to Geneva and the best teachers, finally ending him with Romano, with whom he was to study in the professional class of perfection. This was one of the encounters of his life, interrupted by his visit back to Egypt to do his military service, and he finished his graduation at the Cairo Conservatoire. These moves were part of his survival gestures. He wanted always to be able to return to his country where, deep down, he knew he belonged. His elder brother had settled in Switzerland and that was that. Khaled wished to be on the sunshine side of life and opportunity. His father died in 1985. The bond with the father and mother was strong. After graduation he once again hit the airline tracks for Geneva and there re-joined the Romano classes.
In the classical tradition: top, as a boy at the Conservatoire
He says he was feeling pretty pleased with himself. He had the necessary medals of achievement from Cairo, had done his military stint and kept the door open to be able to see his mother and come back when she needed him. And here he was now, back with this greatly respected and responsible Romano to finish his final polishing. The great man treated him with the greatest respect and politeness and asked him to play sections from the Double-concerto of Bach, which he had played for his graduation. Khaled, feeling proud and confident, played it to the end. He expected words of praise.
Not one word of pleasure here, not a breath of encouragement followed. There was a silence. Romano called out: Well, and now we can begin the real work on your concerto. Khaled's bubble had been pricked good and proper. He was thoroughly deflated, with not a shred of his former conceit remaining. Romano, of course, meant more than well. There followed days of probing and deconstruction of Khaled's playing. What he had done was play the notes -- no more than well, and his self-satisfaction had been complete. That was also shredded to bits. He had not attempted to find a real message. The notes stayed notes; anyone can play notes, said Romano, but the music itself had not spoken. When the music speaks, you're getting somewhere. With the notes Khaled had got nowhere, so his lessons with Romano contained, he says, things which were the most powerful wisdoms he learned in Europe.
Later he was called to Cairo where his mother died. So the parental land was bereft. It was the darkest time yet in his young life. This is where his music visited him. Notes or no notes, he had a calling, given him by the two faithful ones. It was up to him not to disappoint their faith and effort; no weakness and no tears, and so he returned again to Geneva to join an orchestra and began playing concert tours. He says he found nothing in life ever straightens out, you just have to climb over the rough bits. He did this and discovered the joys of magic motion. From 1991 to '98, he lived the life of travel and brinkmanship. He toured South America, and fell in love with Brazil. He broadened his repertoire, and then one day came the urge to go home. His brother was happily married and settled into a life routine. For Khaled, the exigencies of Swiss life palled; he felt the need for a different horizon and more space.
So Madinet Al-I'lam found him once again, and here he has remained -- or got stuck. What is it in his case? Is he a dilettante at heart? He thinks not, but he does seem to love the pleasure principle.
He is too sophisticated not to know the warnings: oŁ sont les neiges d'antan? He has yet to come to an age when his particular snows will melt, but he needs to take care. He has health, and a happy disposition to lead him into the dance. Music is a hard task to master by any standards. His readings of music could grow superficial. No signs of this yet. Romano's message still holds him to the divining rod below the surface. Maybe he would be more comfortable with twentieth-century music, like Anne Sophie Mutter.
He loves new sensations, going to the brink. Why not try Ligeti or Lutaslowski? His life here is divided: about four hours a day with the violin, then the glitzy activities. He adores tennis and spends many days at the club. Badminton and squash -- more days. About once a month, Sharm Al-Sheikh, deep-sea diving, visiting the greynurses. And if possible here in Egypt, parasailing, where you get shot off the top of a mountain in a little thing like a baby dressed only in nappies, then are left to yourself to get back to earth in one piece. As he describes it, peering through your legs at the earth below is almost as challenging as facing a Bach Chacconne at a concert. Why do all this? The frisson -- is it worth it? Where is the violin, where the art of music? Everything is changing to aluminium, so perhaps go and invent an aluminium Strad and he'll fire himself off the Andes and compete with the Great Condor at height swoopings.
He has a strong humorous mind. He says all these activities help him to keep his music freshly thought. It could be. He is not afraid to put himself down, but there is no dust on his playing yet. He has charm, but no trace of media grin, physical beauty without a hint of cinematic show-off. He makes fun of himself, but is too wise not to remember Goethe's remark -- don't put yourself down, there's enough of them out there to do that for you. He has a certain dignity in the blood.
And so -- there must be an end to Khaled El-Shweikh, and it's a dream on a dream, like wearing two oxygen masks when your playing goes into a crash dive.
A dream of Khaled El-Shweikh, and where to put the feet. Stand flat on the platform floor and sway with an undulating rhythm, with a heel raised at stressful moments. But like him, you've got to have long Greek feet and know how to play the Khatchaturian violin concerto.
The tennis court, the spectators, the couture shorts, the 1,000-pound shoes, the friends and the racket. I'm looking great. Out on the court, something is wrong: they've changed the referee at the last moment.
Not possible. Stuck up there on the top of that pillar, of all people: Sherif Mohieddin, a tennis referee? It's a dream, but it's true. He's up there and still smiling.
The game begins.
It's not Khaled's service, it is the other -- a deadly base murderer. Khaled freezes in the hot sun. His racket has become the violin. Panic. He tries to chuck it away. It is stuck to him, the right hand stuck like a vice. It won't budge. It is his bow hand. It is his child: he can't hurt it. Try to take the serve. But the ball has already gone past him, missing his face by a thread. Like the sound of the ball's scream, it has gone. And so has the whole nightmare with it. Silence, empty court. Sherif is still on the pillar. I told you, stupid, stick to your music.
Fade out to Sharm El-Sheikh.
The dive begins. Khaled is not sure of his equipment. Give my love to the sharks, shouts a voice. Khaled heads for home and the security of his music room. Sherif -- rubbing his hand, laughing -- goes to the Opera House. Feet or no feet, Khaled El-Shweikh is carrying inside him Romano's words: what is important is not in the notes. And the sharks are singing jubilant songs. They love violins best of all.
(Main photo:Randa Shaath )