Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond the holy month’s records

What can we expect in the way of music this Ramadan? Ati Metwaly has some ideas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“More disturbance than wind, and no killer, but it is still a form of hurricane. The street crowds provide an air of thrill, gripping Cairo by the lapels. The big streets and boulevards hum and throb with activity. Shopping bags burst with goods, lights blaze, street cars lie embedded in jams which do eventually unwind as the city heaves on into early dawn when, as if by magic, all is suddenly silenced. The megalopolis breathes again. No one really knows Cairo – it’s too big. But it splinters into small pieces like mosaics, little villages on an endless map.”

With those words, David Blake, Al Ahram Weekly’s late music critic, opens his review of a classical concert during Ramadan, back in 1999. As he delves into the details of the evening at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall, Blake hints at the richness of the cultural scene during the holy month, pointing to the festive spirit that spreads across the city and in which its people luxuriate.

In 1999, however, Ramadan coincided with January, a month that is much more gentle in its temperatures than the killer heat of June, which torments the fasting populace. This is one of the reasons why the “air of thrill” will be particularly welcome coming from the cultural scene, which tends to offer refreshing evenings, a much needed opportunity and a relief from the day-long fast culminating in a traditional Iftar.

But aside from high temperatures, this year Ramadan coincides with the weeks during which many cultural institutions routinely end their seasons and embark on summer activities. Blake’s exploration of musical offerings had been exactly in the middle of the opera’s season, at the peak of the classical music calender, with ballets and operas held not only at the opera but also at other locations all across the city, alongside Ramadan evenings. This year however, having completed their annual programming, many venues will now shift to content and programming dedicated specifically to Ramadan.

With the last concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra scheduled for 28 June, the Cairo Opera House will have reached end of its season and focus fully on the holy month. Indeed the Opera has already released a statement revealing some of the highlights.

The 25 Ramadan evenings – each starting at 9.30 pm – will combine Arabic music and inshad based on spiritual poetry with musicians catering to listeners from different generations with different musical preferences. Concerts by Omar Khairat, Ali Al-Haggar and harpist Manal Mohie Eldin open the Opera’s press release in which we also read about independent musicians such as Fathy Salama, Dina El Wedidi and the Basata Band. The Ramadan programming also includes a concert by the Alexandria Opera Chamber Orchestra and a concert by students of the Talents Development Centre. With a lot of concerts scheduled to take place all across the Opera’s halls – including the Open-air Theatre – the Ramadan evenings will be but the beginning of the Opera’s long summer months. They will be followed by the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing in Cairo and the Summer Festival at the Citadel of Qait Bay in Alexandria, scheduled to begin right after Eid.

Within the Ministry of Culture, however, the Cultural Development Fund is probably the most vibrant institution in Ramadan, offering a wide range of activities. The Fund’s venues include numerous captivating houses and palaces, all soaked in rich cultural history.

No setting fits Ramadan evenings better than the 14th-century Amir Taz Palace or the equally old Qasr Bashtak (Palace of Bashtak), the 16th century Al-Ghoury complex or Beit El Seheimy, the 18th century house which remarkable mashrabeyas overlooking the street. Such places bring back the centuries-long history to our ears and eyes in ways particularly suited to Ramadan. No locations can create as fascinating a link between Ramadan traditions and their centuries-old sources, filling our senses to overflowing. The numerous historical palaces and houses operating under the Cultural Development Fund will serve as wonderful refuges to all those looking for a cultural and spiritual finale to the long day.

Independent venues will not lag behind with their Ramadan offerings, nonetheless. Located in the heart of old Cairo, the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre is already preparing for Mawaweel, the annual two-week festival held during the holy month. The evenings will continue past midnight featuring Eslam El-Sha’ary, Al Mawlaweya Al Masreya, Tanoura along with popular bands such as Massar Egbari, Salalem and Hawidro, among others. There is no need to elaborate on locations such as Makan – Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts or the Doum Cultural Foundation, on the other hand. Together with several other such establishments, they too will not doubt top their regular activities with special programmes tailored to the month of fasting.

One event however will definitely be missing on the map and that will be the Hayy Festival, the annual Ramadan event that used to be organised by the Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy). Throughout the years, the festival saw performances by many remarkable independent artists from the region: Rim Banna (Palestine), Macadi Nahhas and Lara Elayyan (Jordan), Yasmine Hamdan and Oumeima El Khalil (Lebanon), Hansa El-Besharia (Algeria), Aziza Braheim (Morocco) and others. Now that the Culture Resource froze all its activities in Egypt and El Genaina Theatre is managed by a new El Genaina company, the audience has yet to find out about the cultural activities planned for the location.

But as we enumerate the locations, raising our eyebrows over the increased dynamism of some and weeping over those that closed their doors, creating long lists of artists who will infuse Cairo with cultural events in the next four weeks, we must remember that the month of Ramadan is much more than just well presented inventories and weather forecasts observed with a meticulous eye picking the tiniest fraction of temperature change. For many, Ramadan constitutes a shift in priorities and expectations within the day; the four weeks become that “disturbance [stronger than] wind and no killer, shopping bags [that] burst with goods [and the] lights blaze...” as Blake summed it all up.

Ramadan is about the city entering a unique dynamic, a megalopolis where the cultural scene is shifting, spontaneously adapting to the late hot evenings... It is about the music, poetry readings, spiritual chants that fill the spaces and the minds of listeners, carrying them past yet another evening, soothing them through the next day’s fast with the happy experiences of the previous night. 

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