Egypt's summer craves ambitious musical projects

Ati Metwaly, Friday 5 Aug 2011

Summer needs ambitious musical projects to give Egypt energy. Despite a few attempts by art institutions to endorse the music scene, the Ministry of Culture still needs to give more attention to this field

photo: Sherif Sonbol
photo: Sherif Sonbol

In many corners of the world, summer is the time of festivals. Theatre, dance and music are among the dominant themes of these annual events which attract millions of viewers in countries all across the world, boosting international exchanges and elevating artistic senses while keeping tourism buoyant.

In Europe alone, thousands of festivals are held during the summer months: BBC Proms in London, the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Budapest’s Enescu Music Festival, German InterHarmony International Music Festival, Berlin Music Festival, Italy’s three-week Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds), Vienna Festival Weeks and many, many more; all have the aim of reinvigorating the art and particularly the music scene, imbuing the urban landscape with a festive flavor and testing the ability of art to gather people.  

Summer festivals speak to audiences and musicians alike, communicating values all their own. Audiences enjoy a greater dynamism while musicians are afforded a greater range of opportunities, often more prestigious. Festivals organisers constantly compete among themselves to provide better outlets and feature bigger names, producing a more attractive repertoire.

All of which is particularly relevant to the Arab world, where summer music festivals play an important role only in select countries. The Marrakech Popular Arts Festival or Fes Festival of World Sacred Music are well in Morocco, while Lebanon offers the Byblos Festival – a well known outlet for Arab and international performers.

In Tunisia and Egypt, which have their own festival traditions, the Arab Spring might be expected to disrupt the flow of such activity.

But unlike Libya or Syria, where vast number of protesters are being killed on a daily basis, in Egypt and Tunisia the cultural scene is privileged with the chance for uninterrupted cultural activity, whether altered or not. And indeed while January’s Jasmine Revolution has had no effect on Tunisia’s summer festivals, it is surprising that Egypt is struggling with a number of dilemmas in festivals organization, using the increasingly fashionable “political instability” expression as an excuse.

When the 46th edition of the International Festival of Carthage (Festival International de Carthage, 8 July – 6 August) kicked off, Ezzeddine Bachaouch, the Tunisian Minister of Culture expressed the hope that the event will “bring joy and happiness to the hearts of Tunisians who had not been able to rejoice after their revolution.” In a city whose population hardly exceeds 20,000, festival stages include the Theatre Municipal, Musee de Carthage, Palais El Abdellia, Ennejma Ezzahra, Mad-Art, among others. Symphonic concerts, classical music recitals, Arab music, folk groups, jazz, hip hop, ballet and theatre: each day offers a rich variety of artistic propositions from Tunisian artists as well as performers not only from the Arab World but from Europe, Latin America and the USA. From Egypt, Eskenderella gave a concert at the Palais du Baron d'Erlanger on 27 July.

Paralleling Carthage, the 47th International Festival held in town of El-Ḥammamat (Festival International de Hammamet) held between 6 July and 11 August is in big part reflection of Carthage music and theatre activities. On 6 August, the 29th edition of Festival of Medina (Festival de la Medina) kicks off in the old quarter of Tunis, and will continue until 27 August on a small number of stages. Themed “Tribute to the Tunisian Revolution” (Hommage a la Revolution Tunisienne) the festival sheds light on young Tunisians who were marginalized under Ben Ali.

It is obvious that Tunisia’s road to democracy has not interrupted the country’s artistic movement. Understandably, the Jasmine Revolution echoes in the festivals’ repertoires; Tunisians have had the chance to refresh themselves artistically in creative outlets, while the international audience boosts tourism revenues. Faithful to their audience and their artistic values, to Tunisian organizers political instability is no excuse.

In this context one cannot help recalling Egypt’s Minister of Culture Emad Abou Ghazi’s, decision last May to cancel two of the biggest annual international festivals held in Cairo: the 23rd edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre to be held in October (a month after its usual date in previously September) and the 35th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, planned for the end of November.

