Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Jazz for life

Rania Khallaf took a dose of heavenly jazz

Jazz for life
Jazz for life

The ninth round of the Cairo Jazz Festival (CJF) has just closed, leaving jazz lovers in a complete vacuum. Those who were keen to attend the three days of concerts must have experienced the same nostalgia. Improvised tunes, rhythmic, vocal and electronic mantras were intertwined through performances, making the event a vivid celebration of life in the face of the routine tempo of the day.

The inauguration, which took place on Thursday 28 September, was brilliant, although the inaugural concert started 20 minutes late and the audience was remarkably small. This year, the concerts took place mainly at the AUC Ewart Hall, while a few concerts were performed at the Oriental Hall. The last round took place at the open-air theatre of the Greek Campus, which was much more appropriate to the spirit of the event.  

“Jazz music is the closest genre to the essence of ‘freedom’. Jazz has crossed borders, and transcended origins and cultures,” said pianist Amr Salah in his short opening speech. Salah established the CJF in 2005, hoping to “present a solid platform for musicians. We were honoured to have Ziad Rahbani and Omar Khayrat among others during the last rounds and we were keen on presenting different jazz styles and tastes.”

The elegant Cairo Big Band Society inaugurated the festival. A large orchestra of 12 musicians, including two women, it was founded by pianist Hisham Galal in 2016. Accompanied by lead vocalist Amr Yehia, the band presented some classic songs, including The Best Is Yet to Come and other tunes by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. The band’s performance is highly professional, though somewhat quiet in the first half of the concert. It was vocalist Amr Yehia who warmed it up, singing Feeling Good by Michael Bublé, as well as other hits by Don Sebesky, Neal Hefti and others. Masar Egbari, an independent Egyptian band, interrupted the concert, singing a song entitled Remember When We Were from its new album, recorded in collaboration with the Cairo Big Band Society.

Mathias Heise Quadrillion, from Denmark, presented the following concert. Composed of four young musicians playing guitar, base guitar, percussion and electric piano, accompanied by sporadic harmonica. Jazz improvisation was the heart of this performance, which combined rock and funk. The beats were vibrant and euphoric. In some pieces, the music would slow down and feel like humming, and then rise violently again, throwing the audience into the thick of noise. The joy here lies in the discovery; you cannot predict what kind of music will come next. Man Versus Nature and Sudden Ascent are among the more popular beats. The most exciting part is when the harmonica takes over with drums and guitar. 

A concert by Eftekkasat, a popular jazz band from Egypt, folded the first day. Established in 2002 by Amr Salah, the band presents an Egyptian take on jazz. While there are other Egyptian jazz bands that present classic jazz, this is the one of the prominent representations of an Egyptian contribution to the jazz scene.

On the second day, which included five concerts, the highlight was a performance by the new Egyptian singer Sherine Abdou, accompanied by Amr Salah on piano and other musicians from different bands. In a short red dress, with a beaming face, Abdou went on the Oriental Hall stage and instantly generated a dancing mood. The small hall was full, with young people occupying every inch of the ground. With passion, Abdou sang classic hits such as Blue Moon and Nice and Easy

A 2006 graduate of the Faculty of Mass Communication, Ain Shams University, Abdou found her way on the music scene only five years ago. She had discovered her vocal abilities by coincidence when she attended a concert and ended up involved in the singing on stage. After participating in a few concerts, she was asked to join Ziad Rahbani’s band for two years. “Jazzy Me” is the title of her second solo project. For almost a year, Abdou — also a songwriter — played classic jazz tunes at private venues. She told me she was “so proud, being one of a very few female jazz vocalists in Egypt. It is very hard for a woman to make her way in the music scene in Egypt, but I am surviving, despite criticism and the usual obstacles. I hope I did well on stage,” she blushed, adding she is preparing for the release of her next album, which will include some jazzy tunes in Arabic.  

