Great jazz is happening in Cairo these days. There’s only one problem: Not enough people know about it.
That was my overarching thought as Egyptian independent band El-Dor El-Awwal’s two-hour performance that marked the official launch of the group’s second long player, “Ala El-Tareeq (On the Road), at the Rawabet Theater in Downtown Cairo last Saturday.
It is easy to be skeptical about a fusion band. Mixing genres of music is a delicate and skilful process, let alone with seven members, additional guest artists, no front-man and instruments encompassing brass, wind, strings and percussion (not to mention beatbox). El-Dor El-Awwal is a great example that such a formula can work with masterful hands.
As musicians, the band is open to diverse musical forms, ranging from Egyptian folk and jazz to reggae, punk, Latin Jazz and Irish country.
The band started out with two friends jamming at home in 2004 and grew with the addition of friends and roommates. But when they were picked up by one of the owners of Cairo Jazz Club and began playing live, they decided to take their passion to the next level, spending every day for seven months in 2006 recording their first album Qarar Izala (Demolition Decree).
As the title implies, the second album, produced by indie label Incognito, takes the listener on a journey. The musicians become storytellers and I found my mood changing with the music.
Overall, the effect is more bubbly and vivacious than the first album; simultaneously richer and much more polished in terms of recording quality. The band members themselves feel that they have undergone a learning curve, which is reflected in the relaxed and more playful style of the new album.
The robust opening tracks, “Kitty and “Ala El-Tareeq (On the Road), are followed by the ditty-esque but solemn beginnings of “Asmara (Dark) which evolves into a sensual conversation between string, brass and wind, and builds to an orchestral finish. “Rogoa (Return) effortlessly mixes the discomfiting urgency of the keyboard and violin with the carefree sounds of Cuban percussion. The underlying theme may be lighter, but each piece has a deep structure with layers of complexity.
Mohamed, the violinist and human beatbox of the group, told Daily News Egypt that the band captures the spirit of music they come across rather than deliberately combining genres. Case in point is “Hasaballah 2000, a compelling collaboration in which the Arabian violin, echoing a bygone era, feeds the melancholic modern jazz clarinet whilst playfully flirting with the merry and exuberant Irish fiddle.
In Omar’s (the electric bass guitarist) words, some pieces come about casually in a single jam session while others can take months to perfect. The concept of journey and evolution comes to light on the last track, “Nefartari, a heart-warming little tune with simple yet beautiful melodies that lulls the listener to the end of the trip.
The main shortcoming of the album is its inability to fully showcase the extent of the band’s true talent. The members of El-Dor El-Awwal are, at heart, live musicians. They play live music almost every week, whether individually and in collaboration with other artists.
The shared elation between audience and performer when filling the room with a perfectly timed coda, the seducing effect of an impressive riff, the pleasure of watching members of the band interact, and the excitement of the unexpected; are all impossible to grasp listening to a CD which, as Nour (on saxophones, mizmar and the didgeridoo) aptly phrases, “only expresses a moment in the band’s development.
El-Dor El-Awwal is at the forefront of great jazz musicianship in Cairo, formed of committed artists who identify their sound as Egyptian but are not restricted by country, genre, instruments or people. The band continues to change, shifting members and learning from new talent.
They are planning to create their own website and plan to tour Lebanon later in the year.
Unfortunately, the jazz movement in Cairo remains largely underground. When asked about bringing music to a wider Egyptian audience, increasing record sales, and their global ambitions, their response was laissez-faire. Their direction as a band is to make music, master their craft and enjoy the process. Their manager can deal with the industry.
El-Dor El-Awwal’ssecond album Ala El-Tareeq is available now in music stores across Cairo. The band will be performing in the upcoming SOS Festival on May 8. For more information, visit the band’s homepage at www.myspace.com/elDorelAwwal