Abou Ghazi explained this decision with reference to the political instability, but the Tunisian festivals are the perfect counter arguments for worries expressed by the Egyptian government. Those festivals could have been revamped the better serve Egypt’s cultural scene.

Nevertheless, the summer craves ambitious musical projects to vitalize Cairo and Alexandria, drawing in international contributions and attention.

In all its history, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture has never organized a large music festival. Well organized, such a festival could reposition Egypt on the international cultural map. It is hard to see why Egypt and specifically Cairo, with its hundreds of venues and thousands of professional musicians, is not unable to launch a large-scale, well planned, music festival presenting the full range of genres and attracting major international artists – it would provide a major platform of exposure to all Egyptian musicians. Had such a festival existed, it would have been cancelled by the Ministry of Culture this year.

Egypt music scene thus remains at the mercy of initiatives that are smaller in both size and impact, the work of cultural institutions that rely on the perseverance of individuals with strong belief, few of which are planned for the summer.

The third edition of the Cairo Jazz Festival organised last March, by Amr Salah from Eftekasat band under the umbrella of El Sawy Cultureweel, incorporates music and educational elements, presenting Egyptian and international musicians. Similar is the three-day International Cairo Jazz Mania, organised last October at the Citadel by Yehya Khalil Foundation for the Culture of Jazz Music.

The term “festival” is among the names given by El Sawy Culturewheel tends to give any programme of concerts performed at its stages. The centre goes to the extreme of calling one day events with no more than two or three bands in one genre a festival.

In many cases – and this is not limited to El Sawy Culturewheel only – the term “festival” is a catchy tool attracting donors to the event, while in fact they do not differ from any other concerts held by individual performers and bands.

On the other hand, Al Mawred Al Thakafy’s biannual Spring Festival held in the April or May (with last round taking place in 2010) presents important repertoires, bringing together musicians, dancers and writers from the Arab world for audiences in Cairo and Beirut.

The 10th International Summer Festival held annually at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria is an ambitious project held throughout July and often extending into August. Film screenings, events centred on the performing and visual arts events are accompanied by concerts.

Though in past years the festival seemed more ambitious, today its impact on the local and regional scene remains insignificant.

For its part, the Cairo Opera House organises a summer festival at the Open Air Theatre, followed by the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing. The paradox is that, while both are initiatives of an institution that has all the best tools and knowhow at its disposal, they continue to suffer from organizational, technical and logistical flaws. It is well to point out, in this context, that mediocre festivals have more of a negative than a positive effect on the totality of the music scene, especially when organized by an important institution like the Opera House.

So much so that the music scene may in fact do better without them.

They do attract new kinds of audience (see Citadel Festival review) but do the organisers care about them? Apart from raising the number of concerts in their resumes, such festivals offer musicians nothing at all.

Many of the musicians in question are already performing at important venues all year round; festivals such as those organized by the Cairo Opera House do not provide them with life-changing opportunities.

For the Egyptian Ministry of Culture it was easy to cancel two major festivals having revolution as an excuse. But it would be much harder for that ministry to examine the situation of music in the summer.

Egypt’s January Revolution is ongoing, but did it improve anything in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture regarding the music scene? Are there any plans for music in Egypt? Does this field matter to the Ministry of Culture to begin with? So far music aficionados, individuals trying to make a change with larger or smaller tools in their hands, are receiving no help from government institutions. It is important as anything to ask when the ministry will start taking care of the music in Egypt? When will it look at the classical music suffocated by gigantic problems behind the walls of the Cairo Opera House  that have nothing to do with music itself, or pay effective attention to dozens of other genres?

As long as the ministry does not put forward an artistically viable proposition, as long as it does not listen to voices outside its Zamalek offices, implements or at least support the field with an artistic and organisational vision, music remains.

All those problems seem more obvious during summer time, which should be the busiest and the most inspiring days for the Ministry of Culture and other institutions involved in the music scene. Will the next year bring any change?

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