The International Cairo Jazz Festival and Mini Mobile Concerts: Two Musical Approaches to "Post"-Revolutionary Egypt
To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethnomusicology Review Volume 18, we're teaming up with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music for a series on Ethnomusicology and Popular Music. Our second piece comes from Darci Sprengel, a PhD student in UCLA Ethnomusicology, who details the role of the Cairo Jazz Fest in creating space for improvised music in the context of political violence.
Two years ago, thousands of Egyptians united to bring an end to the thirty-year reign of former president Hosni Mubarak. In the months immediately following the revolution, the atmosphere in Egypt was jubilant. Many Egyptians were filled with hope for a more positive future, for a government that was less corrupt, for an end to police brutality, and for more social, political, and artistic freedoms; however, since the popular revolution in 2011, enduring political and economic uncertainty has left deep rifts in a society that just two years prior seemed so united. Although many Egyptians had rallied around wanting Mubarak out, fewer have been able to agree on a viable alternative.
During this time of ongoing instability, artists have taken the opportunity to unite their fellow Egyptians around something other than politics: music. Despite the mostly negative media attention focusing on military coups, social unrest, and increased sexual harassment in Egypt today, many Egyptians are finding hope and comfort through avenues of creative expression. Some claim that cultural and artistic events are taking place at even greater intensity than prior to the 2011 revolution. Two events, the International Cairo Jazz Festival and Mini Mobile Concerts, offer diverse musical approaches to the current political, social, and economic climates in Egypt. Based on five months of fieldwork attending these events and interviewing organizers, musicians, and attendees, I will look at these two musical initiatives to provide a glimpse of the diverse ways cultural activities are engaging the current political and social situation while simultaneously serving as reprieve.
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 21 concerts. Started by composer and jazz pianist Amro Salah in 2009 with a budget of only 9,000 EGP (roughly $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. As the artists performed, the Cairo cityscape with iconic Citadel and towering minarets provided the backdrop for the event.
The main stage at al-Azhar Park on the opening night
In addition to two-stages at al-Azhar Park, additional concerts were staged in downtown Cairo at the cultural center, Darb 1718, and 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.
On the last night of the festival, Ribab Fusion, a group from Morocco featuring Amazigh music mixed with blues, reggae, and jazz, performed for an enthusiastic audience.
The festival took place during a turbulent time: 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 we heard time and again from festival attendees, 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.” (nippertown.com)
Without making any overt political statements, Salah 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 (and subsequent fall) of the Muslim Brotherhood and a perceived surge in religious extremism, Salah argues that Egypt is and always has been diverse, and the jazz festival is a testament to that diversity. “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” (Egypt independent).
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. 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 US.
In keeping with its international and cultural 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.
Traditionally, jazz has not boasted a wide audience in Egypt. The jazz musicians I’ve talked to attribute this to a number of factors, such as lack of accessibility to live jazz performances, little mainstream radio or television coverage of the genre, and the absence of music education. With performances mostly held at more prestigious venues such as the American University, the Cairo Opera House, and high-end hotels, jazz found a niche among the upper class. Yet, many internationally-famous jazz musicians have been performing in Egypt for decades. During the Cold War years, the United States State Department sponsored artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to perform in Egypt in a bid to promote American culture; in 1988, Dizzy Gillespie performed the inaugural concert of Egypt’s main performing arts venue, the Cairo Opera House; Egypt’s own “grandfather of jazz,” Salah Rageb, credited with forming the first jazz big band in Egypt in the 1960s, collaborated with Sun Ra and his Arkestra in 1971 and again in 1982, resulting in the album Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Rageb in Egypt (also known as Salah Rageb Meets Sun Ra in Egypt).
Through the festival, Salah’s main goal is to cultivate an 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. 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 underprivileged children at a local school. AMID East also sponsored school children to attend the festival and invited the Arch Stanton Quartet to give a private performance for students through 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. After only the first night of the festival, one satisfied audience member tweeted: “If you were at CairoJazzFestival you would feel that there is HOPE in Egypt.”
