Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Jazz fuel

Rania Khallaf rewinds at the Cairo Jazz Festival

Jazz fuel
Jazz fuel
Al-Ahram Weekly

For those of us tired of unpleasant music, bored by our daily routines and in need of positive energy, the Cairo Jazz Festival is the place to go. At the opening of the eighth round last Thursday, at the American University in Cairo’s Greek Campus, festival manager Amr Salah and radio announcer Zahra Rami were on stage to present the performers, including two the Bahraini band LIKWID with poet-composer Alaa Ghawas (also from Bahrain). 

Playing acoustic guitar and singing, Ghawas performed a series of songs in English: “Love for Rent”, “Cheated in Life” and (with electric guitarist-vocalist Ahmed Abdelaziz) “Elsewhere”. The concert was made possible by Mawa3eed, the Culture Resource’s travel programme for Arab artists. 

Later at the Library Hall, a jazz trio from Austria and Switzerland – Rom, Schaerer, and Eberle, who first joined forces in 2009 – proved outstanding with its lineup of voice, trumpet and guitar. Andreas Scharear’s vocal improvisations and experiments – at one point evoking animal sounds – were particularly remarkable. It was an entirely different and complex mood.

Back at the main stage, another trio from Portugal – Carmen Souza (piano and vocals), Theo Pascal (bass guitar) and  Elias Kacomanolis (drums) – were gathering listeners all over, notably on the floor. Souza’s strong voice changed the mood again, bringing about a sense of cheerfulness. The trio have worked together for 14 years. Their numbers hailed from Angola and the Cape, with Pascal also inviting the audience to clap a la flamenco.

All through the festival the concerts started on time, leaving only a few minutes for the audience to move from one venue to another. On the last night, however, Amr Salah and his band – a popular number – were 10 minutes late at the Library Hall. Salah is the composer and keyboards player who started Iftekasat band. With female jazz vocalist Noha Fikry and Rami Samir on drums, the trio played popular songs by Fairouz and Mohammed Mounir, with a brand new jazzy distribution. 

Salah’s improvisation on piano was outstanding. Fekri, whose singing repertoire covered both pop and jazz , performed with great passion and displayed the astounding range of her voice. She looked energetic and her performance was spontaneous and cheerful though she was stuck in a chair for its duration. Fikri  recently released her first album, A Conversation, with pianist Rami Atalla. The show effectively combined a conventional musical mood with new and exciting lyrics – just what I needed.

The Atom String Quartet from Poland was another pleasant surprise. The internationally renowned band, winners of the grand prix of the 13th Bielska Zadymka jazz festival, presented classic and contemporary pieces. With three violinists and one cellist, their performance to a fill Library Hall was inspiring. 

As for the Hamza Namira show, back at the main stage, the huge size of the audience – the suddenness with which it gathered – was shocking: young people and university students who greeted the pop singer-songwriter and guitarist with shrieks of joy. Namira played popular hits of his like Insan (Human) and Zahma (Crowds) – not strictly speaking jazz but a winning formula nonetheless.

According to Amr Salah (himself a passionate musician who started playing piano at the age of six), “The idea of establishing an international jazz festival first occurred to me in 2009, when I was impressed by jazz festivals I attended with my band Iftikasat, which plays jazz fusion and world music. We started on a very small scale that year, hosting two bands from Germany, Bulgaria with two Egyptian jazz bands: Fathi Salama and Yehia Khalil. And it went well. 

“Now we’ve grown not only in terms of participating bands but of sponsors too. This year we have 13 embassies and many cultural foundations sponsoring us. But we are working in very tough conditions nonetheless. We need more support from the government. We only have the Ministry of Tourism as a governmental sponsor. This is a cultural initiative, not about collecting money by holding concerts. And, unfortunately, this kind of formula is not so well understood by the state...

“Jazz music is very special. I don’t think of jazz as a style of music so much as a human experience with a peculiar history, dating back to the 19th century. It is also a healing medium, it keeps your mind busy, and brings the audience up to the challenge of exploring unexpected fusions and performances. Some people would think jazz is an exclusive form, but no, it is a very big word. 

“It is not just about one type of music. It is mainly about fusions, mixing jazz with rock, or pop, and oriental music. The festival’s aim is to spread the jazz concept. And one good fusion project this year is this mix between jazz musicians from Panama and Egypt. We started working on this pan-African jazz project in August together with officials from the embassy of Panama. The musicians played original compositions in addition to traditionally re-arranged music from both countries. 

“The audience of jazz concerts is certainly different, but I hate to generalise. You can find all ages here, youngsters and elders. Still, I am not satisfied with the turnout this year, I expected more people would come, but maybe we need to inform people more about the festival all the year round, not just in the few weeks leading up to it. I hate to say that people are running away from cultural events, but maybe, globally, people are not content, they are more depressed than ever before.

“We actually work throughout the year to prepare for this big event. Hosting 13 international and two Egyptian bands is no easy task. My future plans?” he asked, laughing. “For now I just want to sleep.”

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