Whirling through time
Grand plans are in the works for the fifth round of the International Samaa' Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting next week. Nevine El-Aref
attended the press conference
The Bir Youssef area (the name means Joseph's Well) at the southern end of Al-Nasir Mohamed Ibn Qalawoun Mosque near the Salaheddin Citadel in mediaeval Cairo is buzzing with activity as the final touches are added in preparation for the opening of the fifth International Samaa' Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting (ISFSMC, 29 July-8 August).
Here are technicians preparing the space for performers and the audience; there, workers installing the final decorations of every booth, retail shop, tent and wagon in the newly reconstructed Great Street Market (GSM), at the entrance of the Bir Youssef Stage.
An experience out of The Thousand Night and One Nights is to be resurrected at Bir Youssef -- but with a modern twist. Young women and men in traditional Egyptian Mamluk garb will welcom visitors into the GSM, well-known in Mameluk history as a cultural forum where spontaneous artists and intellectuals gathered to show their work to passers-by. It will also be a busy market selling copper, ivory, wood and clay products of the traditional art centre.
Exhibitions from Egypt, China and Turkey -- the ISFSMC guest of honour -- will be also be held. There are two from Turkey: the first of paintings by the artist Ahmet Akgün, the second, "Tolerance Firmans", of Ottoman sultanic firmans. The other two exhibitions are of Arabic calligraphy: one shows works by the well-known calligrapher Mohamed Hamam; the other a collection from Muslim Chinese artists.
This round brings together Sufi musicians and chanters from 20 countries including Turkey, Bosnia, Morocco, India, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, the United States, the Ukraine, Spain, Tunisia, Iraq, Ecuador, Germany and Egypt. In addition, China, Zambia, the United Arab Emirates and France are participating for the first time. The opening will feature separate performances where every participating group will show a favourite.
"It is really a great musical event that is sending a cultural message to the whole world by extending our hands to represent our culture and welcome all other cultures on the land of Egypt," said Mohamed Abu Saeada, First Undersecretary of State for the Cultural Development Fund (CDF). "These are the messages that we want to send to the whole world, in addition to the principles we are trying to establish in the interim period."
Abu Saeada explained that, since the establishment of the ISFSMC five years ago, the CDF has been trying to develop the festival year after year -- in an attempt to create an international forum for the Sufi chanting art and its followers to meet in Egypt which has been always a crossroads of arts. This year witnesses the cooperation of several governmental agencies: the Ministry of State for Antiquities; the Ministry of Culture; the Foreign Cultural Relations sector and the Egyptian Tourism Authority.
"It really is a rich musical meal, but very delicious." Hossam Nassar, the head of Foreign Cultural Relations, described the festival as a gala event gathering a range of cultures, rhythms and sounds to produce a unique moment. Nassar said this year's round was dedicated to the well-known early 20th-century sheikh Taha El-Fashni and the Grand Cathedral Father Ibrahim Aayad.
For his part Amr El-Ezabi, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, said the authority is participating in this year's round in order to promote another kind of "Samaa Tourism" in Egypt, which proved it success with the Samaa group's "Message of Peace" performance on the fringe of the ITB Berlin a few months ago.
Intesar Abdel Fatah, the head of the Ghouri Dome Creativity Centre who is the founder of the Samaa group, said this year Turkey presents a distinguished group called the Destar Band for Traditional Turkish music, founded in 1996 in an attempt to preserve the Sufi musical heritage.
China, which will be the festival's guest of honour in 2013, participated this year for the first time with the national music band of Honan province, mixing China's folk music heritage with contemporary sounds. It is a very well known group in China that has won several awards including the golden award for choir. The Chinese government, Abdel Fatah said, also offered the ISFSMC a calligraphic painting of the word "Samaa" which becmae the logo of the festival.
He went on to indicate that Zambia will to participate with Zambian Vocal Collection founded in 1993 under the name Zambian Acappela Boys Choir. The group consists of young men who have brought new life to the word "a cappella", singing traditional hymns, original verses and inspirational numbers that touch people in all walks of life from the dedicated music connoisseur to the child whose ears are tickled with the sweet sounds of vocal nuances without using any musical instruments.
The Emirates will participate with the National Band for Traditional Arts specialised in Al-Mald chanting, a type of religious song. The Al-Mald consists of two rows of singers sitting and holding tambourines in their hands. During singing they move the tambourines up and start tapping.
The festival this year will honour Grand Imam of Al Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and the name of the late Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic Seat of Saint Mark the Evangelist, as well as Sheikh Taha El-Fahni and the well-known writer Kheiry Shalabi.