No matter how we approach the task of assessing the music field in past 12 months, let alone last two years, we must go back to the role of music and musicians in a changing social and political context. It is by now extremely repetitive if still important to say that musicians and artists in general play an important role in the historical changes, and also have an obligation to contribute to the society.
Though not always directly linked to political decision-making, artists and musicians influence minds by the millions. Without creating political art, artists – including musicians – can transfer messages, and the political undertones are the natural result of artists as humans surrounded by specific social, religious and political circumstances. Denying this fact is tantamount to questioning the role of a human being in the society.
"How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly?" asked Pablo Picasso when talking about the role of the artist.
Musicians are there for the people and music, being a product created by them, enters households all around the country and spreads with it many messages. Music and politics have always been intertwined and even if music does not make a change in a direct cause-effect scheme, in the longer run it can gear up many ideological and as such social and political transformations. At times music acts in a very explicit way, at other times it inspires with its aesthetic analysis of political ugliness.
In January 2012, I wrote "A Revolutionary Audit", an article in which I also borrowed Picasso's quote, finding it especially relevant. The article aimed to make an assessment of 12 months in music following the January 2011 Revolution. The argument developed out of two polarised axes. The first represented young enthusiasm and creativity, with many interesting talents driven by spontaneity. The second axis represented the highly educated professional musicians, graduates of renowned music institutions -- those who, dedicating their entire life to music, will often operate under the umbrella of staid institutions such as the Cairo Opera House.
There are of course other axes too: the folklore troupes, for example, which play an important role in Egypt's cultural scene -- and I have all the respect in the world for them. Yet, limiting myself to those fields with which I am familiar, it will be possible to understand the changes that took place in Egypt by looking at the two axes of "A Revolutionary Audit" in more depth.
In Egypt, the last 24 months seem to project remarkably clear political ugliness, with ideological pressure -- often exercised by the government itself -- being the number one worry of musicians and artists in general. Very recently many changes have occurred in independent music and within the institutionalised scene -- even though at first glance the gap between both worlds seems to have remained the same. Yet there are a few interesting changes that have marked the second axis.
The independent music scene embraces many genres – rock, jazz, metal, rap, among others – which seem to be thriving, with many new talents on the scene, some paving their way to a minute of fame at the regional or even international scale. Since January 2011, many of those musicians – with rappers in the most direct way – have reflected on the Egypt's realities; others simply focus on their respective pursuits. Last year however saw a number of alarming challenges for this scene. Not only have the musicians complained from the limited number of venues, unsatisfactory revenues and lack of support in the records industry, they are also faced with a newly emerging challenge in the Islamists enforcing their ideas directly on the scene.
In September, a lawyer named Al-Weshahy from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) filed a complaint to the Interior Ministry against El-Sawy Culturewheel, demonising the centre for giving its space to the "Satanist" rock bands -- in other words, heavy metal. The complaint echoed with "the Satan worshipers' case" known from the 1990s when Egypt's State Security attempted, with remarkable success, to silence young musicians who were alleged promoters of "Satanism." Over 15 years later, hardly a year after State Security was dismantled, the Metal Blast Festival was launched at El-Sawy Culturehwheel -- a hope for reviving this genre. Alas, the metal musicians are now faced with a case of déjà-vu, this time coming from the FJP. The assault is particularly worrying – and ironic – knowing that Mohammed Al-Sawy himself sympathises with Muslim Brotherhood ideology; his centre is seen as extremely conservative.
But the story doesn’t end here. Around the same time a group of Salafists interrupted a concert in Minya, an event that outraged the independent music scene. Surprisingly, in those and many other attempts by Islamists to stifle underground music, the biggest blow came from an institution neither affiliated with political Islam nor religiously motivated: the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate. The syndicate decided to ban unregistered musicians from performing in some centres, including El-Sawy Culturewheel. Though, later on, the decision was negotiated, it still represents an additional burden for many young performers.
Syndicate board member Khaled El-Tohamy expressed his will to resolve the issue and help the musicians join the syndicate which, according to Mostafa Helmy, another board member, would provide them with "legal protection from the Islamists' attacks." But how can one trust such claims when the decision that provoked them is in itself an additional burden that independent musicians need to deal with. The timing of the decision speaks against its alleged good will to resolve the problem. Not to mention that even holders of the syndicate cards are frustrated with all the additional fees they are now asked to pay for their performances, something that music venues try to help with. But, for the independent musicians, complaining about these "difficult times" does not seem to be an option. Though exhausted with struggles that in many cases result directly from their creativity, independent musicians seem even more motivated to be creative once challenges are presented to them.
For its part the situation of musical institutions such as the Cairo Opera House is completely different. One can argue that the independent musicians' tools are much more direct than those used by classical musicians, for example. However, the question is not about the tools used but rather the will and ability to become part of the society at large. Since February 2012, when Ines Abdel Dayem became the chairman of the Cairo Opera House, a few changes have taken place within the institution. It is clear that the Cairo Opera House has decided to stress its original name, which is the National Cultural Centre. As such, the Opera's halls host a broad variety of music events, with classical music being only part of the Opera's activities. Understandably, this strategy is especially pleasing to independent musicians, among whom many would otherwise not make it to the Opera's stages. Though inviting a large range of performers infused this prestigious venue with dynamism, to many it also questioned the artistic priorities of the Cairo Opera House.
