By Hannah Wilkinson
Even being able to walk in to Mawaweel, Darb 1718’s hotly anticipated Ramadan celebration, last Thursday night, 1 August, felt like an achievement. The party, which was simply intended to bring people together to celebrate Ramadan, had been cancelled twice, and what was meant to be two separate events was brought together to form one big event, featuring three bands and a plethora of family friendly activities.
“People are afraid to come out on a Friday,” explained Sara El-Redy, the event’s organiser, “even though there’s not much happening outside the main areas[where protests are taking place], people are worried about driving.” But whatever anxieties people may have been feeling, they did nothing to bring down the mood. Darb 1718’s white-domed brick buildings were hung with colourful lamps and a buzz of happy chatter hung in the air. The atmosphere was that of a carnival which people had been waiting for far too long.
The festival is a joint venture of Darb 1718 and the Cairo Jazz Club Agency, and featured the modern folklore singer Basheer, and bands Salalem and Massar Egbari. The line-up was a big draw for a lot of people, with everyone I talked to mentioning one performer who they came especially to see.
Darb 1718 took care of the rest. And by the rest I mean films, fire eaters, whirling dervishes, pottery workshops for children, and open galleries showcasing Darb’s latest exhibitions. The event also boasted a bazaar, which, El-Redy said, “gives local people a chance to sell their products.” The bazaar was something of a treat and, unusually for these events, featured beautiful pottery and jewellery which you might actually want to buy.
Darb’s crowd is known for being a little samey, in spite of the venue’s claim to aim for inclusiveness. But to give the venue credit their repeat audience is also full of loyal, satisfied punters who know what they want. Rehan went with her two daughters Aisha and Sarah. “I come to Darb all the time,” she said. “I follow their events, I think they do a wonderful job in terms of democratising the arts.” The performers can feel this enthusiasm. All three spoke of how much they love the Darb audience. “Every time I play at Darb I come away happy,” singer Basheer said. “There’s a different audience at Darb, a really nice audience. They come to listen to the music and because they like the bands.”
But there was an importance, a need, to the mood of Thursday’s event. It was more than just a concert. “People just went through a really tough time,” Basheer explained. “Maybe one of the hardest years ever, and the mood in the country isn’t good.”
Many of the usual festivities which accompany the month of Ramadan have been cancelled, many venues are closed. In this context, Mawaweel was a breath of fresh air.
“We’re here because we don’t want to be anywhere else,” explained another attendee. “There are bad things going on outside.”
Thursday’s festivities were an excuse to forget about those “bad things”, and instead of sitting at home watching events on TV, a chance for people to “channel their energy into something positive,” according to El-Redy.
Indeed all of the evening’s performers were aware of the role of music in bringing people together to celebrate, if only for a few hours. “People gather together around music,” Basheer said, who feels that by playing traditional Egyptian music, he can help people to love their country again.
But as an artist, the work of all the groups performing has altered due to the events unfolding around them. “Of course everyone is affected by what’s going on,” said Ayman Massoud of Massar Egbari. “We wanted to provide people with a different perspective, give them a bit of light relief.”
“Nowadays, we’re more inclined to play songs that speak about our personal opinions on what’s going on,” said Jimmy, the lead singer of Salalem. Speaking about the tragedies which beset Egypt daily, clash somewhat with what makes Salalem stand out; a happy laid back band playing happy, laid-back music. But their solution is simple. “We’re just going to approach the sadness from a happy point of view, keeping it positive,” Jimmy said, summing up the evening perfectly.