INTERVIEW: Amro Salah, founder of the Cairo Jazz Festival talks about this year's organisation, challenges

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 13 Oct 2015

Ahram Online speaks to renowned musician and founder of the Cairo Jazz Festival Amro Salah about the festival's upcoming edition set to kick off on 15 October

Cairo Jazz Festival
Cairo Jazz Festival (Photos: courtesy of the Cairo Jazz Festival)

Founded by Egyptian musician Amro Salah in 2009, Cairo Jazz Festival has become one of the city’s most anticipated annual events. With its aspiration to create a jazz audience in the Cairo, the festival has for the six past years provided the space for a fervent introduction of such musical genre, hosting many national and international jazz musicians and bands.

The seventh edition of the Cairo Jazz Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 18 October at the American University in Cairo's GrEEK Campus in the city's downtown. This year’s line-up includes an array of Egyptian artists and bands such as the Riff Band, Akram El-Sharkawy Group, Egyptian-Nubian band Hawidro, the Nour Project band, among others.

The festival will also host international musicians and bands from France, Algeria, Lebanon, Denmark, Iraq, Japan, Austria, Czech Republic, Morocco, Portugal, Venezuela, Australia and the US.

Famed Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich, Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma and Algerian singer Souad Massi are but some of this edition’s highlights.

Ahram Online interviewed the festival’s founder Amro Salah, who is also an established musician and founder of oriental jazz band Eftekasat, about the specifics of this year's edition.

Ahram Online (AO): Tell us about this year’s line-up. What are some of the programme’s highlights?

Amro Salah (AS): We’re maintaining the variety that has thus far characterised our annual programme. Our aim is to inform people of what jazz is about, especially that there exists a major misconception -- in the whole world -- that looks at jazz as a sophisticated genre that not everyone can access and listen to. We’re trying to alter this misconception and to inform people that it is a well-established music genre.

Some of this year’s highlights are concerts by Algerian singer Souad Massi, Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich, Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, all of whom have a strong presence in the Arabic music scene. This year’s lineup also includes performances by other important musicians and bands, ones that the Egyptian audience might not be very familiar with, like for example the Bob Maghrib (Morocco) amongst others.

AO: There was a critique directed to the 2014 edition’s line-up about how some participating artists could not be classified as 'jazz' musicians. How do you respond to this?  

AS: To be honest, we still face many challenges when it comes to locating funds for the festival. As such, we resort to host musicians with a big fan base to keep this festival alive and running.

Last year, we hosted two concerts by Egyptian pianist Omar Khairat, and the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. Khairat is one of Egypt’s icons, and thus his presence honours any festival really. And so we weren't concerned about whether his repertoire comprised of jazz elements or not.

As for Mashrou’ Leila, they have a huge fan base, and they present alternative rock content. If we look at other international jazz festivals, we’ll find that they invite music bands, and musicians from different genres, to take part in them.

Also, the night we hosted Mashrou’ Leila, the Yuri Honing Quartet jazz band was performing with Egyptian singer Dina El-Wedidi, and the festival’s other stage hosted four jazz performances. So in a way, those who came in that night just to listen to Mashrou’ Leila ended up listening to and being introduced to jazz music.

At the end of the day, we’re trying to introduce the audience to this genre, and get them to love it too. But if we opt to solely focus on jazz, without giving space to other genres as well, then we’re not really catering to the audience.

AO: But the festival is already in its seventh year, and has garnered much success. How come it still faces such financial challenges?

AS: Again, to be very honest, we’re not receiving much support from state bodies, except from the Ministry of Tourism, which nevertheless has cut it’s funding for the festival down to half this year.

As for corporate sponsorships, corporates are not interested in supporting culture. And when they do, its usually done in a very superficial manner through commercial concerts organised under the name of culture. The first question a corporate company is interested to inquire about is the number of people we host annually. This isn't how we see our festival, and how it must include an educational element that comprises workshops, educational programmes, and activities for children and family and so on.

As a result, we are in a shaky situation every year. What keeps us going is the funds we receive from a number of foreign embassies that collaborate with us.

AO: Many audience members have expressed dissatisfaction with this year’s abrupt increase in ticket prices. You implemented a method of a whole-day ticket and one of them reaches LE250. While this is not a huge increase compared to the 2014 edition, which sold some tickets at LE 175, it’s a considerable increase from the 2013 edition, when day-ticket prices started at LE 60.

AS: The change in prices that took place between 2013 and now was a result of a re-assessment of ticket prices which we realised were wrongly rated. In 2013, and also during the preceding years, we were losing money and were actually paying out of our own pockets.

