Oriental improvisation, the odd rhythms of European folk, jazzy moods and contemporary classic experiments: the musical style of Ala Fekra Project is difficult to pin down, but its genuine charm wins hearts instantly.
In first weeks of December, the Swiss-Egyptian band performed at prominent venues such as the Cairo Opera House, Beshtak Palace, Makan, and Room in Cairo; and Fayoum Art Center and Bibliotheca Alexandrina outside the capital.
After a successful tour, Ahram Online met the founder, Swiss accordionist Patricia Draeger, to find out more about the human chemistry that dissolves borders between cultures.
“When I came to Egypt for an artistic residency in 2016 for three months, ‘ala fekra’ (‘by the way’) was something I kept hearing all the time," Draeger said.
"Everybody was saying 'ala fekra this,’ 'ala fekra that.' So when we formed a band and sat to think of a name for it, I said, why don’t we call it so.”
It sounded fitting, since the expression is used to attract someone’s attention to an idea that follows.
The collaboration with Egyptian musicians was a starting point for a project that is indeed worth paying attention to.
The violinist Amr Darwish and qanun player Yamen Abdallah both have solid backgrounds in Oriental traditional music and a desire to open up to new endeavours. What began as exchanging folk tunes and jamming led to a desire to create some music together. Abdallah was the first to suggest for the band an Oriental composition he wrote, and Draeger made a Western arrangement for it, keeping the original quartertones and making sure they didn’t clash with the chords.
Samuel Baur and André Pousaz (Photo: courtesy of Ala Fekra)
The trio was later joined by Albin Brun on saxophone and Schwyzerörgeli (a type of diatonic button accordion used in Swiss folk music), André Pousaz on double bass and Samuel Baur on percussion, making the group line up predominantly Swiss.
The band has a taste for irregular meters, inspired by jazz and folk music traditions such as Serbian and Turkish, including five and seven beats rhythms.
The percussion setup that is now used in Ala Fekra was created by band member Samuel Baur himself and features, among other elements, the darbuka, a small hi-hat, and a special bass drum which fits the acoustic needs of the band perfectly.
“A regular drumset would overpower the sound of the natural instruments like violin, qanun and accordion,” Draeger says.
Exchanging trips to Egypt and Switzerland to perform and compose together, Ala Fekra gradually built up a repertoire comprised of pieces composed and developed by the band members, The only exception is the famous ‘Aziza’ by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, as a tribute to Egyptian music. For this composition, performed at Room in New Cairo on 9 December, the band was joined by the American percussionist Marshall Bodiker on Egyptian tabla.
Ala Fekra Project was less than three years old when Willisau Jazz Festival, one of the important music festivals in Europe, invited the band to perform in August this year.
“It was an honour and surprise for us," Draeger admits. "I know that many bands apply and never get to perform there, but all we did was put our videos on YouTube.”
The fusion of East and West is the pursuit of many artists, but not everyone manages to blend musical traditions seamlessly. According to Draeger, the challenge is to make the music feel natural as a whole, so that the listener enjoys it without pointing out that “this is Arabic, this is Swiss.”
Mixing the voices, melodies and harmonies alone would probably not do the trick. For Ala Fekra Project, the source of authenticity lies in every musician who has their unique style which comes from personal experience and ability to express themselves freely. When planning out the pieces for the band, Draeger makes sure that each member has a space for improvisation.
“Everyone in the band has a space or two or three in the concert where he can open up his feelings, play freely, with all his background. In these moments, the musicians are themselves, they don’t have imitate some style of improvisation or do something they don’t like. Then the music is authentic, then you feel the source where it comes from. And this is what I wanted to do -- to create a platform for this expression. This was my dream."
Albin Brun and Amr Darwish (Photo: courtesy of Ala Fekra)
Sincere respect and admiration for each other’s art creates a pleasant atmosphere on stage which radiates into the audience, Swiss or Egyptian alike.
“I think the mix works because of the people. They are great players, but nobody pushes forward his ego," underlines Draeger. "We have a fantastic feeling on the stage, everyone likes each other, the pleasure to play together is very high, and the people feel it a lot. Our music is heartful, touching. I think people need heartful music in these times. They need good feelings.”
Spreading good feelings and knowledge, Ala Fekra Project conducted a workshop in Jesuit Cultural Center in Alexandria on 10 December. They taught three of the band’s pieces to young musicians and gave them advice on improving improvisation skills.
“The students were really shining. I could see they are looking for new and inspiring things, they really want to learn,” said Draeger.
Not only do the musicians teach, they are also open to learning. During the recent tour they met the veteran Egyptian violin player Abdo Dagher. He shared his musical wisdom with the band in a private meeting and performed his well-known composition Nidaa with Ala Fekra Project as a special guest at the Cairo Opera House on 8 December.
“He [Abdo Dagher] also listened to the entire programme behind the stage, and after the concert he came to me and said: ‘This is real music, this is what the opera needs, this is professional and has feeling.’ I was so happy and proud,” Draeger recounts.
For future performances, the band is considering taking another piece by Dagher and rearranging it in a new way.
Another important acknowledgement of Ala Fekra Project recently came from the Swiss National Radio which supported the production of the band’s first album by providing them with three days of access to their studio for free.
The album was recorded in June and is scheduled for release in March, and it will be promoted by an eight-concert tour in Switzerland.
Yamen Abdallah and Patricia Draeger (Photo: courtesy of Ala Fekra)
Flights, hotels, travel costs and other expenses essential for the existence for an international art project like this could not be covered without the support of organisations and entities that have trust in what the band is doing. Stadt Zug, Kanton Zug, RKK, Fuka Fonds Luzern, Artlink/ Südkulturfonds, Landis & Gyr Stiftung, Pro Helvetia Switzerland are among the main sponsors of Ala Fekra Project.
“Since we started we are applying for financing in Switzerland every month,” Draeger said.
As the project grows, making necessary letters, calls and arrangements can become a full time job. To fully dedicate herself to music, Draeger, who used to handle the process herself in the initial stage, will now be passing the tasks to a manager.
An artistic collaboration between two countries brings two business cultures together as well, exploring the inevitable differences. According to Draeger, in Swiss practice, the concert schedule has to be confirmed a year ahead.
“In Egypt it doesn’t work like this. Here, nothing is fixed, everything happens and changes at the last moment," she observes, admitting that for a Swiss person it can get quite challenging. "Life in Egypt is improvisation all day… I like improvisations.”
Having worked with people from many different countries before, Draeger seems to be quite happy to focus on Egypt for the time being.
“Cairo is a very creative place. Every time I take a walk for an hour or two around the city I am so full of impressions I don’t know where to go with all this. It activates the fantasy; it makes you alive. But after that you need some calm; otherwise it is not working. You need both, the impressions and the time to think back and create something."
So, after a creative calm back in Switzerland we should expect Ala Fekra Project to come up with new great pieces for the next tour in Egypt.
Ala Fekra band members meet Abdo Dagher (Photo: courtesy of Ala Fekra)
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