The following concert, back at the Ewart Hall, was the Kapok trio from the Netherlands, who effected another major shift in the mood. The band blends many styles, including funk rock, classical and free improvisation. Morris Kliphius, who plays the French horn, told the audience the band was established six years ago, and has released four albums since. “We felt that we needed to break the rules. Therefore, we decided to perform fully improvised pieces on stage. Therefore, we do not know what we are going to play next. It is quite a challenge to perform music on the spot. This is why I am a bit scared,” he said, smiling. The French horn dominated; it was as if it was a storyteller accompanied by sound effects on guitar. By the end of the concert, Kliphius had a request to play a song from the band’s second album. “Oh, this is quite a surprise. We have never been asked to play an old track when we are out of the country. You guys are amazing,” he said. 

The audience also warmly interacted with the Tomas Liska trio from Czech. The musicians, from Bosnia, Serbia and the Czech Republic played a kind of semi-Oriental jazz, blending jazz with chamber, world and Mediterranean music. The amazing performance of Nikola Zaric on accordion contributed to that Oriental taste. The other two players on violin and bass were also exceptionally creative. Excitement reached a peak on the third and last day, which also saw five concerts, with the performance of the Pan-African Jazz Project, a fusion of jazz music from Panama and Egypt. 

The band, consisting mainly of women in different colourful, loose costumes, gave an unforgettable performance on stage. They played a kind of happy jazz. And, with two female vocalists — Michelle Rounds and Luz Acosta, who also plays bass — it was a festive night. After a few cheerful songs, the vocalists called audience members from Panama to join the stage in a local folk dance. Soon, the narrow space between the first rows and the stage was filled with listeners from Panama and Egypt dancing to the cheerful rhythm. It was such a fantastic scene. One of brilliant Egyptian musician is Balkis Riad, who played a semi-electric oud

She told me she has been playing oud for 15 years now. She was encouraged by a friend to join this project, and she considers this one of the decisive experiences in her career. “It was my first time playing jazz; however, to be a jazz musician, I actually need to practise and study more. We just had three rehearsals in less than a week,” she smiled. “The girls from Panama are amazing. Although they come from a different culture, it was easy to mingle with them, as we are all female and we all studied music professionally.” Riad, 26, has composed a number of tunes for short documentary films such as Moghtaribat or “Foreign Students”, which won some local and international prizes. “This experience encouraged me to study jazz, so that maybe I will have a chance to play a composition of my own next year.” 

Patricia Zarate on the saxophone was amazing. “We connected easily with the Egyptian musicians. It was a wonderful experience,” Zarate said, for her part. “The Egyptian music has a different origin and style, so we had to figure out the differences. I had listened previously to some old Egyptian tunes, but playing live on stage with Oriental musicians is quite challenging. I noticed that Egyptian musicians have strong improvisational skills. And this was so unexpected. So, we had to listen carefully because you never can predict what they’re going to play,” she smiled smartly. “The blues is the common feature of music from both Panama and Egypt, with oud playing a major part,” she explained. Zarate, also the director of Panama Jazz Festival, to be held in January 2018, says the jazz scene in Panama is flourishing with many diverse bands and some 30,000 attending the annual festival. “We have Danilo Perez, a cultural foundation that supports the festival throughout the year, with the aim to use music as a tool for social change.” 

On the third day, Hani Al-Azhari, one of the founders of Al-Masryeen band and the main founder of Wave Band, received the honorary icon of the festival. “Jazz music has the power to connect various people around the globe. It is flourishing in almost every country in the world, because it is an ideology, rather than a musical type,” he said. Enthusiasm and love is the dominant spirit here at the festival’s venues, a cheerful spirit that the audience feel from the first moment. The organising committee is preparing for the 10th round next year, which “is going to be a massive event that will presumably last for a whole week,” Salah added enthusiastically. 

The festival was first established by a group of jazz players, with the aim of developing a reputable international event to be significant on the tourist map. The festival also offers the Egyptian audience a unique opportunity. This round was accompanied by three workshops: unusual formations by Kapok, jazz innovations by the Mn’JAM Experiment from Portugal and psychological treatment with music, held with the cooperation of the Feminist Union in Egypt, and musicians from Panama. Women from Alexandria, Menia and Cairo participated in the one-day workshop, and were described by Zarate, who was the main lecturer, as “highly creative women, unpredictably solid as a rock”.

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