The 2014 Spring Festival, organised by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (Culture Resource), came to an end Sunday, 25 May, with an energetic performance by Moroccan musician Aziz Sahmaoui in Azhar Park’s Geneina Theatre.
It was Sahmaoui’s first concert in Cairo, and the excitement in the air when the Marrakech-born artist made his appearance on stage was palpable. Along with his band, University of Gnawa, Sahmaoui played tracks from his latest record, 'Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa', which is also his first solo album after several previous collaborative works with other artists, including the late composer and keyboardist Joe Zawinul. University of Gnawa is Sahmaoui's project fusing sounds of Morocco and Senegal.
Although Sahmaoui has been living in France since the 1980s, his music carries the spirit of his city, strategically located on the major trade routes from Mali, Senegal and Guinea, where Gnawa music has its roots. The most defining quality of his work is the distinctive blend it creates between the traditional sound of Gnawa and the contemporary arrangements of jazz and rock. Sahmaoui’s gimbri (Gnawa’s defining string instrument) and the ngoni (another string instrument), along with the keyboards and electric guitar, pull off a unique fusion experience entrancing in its power. In the midst of it all, frantic yet graceful Moroccan percussion balances out the impassioned frenzy.
Bouncing between traditional numbers and original material, Sahmaoui preserves the genre and at the same time transports it to uncharted frontiers. His songs manage to have the same feel of the older folkloric works, with the deep, masculine timbre of his voice complimenting the music. The lyrics, though, often tackle modern societal issues, like poverty and conflict, but also in a manner inspired by tales of folklore.
Also central to the Sahmaoui experiment is the electric chemistry between members of the band onstage, the seamless harmony of the instruments, as well as the artistic and even personal intimacy one can clearly detect. The connection is heightened with the ebbs and flows of the music, and is transmitted to the audience almost magically, once again highlighting the healing and soothing effects at the centre of the Gnawa tradition.
Similar to the music he created with the Orchestre National de Barbes, a group that was founded in Paris’s Barbes district in the mid-1990s, gathering a number of diverse sounds from Morocco and North Africa, Sahmaoui’s solo project is distinguished by a certain spiritual vigour. His Sufi background, combined with the native authenticity in the music, result in memorable mystical compositions that give Sahmaoui’s tracks their essential character.
Sahmaoui was the perfect choice to end this year’s Spring Festival. In one performance he mixed Arab and African influences, the main focuses of this year’s programme, which brought a wide array of artists across different disciplines from countries around Africa and the Arab region to Cairo. The concert was a joyous affair, befitting the ending of the biennial festival that marks the arrival of the year’s most colourful season.