Gilberto Gil – Brazil
Ribab Fusion – Morocco
Dina El Wedidi – Egypt
Kristiina Tuomi – Germany
Ali El Farouk Trio – Egypt/Canada
Eftekesat – Egypt
GMH Orkestar – Austria
KJ Denhert – USA
Neil Cowley Trio – UK
Karim Hossam Group – Egypt
Mitko Rusev – Bulgaria
MIKARIMBA – Japan
Miguel Amado Group – Portugal
Danius Pulauskas Group – Lithuania
The Arch Station Quartet – USA
Rembrandt Frerichs Trio – Holland
Christophe Wallemme (NAMASTE) – France
Ziad Rahbani – Lebanon
The Arch Station Quartet – USA
Sabrine & Doum Da – Egypt/Holland/Poland/Romania
Whereas many cannot afford the ticket prices to attend the Cairo Jazz Festival, a new initiative started by bassist Ramez Ashraf brings music free of charge to the everyday spaces of ordinary life. Beginning shortly after the revolution in 2011, Mini Mobile Concerts (MMC) uses the street as a stage for live musical performance. At various times throughout the year, small groups of two to four musicians hold small impromptu concerts on street corners with the hope of making musical and creative expression a part of people’s daily routines. MMC has staged about twenty concerts in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. Despite being known in the early twentieth century as a cosmopolitan melting pot of different cultures and as British novelist Lawrence Durrell’s “city of five races, five languages, a dozen creeds,” Alexandria today is overshadowed by the megacity Cairo and its centralized art and culture scene, making MMC a little known but important addition to the Egyptian soundscape.
The type of music performed at MMC varies. The artists themselves are musicians from all walks of life, and they perform diverse musical genres from “oriental fusion” to jazz, rock, hip-hop, and electronica. All musicians are volunteers and have complete freedom in deciding what to perform. Many choose to begin their sets by performing old favorites by Umm Kulthum or Fairuz that the crowd will recognize before performing their own original works, and some performers have taken the opportunity to have public jam sessions.
Concert in downtown Alexandria on June 23, 2013
MMC does not have a set schedule—a concert is usually organized and held on the same day. It is staged impromptu, the performance itself a type of improvisation. The concerts are performed at all different times of the day, sometimes even in the early morning to catch potential audiences on their ways to work. In addition to hosting concerts in congested downtown locations, MMC visits neighborhoods far from city centers to reach communities not served by cultural centers or music venues. According to Ashraf, “The goal is to reach out. There is no way for them or us, the independent artists, to communicate, because they don’t get access to the information that we exist. When they see us, this is always their reaction, ‘Wow, we have musicians like you?’ because they don’t see us anywhere.” With small grants from cultural centers, Ashraf built a portable generator/mixer/sound board that he totes from neighborhood to neighborhood to amplify the instruments. In the last couple of months, MMC acquired funds to purchase a motorbike, which they specialized to transport the sound equipment to far off neighborhoods more easily.
Photo Credit: Maged Makram
Mini Mobile Concerts aims to improve the quality of people’s daily lives as they move about the city. Ashraf believes making art and creative expression a familiar part of the urban landscape is an important part of fulfilling the goals of the 2011 revolution. “In our daily life [sic], the time we spend together as a society in the streets and within transportation, unfortunately, lacks expressive art, beauty and music. Instead, we are bombarded by abrasive noise or poor music. Through our pop-up street performances, we aim to not only change that, but also to have artists become part of the daily routine for those interacting with the streets” (Egypt Independent). With custom built sound equipment, MMC aims to produce the same sound quality found in larger concerts and to showcase a high level of musicianship for people to enjoy as they go about their day.
Through the performance of a diverse variety of musical genres at different locations all over the city, MMC also seeks to change people’s relationship to the street. Prior to the revolution, music was not normally performed publically in urban locations outside of official music or cultural venues. Most musicians I’ve talked to attribute this lack to two factors: (1) fear of the police who dominated public space prior to the revolution, and (2) to the notion that live musical performance in urban areas was not a normal part of Egyptian culture. Before the revolution, the police held the power to arbitrarily detain anyone they deemed suspicious, and gathering crowds in public places was cause for arrest. Whether some attribute it to the police or to culture, a general sense that live music performance in the street was taboo was a part of popular consciousness and prevented most musicians from ever trying to perform in public spaces. As an example, in the Egyptian film Microphone (2011), “underground” artists repeatedly try to bring their art and music to public spaces but are chased and thwarted by the police at every attempt. Some larger-scale concerts had taken place in the street in the past, but they always required official government approval, featured only certain artists and types of music, and often catered to the neighborhoods and budgets of wealthier Egyptians.
