By Chitra Kalyani
Alive is how you feel at the Cairo Jazz Fest, with the music ringing loud and clear across the Nile that flows alongside Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek. Yet, the foreword on the festival brochure begins on a more somber note. Quoting German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous adage – “That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” – festival director Amro Salah says, “I believe it perfectly applies to organizing this edition of the festival.”
It’s been a tough year, not just for jazz, but for the country. Judging by the energetic vibe infusing this year’s fest, though, you would not know it. Jazz has not just survived the past year, it has thrived. The pride manifested last year, in audiences and bands alike, has fostered local talent which is being proudly showcased this year.
The first featured act this year, in keeping with the spirit intended, was the newly-minted local band “Positive Energy,” which emits sharp ambiance of funk and acid jazz. Fronted by Shehab Kasseb, who doubled as a modest MC introducing other acts during the night, the band played funky numbers, including Jamiroquai tracks that had audiences itching to turn River Hall into a dance venue. Accompanying “Positive Energy” was UK saxophonist Craig Hume, who only added to the band’s thunder.
In fact, if anyone stole the show on the fests’ first night, it was the saxophone, and not just because the pharaoh on the festival logo brandishes one. The instrument featured in three of the four acts of the opening night. Turns out the festival is actually catering to the needs of the local market, said Adam Miller of the Adam Miller Group. A saxophone workshop on the instrument will be held Saturday as part of the Jazz Clinic (4:00 pm, Sawy) towards the same end, led by the Dutch group Artwvark Saxophone Quartet.
The sax literally had the center-stage in the performance of Portuguese band, André Carvalho Quintet. Even though Carvalho actually plays the double bass, it was Zé Maria’s sax playing that lifted the melody upward and forward. The quintet, an intellectual boy band, was formed by Carvalho who shared some of his composition anecdotes with the audience. “Bleitstift,” for example, is named after the German word for pencil, because he did not have one at the time that he composed the melody over a piano, and since he lives in Vienna. Another number was interestingly titled, “The Magician and the Duke.”
The pharaoh with the saxophone took a breath during the Spanish act, The Eduardo Niebla Experience. Niebla’s talent is that he makes the finger-acrobatics of flamenco guitar look easy.
From tender notes of an ode Niebla dedicated to his mother, “Para Margarita,” the band surprised audiences when they strummed and thumped up a riot of percussions in “Calle de la Tina,” where the two guitarists tapped on the body of their guitars accompanied by the drummer, who in turn had a magnificent solo.
Appropriately, the night that started local ended with American talent Adam Miller and his group, all of whom are based in Egypt. Miller, who has featured in the fest since its inception, presented original numbers. “Heaven,” a funky danceable number benefited from keyboardist Shapal’s hip-hop background, while the cover “God Bless the Child” also combined Miller’s love for the gospel form, and Shapal’s training in church music.
“It was the band” that made is possible this year, says Miller, and makes this year different. Aaron Jakes on saxophone also adds a touch to the group that is not less than magical. Add to that the emotional connection that Miller tries to have with audiences, and you have a winning act. Ending with “Summertime,” the night and Miller’s act was a celebration of new life.
“Cairo is going through tough times,” Miller tells DNE, “you’d be dead not to experience tough times along with everyone else.” As many sponsors, including the Ministry of Tourism pulled out, holding the festival was a feat in itself. Commending Salah, Miller says, “I think going ahead and doing this anyway is a sign of courage in the arts community.”
“Sometimes [jazz] gives the impression that it’s fading away,” Salah tells DNE, “But it’s too strong. It’s renewing itself and it will never die.”
The 4th Cairo Jazz Fest is held at the Sawy Culture Wheel. It concludes on Saturday, March 17.
Local act “Positive Energy” headed by Shehab Kasseb featured joined by UK saxophonist Craig Hume.