Moody El-Imam and the Cairo Project: In a yellow submarine
The Cairo Project is a multinational band based, as it were, in cyberspace (www.thecairoproject.com) which gave a remarkable concert at the Sawi Culture Wheel towards the end of January. It is made up of Dutch guitarist Wim Budding, Dutch drummer Paul-John Van Itterzond, Swedish saxophonist Frank Jensen, Hungarian bass guitarist Peter Dezsenyi and Egyptian keyboard player Moody El-Imam. El-Imam first worked with his European counterparts in 1994, when he joined them for a concert outside Amsterdam and brought them over for another at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall. For 13 years they fell out of touch, then, after an e-mail exchange, they have resumed working together, largely through the Internet, since late 2006.
Moody El-Imam , the younger son of legendary filmmaker Hassan El-Imam, is the man behind the music in some of the most popular Egyptian films of the last three decades. A lyricist, baritone and narrator as well as composer and sound engineer, he has been honoured by the ministries of culture and information, and is the winner of the 1995 Cairo Song Festival Award. On graduating from Helwan University's School of Fine Arts, El-Imam was involved in the pop-rock live scene of the 1970s, initially with his elder brother, the multi- talented artist Hussein El-Imam, before building his own studio -- and gradually disappearing inside.
The first thing Moody El-Imam talks to me about is professionalism. I am casually seated on the retro leather sofa in his Garden City studio, in the early afternoon. He has just woken up, he says, poised at the helm of a veritable schooner of equipment -- keyboards, mixer, computer, many screens... This dominates the space, taking up a good half of it. It is where he has single-handedly produced the countless film scores on which his fame rests. It is also where he communicates with his partners across the world, viewing and lately editing videos of concerts. On the ninth floor of a large building, the dimmed studio is cosy and quiet, its curtains drawn on a warm-darkish colour scheme, completely sealed off from the mad world outside; this is what a submarine must feel like.
Such a sense of seclusion has to do with the reason professionalism came up in the first place. Moody, as the 50- year-old likes to be addressed, has been complaining about the lack of professionalism in Egypt -- the fact that Egyptians have the fatal tendency to "bring their problems along into work" -- which not only obstructs productivity but leads to all sorts of confusions: of the public with the private, the artistic with the egotistic, the aesthetic with the commercial. In 30 years, he says, he has encountered no more than "maybe three performers" he feels he can work with; the rest have proved incorrigible. Moody takes issue not with their talent or technical ability, but simply with the work ethic they espouse, which places all manner of mundane considerations above the work itself. "If a plumber comes here to fix a broken pipe, I want him to do his job quietly and efficiently -- I don't want to befriend him, because if I befriend him the whole situation will be about him and his life, not about the pipe that needs fixing." This is not what the conversation is supposed to be about, but he has evidently latched onto a favourite topic: "Being a professional is the most respectful thing, and it's something I've argued about with the band members -- because they all have other jobs, they consider themselves amateurs rather than professionals -- but in Egypt for some reason it's associated with the kind of practises that elicit the presence of the Vice Police. It's a term of dignity, unlike the way people think of it, but the values that it entails are very rarely upheld by Egyptian performers." They have neither "flexibility" -- a concept that entails punctuality, efficiency and pride in their work -- nor "a moral centre". This makes working with them difficult both humanly and professionally, he says.
By the same token, El-Imam says he rarely goes out these days: public space suffers from the same ethical malaise as art. "Egypt is a sick country," he says, "and its sickness is its streets." For a long time he discusses social issues: the fact that policemen and judges are not paid enough, the tendency to complain about a work load, the ignorance with which young people face the world in the absence of any reliable references. "People present themselves as martyrs because they have two jobs, or they have one job and complain about being poor. I find that very strange -- utterly disgraceful. I don't know how many jobs I have, how many tasks. My father was the same way. He did all kinds of jobs until the day he died. On his death bed, I remember," El-Imam smiles charmingly, "I brought him his earnings from a job he had completed the day before. He was happy to receive them and thanked me for it. That was normal. In order to make a life for yourself, you have to work." He recounts several anecdotes to illustrate the social deterioration he perceives, some relating to the increasingly widespread literalist religiosity -- an occasion for his hitherto unsuspected knowledge of classical and pre-Islamic poetry to come forth. "I spent 27 years studying religion and Arabic, so I know how to talk to people. What's striking, in the end, is not piety but ignorance, the fact that religious offices are held by socially inept people who could do nothing else with their lives, and they have not learned their religion properly; some of them can't even read Arabic. Well, I can. So I always confront them."
On being prompted El-Imam reminisces at length about the rock-pop years -- the bands, the musicians, the venues and, most interestingly perhaps, the people behind the scenes: lenders and sellers of musical instruments, connoisseurs, aficionados -- surprisingly without nostalgia. He is wary of omitting names but he mentions, by way of example, the impresario Mr Nando, Father Agami -- the headmaster of a patriarchal school in Heliopolis -- and Amin Batriq: all facilitated lucrative live concerts at high-profile venues and made available instruments otherwise impossible to obtain, either because they were too expensive or too difficult to import into the country. Of the bands he remembers, as well as Hussein's Split and Mysterious Experience, Ezzat Abu Ouf's Le Petit Chat, perhaps the best remembered, Kamel El-Sherif's Honey Pot, and the Black Cats, founded and presided over by the author Tawfik El-Hakim's son Ismail El-Hakim. The names include Omar Khairat and Omar Khourshid, Sobhi Bedeir, Samir El-Salhi... These were respectable times and respectable people, he insists; many held positions or worked in other professions besides practising music; some, like Khairat, have gone on to make formidable names for themselves. The hotels at which the concerts were held functioned as weekly outings for "the Egyptian family" -- and so there was no room for wayward behaviour -- or the Vice Police. For young people there were separate matinee performances, at which nothing was served apart from "[non- alcoholic] rose sharbat and a piece of gateaux". And there was enough money in it for people to live comfortably from its proceeds alone. The demise of the scene came, rather, with that of the Egyptian middle class, which could no longer afford prices imposed by oil-rich patrons a lot more interested in belly dancing and drinking than music -- a huge misfortune.
El-Imam loved being part of this musical bonanza, and when it was gone, he too was gone -- off to the film industry. He had played the piano for six years as a child, learning the violin as well: "Hussein trained me on guitar and keyboards." When he grew into his own, he found solitude the best course: "to guarantee quality and time, I have to work on my own." Only the Cairo Project "dragged me out of my isolation", something for which he is grateful. When Itterzond first approached him, 13 years ago, it was with such respect and understanding he couldn't have said no even if he had not liked the work being offered; and he did like it -- a lot. "He was so pleasant that I instantly became interested. And then he played me something and it was an absolute marvel. I was basically kidnapped," he laughs, "transported into a studio in Holland where we rehearsed for this huge event on the outskirts of Amsterdam, and it was so successful we thought we'd go on working together. They were already called the Cairo Project before they met me, because they love Egypt so much. But you know what life is like when people are in different countries and they have other responsibilities and concerns." So many years later El-Imam received an e-mail from Paul-John: "Is this the Moody El-Imam we love and respect?" There was a vastly emotional reunion. Using Skype and later video conferencing, the band regrouped, with stunning results. "Time and distance did not break the connection," he says. "It's their spirit as individuals that makes the musical experience so beautiful. Yes, yes," he announces. "They are coming back, and there might be another concert over there in the meantime. We haven't decided on the dates..."