Of the few marimba or xylophone musicians in Egypt, Nesma Abdel-Aziz is probably the best known and loved, having played with legends like Omar Khairat and Nasseer Shamma. She later went solo, performing a string of successful gigs and releasing a few music videos. In fact, few other instrumentalists in Egypt have reached the heights of Abdel Aziz’s popularity.
Her percussion instruments are rare in contemporary Arabic music despite their African origins, but Abdel-Aziz, after beginnings with a more traditional Latin repertoire, began incorporating marimba with Egyptian classics. She has a habit, however, of not introducing her songs in concerts, so the audience has to figure out the classics she’s covering.
The stage had been set up in the courtyard of the magical Beit Harrawi for Abdel Aziz’s Ramadan gig, held last Sunday. Abdel-Aziz said she prefers it outside as it’s “more spacious and cooler. It was, as a matter of fact, a humid night and by 9:45, the band was still sound checking, giving the audiences tantalizing but eardrum-piercing sneak previews of the performance originally scheduled at 9. The audience was mixed, the adults getting restless in the heat, the children running wild and being chased away from the stage with water like stray cats.
Finally, the band was assembled onstage in the dark. The lights flashed and Abdel-Aziz bounded onto the stage, launching into an eclectic set of old favorites. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician with quite as much energy; Abdel-Aziz was hopping all over stage as if she was dancing an intricate type of tango with the marimba rather than playing it. Her enthusiasm was infectious; spreading to the cheering audience, priming them for the moment after her rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee when, almost out of nowhere, a whirling dervish appeared amidst the seated listeners. Abdel-Aziz accompanied him on the duff, the audience clearly pleased.
Abdel-Aziz and her accomplished band pulled out hit after catchy hit, from Dalida to Soaad Hosny, Shakira to Sayed Darwish. Commenting after the show, Abdel-Aziz said she had wanted to “do something not too Western and not too oriental. With a qanun, nay, keyboard, bass, drums and tabla backing the marimba up, there was an even mix of instruments from both traditions, and the sound was indeed “in between.
Despite her apparent reticence onstage, Abdel-Aziz’s bubbly charisma is undeniable, as is her skill. But the music was, on some levels, disappointing. The arrangements are slightly stale, reminiscent of the Omar Khorshid era, predictable and almost too easy on the ear. It was fun to hear old favorites, yet I was expecting to see these classical compositions transformed by Abdel-Aziz, hammered out beneath her capable hands into something altogether fresh and different. The musicians were wonderful and Abdel-Aziz herself was on fire, but the set lacked originality.
With this combination of talent, vigor, charm and skill, and with this unusual lineup of instruments, Abdel-Aziz’s band has the potential to create an entirely novel sound – but they don’t appear to be taking any risks now. Although, to see the adulation of Abdel-Aziz’s fans before, during, and after the performance; they may indeed have good reason.