YEAREND SPECIAL: Faint traces, low hopes for local music

Heba El-Sherif
7 Min Read

There are two problems with trends: they are easily substituted and their effects are short-lived. For an old trend to grow out of fashion, a new one must evolve. But what if nothing new worthy of sweeping the scene emerges? We reach stagnation, and this is precisely the current state of Egypt’s local music scene.

It seems that Egyptian music enthusiasts who picked up their guitars for the first time in the early 2000s have quickly given up. It used to be cool to learn to play an instrument, join a band and grow one’s hair unusually long. But did everyone really care for the music? Probably not.

Now that telecommunication giant Vodafone pulled out of SOS – Cairo’s leading music festival which served as the major outlet for many of the city’s struggling bands, and eager listeners, since its inception in 2006 – there seems to be little hope for the local scene to pull itself together, at least until the festival’s organizers secure new sponsorship.

Instead, Egypt is witnessing a growing interest in music hailing from neighboring Arab countries, a direction music skeptics view as a trend of Arabism, another refuge for our wide-ranging identity crisis. Despite lengthy bureaucratic procedures and hefty taxation necessary for inviting artists from overseas, Egypt has seen a hand-full of outstanding foreign performers in 2009.

In terms of genres, this year’s major music events lie among one of three: fusion of classics by Arab artists, alternative/underground local rock and the inevitable commercial gigs.

The fusion of classic Arabic music with jazz has slowly been gaining popularity among Egyptian listeners. Concerts by Lena Chamamyan and Rima Khcheich were among the most successful for Al Mawred Al Thakafy (The Culture Resource), a major player in Egypt’s cultural scene.

A sold-out concert in April by Khcheich followed by two consecutive packed performances by Chamamyan in September are proof that the traditional tunes, disguised in swift sounding bass and saxophone, are making a grave comeback among Egyptian listeners.

Others artists including Aziz Maraka and Yazan Al Rousan pulled off playful performances at Geneina Theater, although Al Rousan and his accompanying band went on to entertain a non-seated, less sober crowd at After 8 and Cairo Jazz Club.

Maraka and the Razz Band (short for Rock Arabic Jazz) feed jazz tunes and rock beats with emotional Arabic lyrics in a novel mix, while Al Rousan’s sound is a revival of classic rock legends such as Pink Floyd.

Slightly different in style but garnering similar grounds among Egyptian fans are May Nasr from Lebanon and Algeria’s enchanting Souad Massi.

Massi’s debut in 2007 at the Cairo Citadel hall laid her a solid fan base in Egypt, bringing her back to the spotlight at Cairo’s 10th SOS Music Festival last May. Relying on an acoustic guitar, her music has become a sensation among alternative music listeners.

On the commercial front, this year’s major gigs were a hit or miss. While pop diva Beyoncé Knowles hit fiercely, Akon hit the ground.

Akon’s debut-turned-disaster saw the podium, built in open air at the Cairo Opera House, collapse, sending frightened cries through the audience. The ground on which both people and equipment were lodged tumbled, once again proving that organizers of major events in Egypt sell more tickets than their cheaply built stages can put up.

Beyoncé’s glitzy concert in the Red Sea resort Port Ghalib did not fly without controversy either.

A war of words struck between Egypt’s conservative blocs and presumably the government ahead of her anticipated debut.

That, and the fact that the concert was held some 600 km south of Cairo, did not deter RnB fans from taking a jaunt to Marsa Alam, later praising the impeccable organization of the event whose prime objective was to set Port Ghalib as the country’s concert connection hotspot.

Other less commercial but equally talented foreign artists enjoyed a different kind of welcome in Egypt. Among them are famed guitarist Al Di Meola, Simon Fagan from Ireland and New Yorker folk/rock band Motel Motel, whose first world tour took them around Egypt, with two performances in Cairo.

Four different venues hosted the musicians, some proving more suitable than others, but if these performers were to be switched for a more mainstream Western rock band, it remains doubtful whether and how these venues can accommodate such events.

Besides El-Sawy’s limited outlets, Geneina Theater and the Opera House, Egypt lacks an established venue that can host a concert as big as Akon’s without insults or injuries.

A look into the alternative local rock scene is no reverie either.

While El Dor El Awal has remained on top of the list of local bands, releasing their second album “‘Aa’tareeq (On the Road) and holding a few successful gigs around Cairo, the participation of the Hot Potato Project, a sextet of young Egyptian musicians who create playful, jazzy tunes, at the Jazz Bez Festival in Ukraine earlier this month is by far the biggest achievement by a homegrown talent.

But other than those two, our waters have remained calm. So where have all the Egyptian talents gone? I know there were some.

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