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Aswan Music Project: Reviving the musical dynamism of Upper Egypt

Commissioned by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, Aswan Music Project rediscovers the musical heritage of Aswan bringing boundless benefits for the local, Egyptian and international community

Ati Metwaly , Friday 2 Jun 2017
Cairo-based theatre director Salam Yousry in a workshop with children from Iqlit (Photo: courtesy of Ashraf Kenawy)
Views: 5827
Views: 5827

“I want to ask a question and it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

Why does the moon follow me? Do the stars light up or is it the way my eyes see them?

Why is the sky blue? Why are the trees green? 

I want to ask a question and it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

Why does the moon follow me?

Do the stars light up or is it the way my eyes see them?

Why is the sky blue? Why are the trees green? 

Why is it that while I’m walking I find my shadow walking with me?

Who am I? Who are you? How are the clouds hung up? 

I want to ask a question and it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

In one of Egypt’s southernmost villages, a group of children is gathered around the Cairo-based theatre director Salam Yousry, who leads them in a song they have created together, to the accompaniment of musicians on oud and duf.

The event was part of the Aswan Music Project (12-22 May), which involved a series of workshops in the villages of Iqlit, Selwa and Gharb Aswan. 

Song creation with children is just one element within the pilot phase of the project which aims to use the power of music to mobilise, educate and reconnect the community while exploring, preserving and transmitting a rich musical heritage.

The pilot project included song creation, discussions with educators and parents as well as gatherings that culminated in a performance in each village.

On a larger scale, the Aswan Music Project is part of the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), launched in 2000 by His Highness the Aga Khan IV with an aim to preserve the local musical heritage.

The AKMI is an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, one of the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). 

Music meetup in Silwa (Photo: courtesy of Ashraf Kenawy

Following its launch, the Music Initiative soon spread to South Asia, the Middle East, North and West Africa and is now in Egypt led by AKMI director Fairouz Nishanova; Chief Executive Officer of Aga Khan Foundation in Egypt Malik Kotadia; Professor of Music and Director of Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta and Senior Project Consultant Michael Frishkopf and AKMI Consultant Ashraf Kenawy.

On its website, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) explains that the “Aswan Music Project aims to promote musical participation, musical development, and cultural continuity, by encouraging interest in Aswan’s traditional artistic heritage, especially through musical training of teachers, children and youth.

In this way the project seeks to sustainably revive Aswan’s performing arts, enhancing social cohesion, and generating new possibilities for future employment in the tourism sector.”

To many Cairenes, the AKDN is known through the operations of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) , one of its many agencies, which is responsible for the creation of the 30-hectare (74-acre) Al-Azhar Park, “a gift from His Highness the Aga Khan to the city of Cairo”.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture also played an important role in the creation of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, initiated in 2010 by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (the Cultural Resource) in cooperation with the AKTC and with the support of Al Fanar Foundation and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). 

On the other hand the network’s cultural dynamism extends to the restoration of such historical landmarks of Cairo as “the fourteenth century Umm al Sultan Shabaan mosque; and the Khayrebek complex, which encompasses a thirteenth century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house.”

Salam Yousry in workshop with children in Silwa (Photo: courtesy of Ashraf Kenawy)

But the AKDN’s multifold activities also include rural development, in which field the network “promotes environmentally sound agricultural practices and helps farmers generate additional income. In education, it supports early childhood development and continuing education in Aswan.

Microfinance programmes provide a range of financial products that support micro, small and medium enterprise development.” 

In Aswan, many AKDN activities are implemented with the support of its affiliate NGO, the Om Habibeh Foundation, established in 1991 by the Aga Khan’s late step-grandmother, Om Habibeh (Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan, born Yvonne Blanche Labrousse, a French national and Miss France 1930).

The Aswan Music Project is the newest AKND initiative in Aswan. Commissioned by the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), it is developed in partnership with the AKDN and Om Habibeh Foundation, the Canadian Center for Ethnomusicology and the University of Alberta in Canada. It is also worth mentioning that Aswan is home to the Aga Khan Mausoleum, where the Aga Khan III and Om Habibeh are buried.

According to Ashraf Kenawy, “Aswan governorate is struggling with many challenges. One of the main problems of the local community is the severe weakening of tourism as the principal source of income. In many ways, Aswan is disconnected from Egypt. Most if not all opportunities are centralised in Cairo, some 850 km to the north...” Kenawy goes on to stress economic and social pressures in the south.

Kenawy is no stranger to the Aga Khan’s initiatives and principles, as he used to work as the director of the El-Genaina Theatre at Al-Azhar Park and operated by Al Mawred Al Thakawy, which hosted many events supported by AKMI.

Music meetup in Silwa (Photo: courtesy of Ashraf Kenawy)

Upon the suspending of the Culture Resource’s activities in Egypt in 2015, and moving its headquarters to Beirut, Kenawy became the director of El Genaina Company which overlooked several activities held at El-Genaina Theatre as well as Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School.

Departing from El-Genaina Company earlier this year, Kenawy remains close to Aga Khan, but now focused on Aswan and its new project.

“The Aswan Music Project focuses on four channels of activity: musician meet-ups, musical training, public events and research and documentation. Music is very present within Aswan, songs are passed from generation to generation, many people know how to play traditional instruments, yet life’s pressures make it very difficult for them to practice.”

Kenawy explains how large portions of this musical heritage may soon be completely forgotten. Through the meet-ups, the Aswan Music Project invites young people as well as the older generation to gather and recall the music within them. The meet-ups will support all other elements of the Aswan Music Project, as they will allow the older musicians to reconnect with their often forgotten or neglected musical practice, and will be a reason for them and the young to create music together.

“The young will learn from the older generation, while adding their own freshness and new ideas.”

On the other hand, the professionally tailored trainings will help direct existing talents and discover new ones. “Trainings will also target school teachers. We discovered that several of the women teachers have some musical background, but have never used those skills. It is our aim to support them in this regard. The project will pay a lot of attention to children, allowing their creativity and imagination to run free.”

Gharb Aswan
Music meetup in Gharb Aswan (Photo: courtesy of Ashraf Kenawy)

As a first trial of this initiative, Salam Yousry spent several sessions with children, using their ideas to create new songs, which were then performed in a final event in each village addressed by the project. Separate sessions were held with the teachers guiding them through the project’s ideas on the one hand and learning from the experiences and hopes of the locals on the other hand.

Kenawy adds that a major part of the Aswan Music Project’s pilot relies on rediscovery. Further concrete plans and support will eventually revive the cultural dynamics of the region.

“Some people are already interested to participate in the organised events where they can put their skills to use. Apart from purely traditional music practice, we found young people interested to experiment with sound engineering. All this can lead to a completely new level of activities and income for the community. Aswan governorate has great potential wealth. It is unprecedented to turn its culture into palpable benefits for the local community. It will attract tourism to and export their culture to other areas in Egypt.”

Alongside support and development, the Aswan Music Project will document existing music and lyrics which are passed down the generations. “We are very happy with the outcome so far. The response of the local community was extremely positive, beyond our expectations,” Kenawy proudly explains, mentioning the increased number of attendees showing up at each new workshop and their growing enthusiasm.

“It is a very ambitious endeavour and one that carries boundless benefits for the local, Egyptian and international community. We begin by dissecting the present situation, supporting and boosting the skills and wealth already available in Aswan. Once we manage to set the whole project in motion, the upcoming generations will find themselves in this system and develop it even further.”

Michael Frishkopf
Michael Frishkopfm Senior Project Consultant and Professor of Music and Director of Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta Michael Frishkopf, with the traditional musician from Iqlit

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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