This year’s increase was a result of discussions with our partners as well as the ticketing company. When we made the calculations, we found that if we were going to sell the tickets for less than 150-200 this year, the festival would lose money again. 

It is worth mentioning that Cairo Jazz Festival is an independent initiative that works towards holding a cultural event, without the government’s support or supervision. The festival also aims at holding concerts that are not expensive, and that people can afford.    

This year, we moved the festival’s hosting venue to downtown’s GrEEK Campus, and this is a smaller venue in terms of audience capacity. We priced the tickets as follows: 178 seats at LE 250 for those who like to enjoy a sense of exclusiveness, those of a higher social status or of an old age. If you ask me, I’m not a fan of this whole VIP concept, but this is a group of people that we cannot overlook.

The second category comprises 450 seats at LE 150. It is worth mentioning that we could’ve included more seats in both categories, but we didn’t.

The third category (LE 100) allows you to enjoy the concert while standing or sitting on beanbags, the stairs, or in the lounge that we set up for the festival.

Now let’s divide the LE 250 ticket (most expensive one-day ticket in this year’s edition) over one festival day that hosts up to five to six shows. This means that each concert will cost about LE 40-50. If I’m listening to the 24-member Danish Blood Sweat Drum ‘n’ Bass orchestra as they perform with Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, and I’m paying LE 50 for this show, then I think this is a fairly priced ticket.

Regarding audience-members who expressed discontent with this year’s ticket prices on our Facebook page, we replied to their comments and explained the breakdown of the ticket. Also, they probably haven’t attended the festival before, which is clear from their comments, since they don't seem to be aware that this is a festival and not a concert, which is different story altogether.

AO: Upon its inception, the festival was held at El-Sawy Culturewheel, then later moved to Al Azhar Park, and in both venues, people from different social strata could attend. Will this remain the case in the Greek Campus?

AS: Al Azhar park is on the fringes of Downtown, while the GrEEK Campus is at the heart of downtown so it’s not a huge distance between both. As such, I don’t think this change of venue will deprive different social classes from attending the festival.

We moved to the GrEEK Campus for a number of reasons. First, it is a chic, well taken care of venue, which hosts important events. Secondly, we’ve been looking for a partner who can appreciate the festival. This year, GrEEK Campus exhibited an interest in the festival and provided us with lots of facilities. Thirdly, organising the festival at either Al-Azhar Park or El-Sawy Culture Wheel was far from being smooth. Last, but not least, the location is more reasonable in expectations of fees asked from the event's organisers.

AO: Tell us more about this year’s Beyond Stage programme.

AS: As I mentioned earlier, the festival is a comprehensive cultural event and not a concert, which means it must host an array of varied activities.

This year, we’re holding workshops for both amateurs and professionals, in addition to activities catered to children. It’s important to me that these children grow up to remember the festival. So that when a child is photographed playing an instrument in 2015, and looks back at the picture in 2030, he will be happy remembering this moment. We’re building history, and there also has to be something that connects you to here, some sense of belonging.

This year we’re also holding a photo exhibition, which will be inaugurated on the festival’s opening and will run throughout the festival days. The exhibition showcases photos of the famous music bands and troupes that were present in the 1960s and 1970s. I was inspired by an Arabic Facebook group titled “the most famous music bands of the 60s/70s” and which includes photos of Egypt’s most renowned bands at the time. The list includes Petits Chats whom youth don’t know much about, as well as other bands.

The exhibition will be held at the campus’ gallery, and we will also host some of these musicians, who will talk to the audience and share memories from the time.

AO: Now in it’s the seventh year, has the festival reached its aspired success?

AS: Prior to the festival’s inception, I had been traveling on tours with Eftekasat band in Europe, India and other countries, and taking part in major festivals. I was wondering why Egypt could not host such festivals too, and so I decided to organise one. That was the first objective.

Besides that, jazz is also a beautiful music genre. It inspires you to comprehend, imagine, to challenge stereotypes and practice freedom of expression. Hence, the second objective was to organise an event that people could attend and get to love jazz through.

The third objective was to provide an important platform that would host Egyptian jazz musicians and bands, and present them to the festival’s audience.

The festival has witnessed some great developments ever since its inception. Year after year, there's more awareness of the festival, more audience engagement, and press coverage. Moreover, the festival is now recognised internationally, and receives many international invitations to take part in music meetings and expos.

Check the 7th edition’s full programme here.

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