It would not be fair to give a definite critical opinion on the role of the Opera House in today's Egypt; the political situation is too complicated for judgement. Operating under the Ministry of Culture, the Cairo Opera – the National Cultural Centre – is affected by many ideological tendencies dominating the government. We may even speculate that any violation of conduct by the standards of the Islamist-dominated authorities could result in the shutting down of the Opera's activities. Having a number of companies – the Cairo Opera Ballet Company being the most threatened by the Islamist thought – it seems safe for the Opera to operate away from the Islamist radar. However, the problem becomes worrying when a number of important and valuable events taking place inside the Cairo Opera House become direct victims of this self-imposed low-profile scheme for survival.
Last year we were deprived of many international musicians, orchestras or dance troupes – demonstrating the serious budget cuts imposed on the Opera. Nevertheless, the year also witnessed the appointment of Jiri Petrdlik as the Cairo Symphony Orchestra's new principal conductor and artistic director, a function that he holds through his very sporadic visits to the orchestra.
In parallel, the Opera held a few interesting initiatives which should've been promoted more effectively by the Opera's marketing office. But this is where complaining about marketing becomes a waste of paper and energy as it is obvious that after years of failure, those overpopulated offices are not willing to exert any effort to promote the Opera's activities. Where, apart from the entrance to the Opera House, are the flyers announcing events, printed in the hundreds every week? Indeed, if the marketing team's payroll is guaranteed and the budget for flyers is allocated anyway, who should care to go a step further? Closing our eyes to such major issues can no longer be tolerated especially at a time when, as previously demonstrated, Islamists pose a palpable threat to the culture scene. When, if not now, is the more appropriate moment to promote the Cairo Opera House's values, reach out to audiences with an interesting repertoire and send a message of musical continuum?
As much as the marketing issue seems to be peripheral to any core assessment of the music scene of 2012, it reflects certain choices that people and institutions make in times when you would expect their actions to take a different course.
With the very same feeling, we can approach the idea of repeated cancellations that not only the Opera House but also many other music venues kept undertaking in the days of intense clashes in the city. The cancellations balance sheet, covering two weeks following the 27 November demonstrations, include a few theatrical performances put on hold. The Cairo Opera House cancelled all of its activities as of 6 December, in addition to a couple of other minor events across the city that were postponed or cancelled, usually by the artists themselves. On the other hand, the majority of the art galleries remained open, most of the independent musicians continued with their performances, fuelled by the political upheaval, while concerts at venues such as the All Saints' Cathedral, the Manasterly Palace, the British Institute etc. also took place as planned.
The case of the Cairo Opera House was particularly curious, taking into account the fact that, during the most intense clashes and demonstrations, except for the postponement of its opening ceremony for one day, the Cairo International Film Festival did not experience any cancellations across all the Opera's halls. It was only on 6 December, the day the festival ended, that the Opera House suspended all of its activities "until further notice" – in fact for a few days.
Why is it that only a fraction of the arts and culture scene froze its activities? Why wasn't the cancellation and postponement process unanimous across all the venues and throughout all the days? The only answer I can find to those questions is in the individual perceptions of artists and musicians of their role in society, their own conscience and priorities; and this brings us back to the musical continuum concept and a commitment to culture and years of artistic tradition in Egypt and the world. Not without reason does Egypt have an Opera House, not without reason do many other venues hold music concerts. Considering music as pure entertainment and forgetting the musicians' role in the society is equal to depriving Egypt of a centuries-long history and a collective consciousness built on its riches. If we are to protect this history and culture, cancellations and breaking the continuum is not a solution.
A solution could be in redirecting creative minds to different repertoires, or inviting musicians to think about how they could contribute with their art to the society. This reminds me of a fascinating example of a stir provoked by the Boris Godunov opera staged at the Mariinsky Theatre last June. Setting the opera at the crossroads of art and politics, director Graham Vick infused Modest Mussorgsky's work with direct parallels between Boris Godunov, the tsar of Russia (1598-1605) and Vladimir Putin. The Russian opera is an example of how creative people can use their knowledge and knowhow in order to make a sturdy creative statement generated by and immersed in the political reality. As much as institutions might refrain from sending direct messages, and productions such as Mariinsky Theatre's Boris Godunov are among the most extreme examples, there are many ways of engaging audiences in interesting arguments about art, society and politics being the art of our daily lives. This element is still non-existent at the Cairo Opera two years after the revolution.
But, like the Opera, similar musical institutions prefer not to stand out with politically-infused material in times of Islamist hostility towards the arts scene; musicians themselves started joining – though still rather reluctantly – artist protests calling for freedom of expression or setting forward revolutionary demands. Since the very first days of the January 2011 Revolution, artists have organised a multitude of marches, demonstrations at Tahrir Square and a few joining sit-ins lasting for a few days each. Independent musicians were always part of all protests, often adding musical accents to demonstrations or performing on the stages set-up at Tahrir Square. It was on 27 November this year that a considerable number of new faces – mainly musicians from the Cairo Opera House – joined colleagues who had been demonstrating for almost two years. Many of them continued protesting outside the Presidential Palace. Moreover, by the day, more and more of those musicians openly express their discontent regarding political pressures.
Is there a hope that the dynamics of the two axes will meet and take joint action in defending artistic freedom of expressions, musical values and culture as a whole? Hopefully the fruits of the general cultural movement aiming to create change, expressed collectively by all sectors of the music field, will be the topic of my yearly round up at the end of 2013.