Amidst the customary rhythm of the holy month of Ramadan, two melodious voices rise, fraying their way through the timeless Cairene din.
As Aqsa Alwasat and Malika Zarra consecutively take to the stage, the cacophony of Old Cairo seems but a distant memory.
The final concert in El-Geneina for Arts and Culture’s Hayy Ramadan Festival was held Wednesday, 14 June.
This year, the spotlight was on African musicians, with performers from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Alexandrian experimental music duo Aqsa Alwasat opened the show, with singer Tuqa Mcawi’s beautiful, penetrating voice enchanting the audience.
The independent music duo was founded in 2013 and consists of vocalist Tuqa Mcawi and keyboardist Amr Ezz. The two already took an interest in and played music prior to the project: the self-taught keyboardist had been playing since 2004, while the singer had been the vocalist in a symphonic metal band since 2009.
The pair met through common performances and began speaking of a collaboration in 2012. For a year, they debated which musical genre they would perform, and ultimately settled for fusion music, as they did not feel that any label corresponded with their work (hence the name Aqsa Alwasat: “the least extreme,” or music that does not entirely conform to any genre).
Aqsa Alwasat’s inventive music left the audience in awe, altering between soulful ballads and riveting, upbeat tunes.
The song Khangar Masmoom (Poisoned Dagger), a humorous hymn to jealousy and violent revenge, was especially well-received: audience members enthusiastically clapped along, with some even rising to their feet.
Sadly, unfortunate technical difficulties arose, impeding the performance. The opening concert of the Hayy Festival that took place 4 June also experienced technical difficulties, when Libyan singer Nasser El-Mizdawi took the stage.
The return of such technical problems did not discourage Aqsa Alwasat, who continued giving a memorable show, closing it with their most popular song, the slow, melodious and deeply moving tune, Enti (You), before welcoming the renowned Moroccan fusion jazz musician Malika Zarra, who took the stage under a thunder of applause.
Moroccan singer, composer and music producer Malika Zarra is known for combining different musical styles, languages, and cultures in her work.
The singer was born in a small village in southern Morocco, her father originally from the city of Tata, on the Sahara plain; her mother, a Berber from the High Atlas. At three years old, the young artist and her family moved to Paris, France, where she grew up balanced between two strikingly different worlds.
During her childhood, Zarra took an early interest in music, as she was exposed to a wide variety of musical styles. The singer was at once captivated by Arab music icons, such as the Moroccan Hajja Hamdaouia, the Algerian singer Warda (Al-Jazairia) and Egyptian music stars Farid Al-Atrache and Um Kalthoum; and with soul and jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin.
Zarra’s music is a fascinating voyage across cultures. With her hit song Berber Taxi, the singer revisits a traditional Berber tune, adding a touch of jazz to the original melody, to which her deep, sultry voice brings life. The audience is left astounded by her beautiful performance, each song welcomed with more thunderous applause.
As a young adult, the Moroccan singer began to attend classes at several conservatories and jazz academies in Tours and Marseille, while also studying privately with Sarah Lazarus and Francoise Galais. Throughout these years, she rose to prominence in the French and European music scenes, performing only covers in their original languages.
Yet the artist soon began to write her own music in her native languages, as she felt it easier to express herself and convey her feelings in this manner.
In 2004, Zarra relocated to New York — a cultural hub, and cosmopolitan melting pot — and in 2006, she recorded her first self-produced album, On the Ebony Road. Selling approximately 2,000 copies, mostly through gigs and word-of-mouth, the album featured songs in Arabic, French, English and Berber, blending genres and cultures in this musical fusion.
The cultural dialogue in Zarra’s music is not only manifested in her use of different languages. Throughout her performance, the singer manages to create an onstage dialogue, a back and forth between the drums, guitar, and her own playful cooing. Some audience members, amused by this peculiar practice, soon join their own voices to this cheerful harmony.
By 2011, the artist had already crafted a wide repertoire, one which incorporated her native Berber, Gnawa (a form of percussive religious trance music), shaabi (Arabic working class music), as well as French pop and jazz music influences. With the release of her second album, Berber Taxi, produced by Motema Music, Zarra rose to prominence in the New York music scene, thus progressively gaining international success.
Zarra has since performed internationally, at multiple prominent festivals and venues, among them the London Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the International Black Arts Festival in Senegal, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington DC, and many more.
The singer’s impressive vocal range is complemented by her equally impressive stage presence. Towards the end of her performance, in the midst of a breathtaking instrumental solo, the singer proceeds to take off her shoes and launch into a spectacular dance number, inviting the audience to dance along. Some crowd members left their seats and joined the artist on stage, ending the night on a joyful note.
As she left the stage, the singer was greeted with a standing ovation: a wonderful ending to her performance, and to the Hayy Ramadan Festival.
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