US cellist Eugene Friesen draws inspiration for his Grammy-award-winning music from just about everywhere: Johann Sebastian Bach, the song of a humpback whale, and, most recently, the traditional scales that characterise Arabic folk songs.
Local musicians introduced Friesen to the Middle Eastern melodic modes, called maqam, while he was visiting Cairo last week as part of a music exchange put on by the New York-based nonprofit Izdahar.
“For decades, I’ve been drawn to music that is influenced by folk cultures,” Friesen said. “Wherever I go, I feel that I learn so much just from breathing the air, drinking the water and meeting the musicians who have grown up with this music.”
Launched in August, Izdahar seeks to help support the development of emerging art forms in Egypt through cross-cultural interaction, and preserve the country’s artistic heritage by showcasing Arab talent in the United States.
The cellist’s tour is Izdahar’s third project, said Yasmin Tayeby, the Egyptian native who founded the nonprofit after graduating from Boston’s venerable Berklee College of Music. Tayeby flew violinist Osman El Mahdy, one of Egypt’s most sought-after Suzuki teachers to New York last fall, where he put on a show and conducted a question and answer session about the state of art in Egypt. In January, Izdahar took the musical theatre company Fabrica to the United States to perform an Arabic version of Les Miserables to sold-out theatres all over the country’s northeast.
Tayebe came up with the idea for Izdahar after seeing Fabrica perform on Bassem Youseff’s El Bernameg last year, she said. The beauty of the Arabic language melded with the brilliance of the Western opera inspired her to ask: “What else could we create if we came together?”
In the three years since the 25 January Revolution, Egypt has undergone, not only political and economic changes, but also a cultural and artistic transformation, Tayebe said. Driven by a growing embrace of free speech and self-expression, the country is in the midst of “an artistic renaissance,” she said. Contemporary music is expanding, the hip-hop scene has grown and, “break dancing is even becoming a thing”.
At the same time, she said: “There has always been so much fantastic art all over the Middle East that really needs a platform.” But tough economic times have been even tougher on the arts, as donors, feeling their money could be better spent elsewhere, have abandoned the sector in droves.
Building “artistic bridges” between countries, she said, is one way to help revive the struggling sector, while also injecting the arts scene with some inspiration.
“At a time when tensions between the regions are high, it’s really nice to bring someone like Eugene over who is interested in the culture and music,” she said. “The whole message is to forget all the political stuff that’s going on and just communicate through art.”
During his stay in Egypt, Friesen taught workshops in improvisation to a group of young students and performed with local musicians, including the band Ashara Gharby. He played at the Cairo Jazz Club and the Cairo Opera House.
Twenty-four-year-old Nesma Mahgoub, a singer who attended, called the workshops “brilliant”.
“Everybody was bringing their life experiences to the music,” she said. “It wasn’t just a fusion of different genres of music, but also of different experiences and cultures.”
In particular, she said, she was intrigued by the unusual way Friesen works with his instrument.
“He does things I’ve never seen a cellist do,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like he’s not playing a cello at all, but a double bass or a bass guitar.”
For his part, Friesen said he was drawn in by the warmth of the Egyptian people, as well as the intricate ornamentation of the country’s traditional tunes.
“I can already see how my experiences in Egypt are coming out in my music,” he said.