The International Cairo Jazz Festival

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from a longer essay on improvised music spaces in Egypt that will be published in October as part of the Sounding Board's forthcoming collaboration with IASPM-US. More information, including how to submit a proposal to the project, can be found here.

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With a focus on celebrating diversity, cultivating an interest in culture and music, and educational outreach, the International Cairo Jazz Festival brings artists from around the world each year to Egypt’s capital for three days of music appreciation and cultural exchange. From March 21 to 23, 2013, the festival kicked off its fifth year with performers from 15 different countries performing in 17 concerts. Started by keyboardist Amro Salah in 2009 with a budget of only 9,000 EGP (roughly US$1,500), the festival has grown tremendously since its inception and is now featured at al-Azhar Park, a major cultural venue and beautiful outdoor garden that overlooks downtown Cairo. The Cairo cityscape with iconic Citadel and towering minarets provided the backdrop for the event.

The second, smaller stage at al-Azhar

In addition to two stages at al-Azhar Park, concerts were staged in downtown Cairo at the cultural center, Darb 1718; for a more intimate concert environment suitable for jamming and small shows, after-hours performances were also held at the Cairo Jazz Club. The Cairo Jazz Club is one of the few venues in Egypt where audiences can consume alcohol and dance while enjoying live music.

The festival took place during a turbulent time. Enduring political instability, social unrest, and economic uncertainty deeply polarized the country: On Friday March 22, while thousands of music enthusiasts enjoyed the second day of the festival, clashes in a neighborhood in Cairo between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters left 164 people injured. Nevertheless, social instability did not deter audiences. Over the course of three days, organizers sold about 5,000 tickets mostly through word of mouth. For many in attendance, the festival could not have come at a better time. As Terry Gordon, trumpeter in the Arch Station Quartet, explained, "we heard time and again from festival attendees [that] the city of Cairo needed an event like the Jazz Festival to help boost its tourism industry and to give Egyptians a chance to come together around something as powerful and hopeful as music at a time of weighty political issues. The Cairo International Jazz Festival director, Amro Salah, is a true hero for organizing this festival amid security challenges."

Amro Salah, festival organizer and pianist from the group Eftekesat

Without making any overt political statements, Salah (pictured above) believes the festival itself is a political message more powerful than what can be expressed by words, “The festival is a means to unite people around culture, instead of politics which is polarizing.” While the Western media focuses on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and a perceived rise of religious extremism, Salah argues that Egypt is and always has been diverse, and the jazz festival is a testament to that diversity. In an interview with Egypt Independent, Salah added, “We believe culture and music are the only things that bring people together — nothing else. If we want a solution to all our problems in Egypt, then this [festival] is the start of one.”

Encouraging this sense of unity, the Cairo Jazz Festival has an international focus to celebrate the diversity of Egypt and the long history of Egyptians living side-by-side with a variety of cultures, beliefs, and traditions. Gilberto Gil from Brazil honored this theme by opening the festival and sharing the stage with Egyptian vocalist Dina El Wedidi (pictured below). Gil is acting as a mentor to El Wedidi, who is currently touring with him internationally. Each night showcased a blend of different approaches to jazz and improvisation; El Wedidi incorporated aspects of traditional Egyptian and Middle Eastern music, such as vocal improvisation, the layali, in her set, and her music also used the maqamat, melodic modes commonly featuring quartertones. Egyptian jazz groups, such as Eftekesat and Karim Hossam Group, shared evening performances with the U.S.’s Arch Station Quartet, as well as with Kristiina Tuomi from Germany and marimbist Mika Yoshida’s group Mikarimba from Japan and the United States.

Dina El Wedidi and Gilberto Gil performing on the opening day

In keeping with its international focus, the festival is funded each year by cultural organizations and foreign embassies and receives no corporate sponsorship. Foreign embassies remain the biggest supporters of jazz in Egypt, though certain styles of jazz are also performed at government-run cultural venues like the Cairo Opera House and at upscale hotels.

Salah’s main goal is to cultivate a stronger audience for jazz in Egypt and, more broadly, to involve more Egyptians in culture. The popularity of the festival has increased since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which ended the thirty-year dictatorship of former president Hosni Mubarak. According to Salah, since the revolution, Egyptians have wanted exposure to new things: “People now are more willing to try something new and to experience music that they don’t normally hear dominating the airwaves.” Some of the artists who performed in the festival are not normally labeled as “jazz,” but Salah sees jazz as an ideology more than a musical style. “Jazz is expressing freedom. It is about creating a space for improvisation, which all of the artists featured at the festival captured in innovative ways.”

In addition to presenting a taste of diverse improvisatory musical styles from around the world, the festival seeks to cultivate an interest in jazz and culture more broadly through outreach and educational workshops. This year featured free workshops run by Suzan Overmeer for children from poor families at a local school; AMID East also sponsored schoolchildren to attend the festival and invited the Arch Station Quartet to give a private performance for students. These performances were sponsored by the Access program, which teaches high school students about American culture. Through working with children, Salah seeks to instill an appreciation for music in the next generation of Egyptians, “The ultimate goal is to have jazz education part of the regular academic curriculum, but we need security and stability in Egypt first.”

With a focus on education and outreach, organizers hope to be able to offer the festival to the public free of charge; however, ticket sales must cover more than 50% of the festivals expenses, which put this year’s ticket prices at 60 EGP (about $10) and up. Though this is less expensive than it would cost to see these same artists outside of Egypt, for most Egyptians this price is out of their reach, and the festival was heavily attended by wealthy Egyptians and foreigners.

Despite the cost, the tremendous growth of the festival in only five years' time shows extraordinary promise for the future. And for those able to attend this year, the three days of music offered some comfort during uncertain times. As one satisfied audience member tweeted after the first night of the festival: “If you were at CairoJazzFestival you would feel that there is HOPE in Egypt.”

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Darci Sprengel is a PhD student in ethnomusicology at UCLA and the Reviews Editor for Ethnomusicology Review. For more about the Cairo Jazz Festival and its role in creating space for improvised music in the context of recent political violence, come back and read the full version of this essay in October.

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