African music formed the theme of the French Center for Cultural Cooperation’s annual Music Festival on Monday night.
Jazz, Nubian singers, Upper Egyptian stick dancing and reggae from Cote d’Ivoire performed one after the other – sometimes overlapping – on two stages set up in the imposing surroundings of Cairo’s Citadel.
Singer and oud-player
Khedr El-Attar performed Nubian classics popularized by crossover artist and famous son of Nubia, Mohamed Mounir. While Mounir beefs up his interpretations with electronica for mass consumption, stripped-down traditional Nubian music consists of drums, singing and the all-important hand claps.
What adds vibrancy to the proceedings is the dancing: some 20 dancers took to the stage on Monday, men dressed in white, women in black and fuchsia, or black and red. They glided across the stage in tandem, shoulder-shimmying and head-bobbing and delivering the obligatory (and highly-involved) hand clap sequences.
There is a euphoria generated by Nubian live concerts, and the sheer number of singers, dancers and drummers on stage, their energy, and their interaction with the audience, made for an excellent performance.
The next group took us further into Upper Egypt, to Minya.
The all-male Medhat Fawzi Center, Mallawi are exponents of tahteeb, the saidi (Upper Egypt) cane dance where men use long bamboo sticks to fight/dance their way through mock duels, to music. The combination of dancing and martial arts is reminiscent of Capoeira, the Brazilian combat dance in which pairs dance/fight to music.
Dressed in galabiyas, Tahteeb dancers circled around each other like cats about to pounce before suddenly breaking into break-dance steps and launching at each other with their sticks.
The dance is both elegant and fierce – the canes come crashing down with startling ferocity – until the weaker of the pair finds himself on the floor where he must continue to defend himself against his adversary, while trying to get up. A particularly remarkable and surprisingly agile performance was given by the two oldest members of the troupe, who leapt around the stage effortlessly, avoiding each others’ blows.
When not pummeling each other with sticks, the troupe delivered a rousing tabla (drum) performance, five drummers beating out a rhythm peppered with incredible solos.
The highlight and main attraction of the event was Tiken Jah Fakoly s lively performance, which attracted a large number of foreigners and African youth.
Born to a family of musicians in Cote d’Ivoire, Fakoly began his professional career in 1987 with the group Djelys. Soon, he became a well-known figure in his country’s music scene before going solo in the mid-90s.
His fierce lyrics, documenting the oppression of his people, transformed him into one of the most popular figures in African music.
His 1998 performance in Paris instantly propelled him to international stardom, and with sales topping 100,000 in France, Fakoly quickly became Africa’s bestselling reggae artist.
Fakoly’s energy, intensity and sheer charisma was front and center in Monday’s gig, performing a set of his greatest hits that drew heavily on his last album “L’ Africain.
Exhuming a Bob Marley-like stage persona, Fakoly introduced his brand of modern reggae to Cairo; a distinctive sound that blends African folk beats with traditional reggae melodies and splatters of rock and blues.
His lyrics are politically charged, dealing with corrupt administrations, injustice, European colonialism and the turmoil of Africans in the diaspora. A number of songs took a few jabs against the US and the war in Iraq, while others bashed the hypocrisy of charlatan politicians.
The tone of Fakoly’s music veered from the sad and sarcastic to the downright angry. Among the highlights were “Ouvrez les frontières, a call for opening up all frontiers and “Africain à Paris, an inventive cover of Sting’s “English Man in New York , which chronicles the brutal realities of an illegal African immigrant in Paris. Best of all was a rock rendition of “Promesses Bla Bla, a big anthem with a raucous chorus disparaging the false promises of African politicians and world leaders, closing the concert on a perfect note.
Overall, attendance was down from last year’s gigantic concert headlined by the better known Algerian singer/songwriter Souad Massi. The choice to stage the festival in the middle of the week prevented a large number of people catching the concert.