With the small hall of the Cairo Opera House full to the brim, the Grammy Award winner Fathy Salama and his Sharkiat band featured Sufi singer Mahmoud ElTohamy on Sunday 25 February, in an event dubbed Sufism vs. Modernism, merging Sufi poetry and music with western tunes and electronic sounds.
"O Lord, send your salutations and blessings forever upon Your Beloved, the best of the whole of creation," chanted ElTohamy and his two-member choir backed by hundreds of attendees singing along to the lyrics of Al-Burdah, an ode of praise for the Prophet Mohamed, written by the prominent 13th century Sufi poet Imam Al-Busiri of Egypt – mixed with eclectic drums and sounds and western chords.
Sufism, a very old mystical conceptual trend in Islam that exists in both Sunni and Shia – but is rejected by conservatives – has its own forms of traditional music that are normally used as part of the ritual practices of zikr, remembering Allah, and praises to Prophet Mohamed and his family.
"This concert is just the beginning. This project will continue and we will announce the dates and locations of the upcoming events soon," Salama told Ahram Online after the event, adding that "the project aims to protect and revive the traditional music scales and styles and the historic Arabic poetry."
The concert consisted of two main repertoires: Sharkiat performed a selection of their usual Sharkiat set, including tracks Amm, Fire Dance, April and Fathy's Mood, before the second part and the event's main dish when ElTohamy was called-up on stage to chant a few of his own tracks, like Al-Burdah and Qamar, in addition to a few of Shrkiat's tunes, such as Nahawand and Rast.
With classic Islamic chants, Salama, who geared up his set of keyboards using unexpected synthesized sounds, mixed jazzy chordal progressions with electronic sounds in a revolutionary fusion blending pop, hip hop and rock beats, with very Egyptian traditional lead solos by accordionist Saleh El-Artist.
Salam's buddy percussionist Ayman Sedki entertained the audience with his collection of percussions, including but not limited to congas, bongos, daf and trampolines in company with the electric drums by Mohammad 'Simo' AlFakharany, backed by tabla beats and breaks by Ramadan Mansour.
Lebanese bassist Andre Segone sometimes used his eclectic fretless gear, setting up a very tight and skillful groove alongside with guitarist Mohamed Adel, who substituted Sherif Alaa for the event, playing a series of improvised progressions and solos.
Tickets for the concert were sold out several days before the event, with dozens of fans expressing sorrow that they hadn't booked earlier and requesting the performers to repeat the concert.
Fathy Salama during 'Sufism vs. Modernism' concert at the Cairo Opera House, Sunday 25 February 2018 (Photo: Laila Farouk)
"Don't put culture in a coffin": Fathy Salama
When asked about possible criticism from followers of Sufi ritual who might refuse to listen to the religious chants accompanied by non-traditional instrumental sounds, Salama said that "refusing renewal is like putting art and culture in a coffin, and this surely would kill it."
"Instruments are played by humans. Either acoustic or electronic sounds are produced by humans, and if you think we shouldn't use electronic sounds in Sufi art, you should stop using mobiles and fridges too. But I must point out that there's also a huge difference between renewing and copying."
It's not new for Salama to mix western music with the very traditional Islamic Sufi chanting, as he did the same revolutionary fusion 14 years ago with Senegalese Youssou N'Dour, releasing the 'Egypt' album that strongly inspired its creators to clinch the Grammy for World Music.
After cooperating with the giants of Egypt's mainstream pop singers in the 80s like Amr Diab, Mohamed Mounir, Ali El-Haggar and Anoshka, Fathy Salama formed the band Shrkiat, gaining fame in the continental and global jazz scene.
The God Father, as his students like to call him, became a pioneer in the alternative music trend that many like to call "the underground scene" by boosting most of the currently famous bands and musicians like Masar Egbari, Cairokee, Sharmoofers, Dina El Wedidi, Mohamed Mohsen, black Theama and many others through his workshops and training programs.
Mahmoud ElTohamy in 'Sufism vs. Modernism' concert at the Cairo Opera House, Sunday 25 February 2018 (Photo: Laila Farouk)
'Revolution in Sufi chanting is a must': Mahmoud ElTohamy
ElTohamy echoed Salama on the importance of renewal, insisting that "Islamic chanting must interact with international music, otherwise it will remain in the shadows."
"Today I chanted in standard fusha Arabic, with a traditional appearance mixed with the western harmony and genres, pleasing a mixture of fans from many countries, to continue my revolutionary preservation of folk," he explained to Ahram Online.
This is also not the first experimental project for ElTohamy, who was nominated for the 2018 Grammy for his Global Music Award winning collaboration with Elise Lebec on the album Origin.
"I shouldered the burdern of preserving the Islamic chanting art by opening a school a decade ago, and since 2014, I started a renewal revolution in this art to keep it alive."
Born in 1979, ElTohamy, who is currently finalizing his album in which he chants on pop, rai and rock arrangements, is son of the famous Sufi chanter Shiekh Yassin ElTohamy.
The son started his career early in his boyhood by following in the footsteps of his father, performing Sufi poetry chants in traditional Islamic Sunni events across the country for crowds that sometimes numbered hundreds of thousands in the big mouled events like Al-Hussein and Al-Saida Zainab.
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