Iudging by the crowd piled outside the Rawabet Theater on Saturday night, a passerby would surely have assumed that a well-established act was about to take the stage. On the contrary, Baraka – led by singer Mariam Saleh, 23 – is fresh from the cradle.
Saturday’s concert was only their second since forming in May 2008, but their reputation has already spread thanks to a thriving arts culture among Cairo’s hip 20-somethings. The band’s lyrical base comes from the famous Sheikh Imam revolutionary anthems that were banned during the 1960s.
Sheikh Imam songs – penned by the legendary, oft-imprisoned Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – have become fashionable in recent years, providing today’s alternative musicians with a connection to both oriental musical traditions and local dissidence.
“Lyrics are prioritized in Arabic music, explained Yasser Ali, 23. However, when poetry is at the heart of a band’s repertoire, Yasser explained, the music often suffers.
Baraka opened with a grungy, distortion-laden number that recalled semi-electronic acts like Portishead and Evanescence. The somber opener gave no indication of the variety of songs to come; an eclectic collection ranging from bass-heavy funk, to fast-paced California ska, to gritty ballads inspired by Ozzy Osbourne.
No matter where their occidental departures took them, Baraka always managed to return to oriental roots. The audience clapped and sang along to Sheikh Imam songs like “Nixon and “El-Bahr Beyedhak Leh. Toward the end of the show, front-woman Mariam brought the crowd to a hush with a haunting tribute to her father, Saleh Saad, a famous writer who died in the September 2005 Beni Suef theater fire that claimed the lives of over 30 artists. Saturday would have been Saleh Saad’s 52nd birthday.
Baraka claims a broad range of influences, from psychedelic classic rock bands like Pink Floyd and The Doors to contemporary alternative acts like British rock outfit Muse. Contemporary Egyptian influences include El Dor El Awal, Nagham Masri, and Dima Band.
“I love hard rock and I love the darawish music, said Mariam, “and I would like to mix them both . . . but I don’t want to make oriental rock – I want to make oriental and rock.
Guitarist Wissam Sultan, 31, played with Dima Band before joining Baraka. In previous bands, Sultan’s preference for rock has been restrained. But with Baraka, Sultan said, “I play whatever I want. Rather than trying to “orientalize rock – an undeniably occidental genre – Baraka lays Darwish-inspired oriental vocals over a range of stylistically diverse rock arrangements, staying true to both worlds while creating something new. While most of the songs are lyrical covers, the rock beneath belongs entirely to Baraka.
Rawabet Theater was filled to capacity on Saturday, with dozens of people sitting on the floor and still more standing at the entrance. Baraka has not been around for long, but, as Mariam Saleh explained, “we have a big base.
“Rock is growing up in Cairo, said guitarist Sultan, the oldest member of the group, and Saturday’s crowd proves that there is a subculture that craves what bands like Baraka have to offer.
In terms of both musical fluency and stage presence, Baraka has a long way to go before they play with the combination of ease and frenetic energy that makes true rock shows such explosive, sweat-soaked events.
Saturday’s show – despite overtones of Black Sabbath and Parliament Funkadelic – was a pretty quiet affair. Audience members remained seated throughout Baraka’s performance. Vocalist Mariam – clad in a punk rock getup composed of an army green vest, a communist star pendant, rainbow colored legwarmers, and a lip ring – gave a spirited performance, bouncing around the stage, engaging audience members directly. But the rest of the band appeared a bit rigid, and breaking free from that rigidity will be Baraka’s biggest challenge.
Baraka will share that growing pain – learning to loosen up, learning to rock with reckless abandon – with the Cairo rock scene in general, in which audiences, despite enthusiasm, rarely quit their seats. Suffice to say, you simply can’t rock sitting down.