Unlike previous street music festivals, Mini Mobile Concerts is unique in that it does not seek permission from the authorities. “We don’t get authorization because it is not a big concert—the music does not block the street, we are not taking electricity from anyone, we are not really loud. So the idea is to have the freedom to perform like this without needing a permit.” Despite not getting permits for their performances, Ashraf has had only positive experiences with the police: some police officers have even offered to help him set up his sound equipment. “I was worried about the police and people’s reactions for the first concert. During the first concert a policeman came up to me and asked me what I was doing, once I told him he just asked if I needed any help. It became clear that as long as I was not making any trouble it wouldn’t be a problem.”
In addition to negotiating the use of public space with the authorities, the street-as-stage adds new elements of performance for the musicians. One performer at MMC told me, “Going far out to these new neighborhoods, you never know how the people there will react. There is nothing separating you from the people, anything can happen.” Despite some occasional pre-concert anxiety, all the musicians I talked to agreed that performing in MMC has been a positive experience. According to Ashraf, “The reaction is always surprisingly good. It is a surprise for them that we exist. They say it’s a good idea and thank us for the good tunes we provide them.” Many passersby have stopped their routine to listen to the entire performance, which usually lasts a few hours, and some cannot believe it is a free concert. One MMC musician told me that many in the audience ask how they can get tickets or what the political affiliation of the performer or event is, “It can be hard for some people to accept that we have no political affiliation, that we are just trying to perform music in the street. People are not used to this.”
That performers are now bringing music and artistic expression to the popular spaces of everyday life has potentially powerful implications in a society that is deeply stratified along class lines. At MMC, the audience is not limited to a particular segment of the population or to those who live in certain neighborhoods. Audience members do not have to pay ticket fees or travel far distances, and they can wear their everyday clothes, something prohibited at many state-run venues which enforce strict dress codes for male and female attendees. Whereas live musical performance had traditionally been a private practice relegated to official venues or to private homes, MMC is helping to make it a public practice in urban spaces, challenging behavioral norms for both men and women in public spaces.
Notably, many of the performers at MMC have been female instrumentalists. In the past several years, media attention has increasingly focused on the issues of sexual harassment and women’s rights in Egypt, and many Egyptian activists have worked to bring these issues to the forefront of national attention. The female musicians that perform in MMC complicate the view of the Egyptian street as violent and hostile especially towards women. Yasmine Baramawy, an ‘ud (lute) player and women’s rights activist, has performed at several MMC concerts. Although she has experienced harassment during protests and during her day-to-day routine, she has had only positive experiences performing music in the street with MMC.
Early morning concert by Safinaz & Sabrin El Guindy. Photo Credit: Maged Makram
Yasmine El Baramawy performs 'ud in downtown Alexandria. Photo Credit: Ramez Ashraf
Before one MMC concert that was set to begin late at night, Baramawy waited in the car while the men set up the equipment. “I didn’t feel comfortable waiting outside the car because people were making comments and giving me looks.” Once she started performing, however, the same people’s attitudes towards her changed, “They listened to my music and congratulated me on my performance. After that I stood in the street in the middle of them without any problem.” In an interview with the Egypt Independent, she went on to say that “The revolution gave us endless possibilities, particularly in the realms of expression. I believe it is our role as artists to help promote this type of expression, because, sometimes, all it takes is one song to change a person’s mind from doing something bad, to hopefully doing something good.” (Egypt Independent). Ashraf agrees, “This music brings a little bit of peace and joy to the people in this hard time. When they stop and listen to this music, you can see and feel the change in them. In this time, especially, we should keep on playing.”
***I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Amro Salah, Ramez Ashraf, Yasmine Baramawy, Ayman Asfour, Sameh Helwany, and Abdallah Daif for taking the time to share their experiences with me and for their endless encouragement.
Darci Sprengel received a BMA in viola performance and BA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Michigan in 2010. From 2010 to 2011 she spent a year working with musicians in Egypt and studying Arabic at the University of Alexandria. She is currently a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology. Her current interests include new music from the Middle East, community art projects, sound in urban spaces, and gender and feminist studies.