Egypt's new music scene: A revolutionary audit

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 26 Jan 2012

In Egypt's post-revolutionary artistic environment, independent musicians find themselves in their element while traditional musical institutions struggle with new realities

Cairo Opera House (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he’s a poet, or even, if he’s a boxer, just his muscle? On the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly alive to heart-rending, fiery or happy events to which he responds in every way. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people and by virtue of an ivory indifference to detach yourself from the life which they so copiously bring you? NO, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy.”

Thus Pablo Picasso on Guernica, his famed painting depicting the two-hour inferno of this Basque town during Operation Rügen on 26 April 1937, when German-Italian forces blessed by General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde bombed the town, killing hundreds. His words are potent: With the dawn of the 20th century, and to a greater extent after World War II, the arts stopped being a tool for decorating houses of snobs. Art is no longer intended to delight the rich; it is neither the subject of ostentatious scholarly dissertations nor an aesthete’s toy.

Today, the arts play an active role in society; their presence is needed for reflecting on the surroundings, connecting people, inciting change, and contributing to the unveiling of a new social order of which they hope to be part.

And of the arts, music is definitely one of the crucial gears of social change. Due to its character, its outreach is enormous; it possesses the capacity to spread strong messages. Egyptian society in particular is extremely receptive to music – often more so that to other art forms – hence it is music that holds the key to the broadest expanse of social strata; it easily enters each and every house, major urban centres as much as small villages otherwise deprived of luxuries.

In the history of modern Egypt, no year demonstrated the importance to society of art in general and music in particular better than the revolutionary 2011. From the viewpoint of the artist, limiting the role of music to a tool of entertainment amounts to killing the soul of our perception of development, including the force of music in social change. It is through music that minds are reached, dialogue established and a mutual understanding between creators and their audience is shaped.

The revolutionary year that began on 25 January 2011 showed through the months how music brings people together and creates essential bridges of communication.

Events proved that music is not just a tool for celebrations.

It proved how disconnection between some musical forms and mainstream social forces creates a deadly weapon against music and its creators. Many have realised that the musician’s vocation is not limited to an entertainment; music is not made simply to satisfy immediate cravings for pleasure, it has a vocabulary of its own – a language that will either addresses people and the authorities, as the youthful energy of Tahrir Square, or die of suffocation in its own detachment. Alas, 2011 also showed how some musicians and especially musical institutions who underestimate the role of music are happy to look passively on while their own craft is drowning.

George Grosz, an anti-Nazi German Dadaist and caricaturist known for his cartoons ridiculing Berlin’s life of 1920s, called art a form of disconnection from social life and the artists’ refusal to contribute to reality “an abstract musing about the timelessness.” But unlike Nazi Germany, revolutionary Egypt is not about musing; the historical moment carries an urgency which if ignored will render change impossible.

Maybe Egypt’s revolution did not bring about the expected results – at least let us hope it did not yet accomplish its mission.

Some believe the revolution is still ongoing and strive for a change against all the winds bringing both, the same old stale and newer, more worrying currents to Egypt’s political arena; many have lost their enthusiasm and impatiently await some kind of utopian stability. Whether the revolution has lost its momentum, whether it was an important step in a much longer fight, we do know one thing for sure: Egypt’s uprising opened our eyes to many issues that need to be addressed; it pointed out mentalities that need to be changed.

In the revolutionary year 2011, the music world has seen two parallel axes that so far fail to meet: the first is bright and hopeful; the second, a dark curtain. The first is marked by bravery; the second hides in its own stillness. Voices of the first speak up against oppression, injustice and corruption; the second cultivates its silence, worrying that it might reveal its own dirty secrets.

The first axis represents youth, enthusiasm and creativity – with little or no professionalism. Those are the young people who enriched the protests with their chants, turning up to songs and tunes that found accompaniment in guitar or oud, some of them reaching the recording studios. Spontaneity, not the quality is their driving force; their weaknesses are compensated by truthfulness and a belief that they hold the tools of change in their hands. The second axis is a submissive brain child of the old regime, governmental forces and rigid minds which paradoxically have a grip on crucial professional musical institutions, the Cairo Opera House being one of them.

The first 18 days and for weeks afterwards, the keys to understanding those two very different worlds became available; everyone was stripped of their mask.

The music world in particular witnessed both extremes. As the revolution bubbled through its first weeks, it was physically impossible for the independent music scene on the one hand and the institutionalised music on the other to pretend to be what they were not. Many young people chose to fill Tahrir Square or join other protests around the country, while others preferred to hide until the “turmoil” was over.

Music generated by Tahrir Square called for freedom and democracy. Songs like Sout Al Horeya (“Voice of freedom”), Into the Fire, Not your Prisoner, Matloob Zaeem (“Leader needed”) followed by Ya El Midan (“O Square!”) were joined by the always patriotic Eskenderella and many other dynamic bands. Moreover, older songs like Ya Beladi by independent musicians are already tentatively returning to the scene. All those and dozens more music productions are coming from people who lived much of the initial 18-day period in the square and who continue to support the struggle for dignity.

Some of them are interesting young if still developing musicians, some offer valuable contributions to the field. Almost all of them gained significant media exposure: Ramy Essam, for example, earned the “Revolution Singer” title only due to all the circumstances – his bravery, and active participation in all the protests, the beatings he received from the military police in early March 2011 – and his Erhal (“Leave!”) and other chants-turned-songs with the guitar motivated tens of thousands throughout the weeks of protests and in October earned him a prestigious “2011 Freemuse – Freedom of Musical Expression” award from the independent international Swedish organisation, which advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.

No doubt, independent music scene was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the revolutionary months and this status was and continues to be earned by its strong involvement in the Egypt’s struggle for democracy. A year on, we have a right to formulate some concerns regarding the quality of some productions, or chances they have of becoming timeless. Nevertheless, again and again, it is the sheer enthusiasm and truthful need of active contributions to change that makes each and every composition special. Hopefully time, perseverance and in many cases additional training will allow all those musicians mature.

On the other hand, Egypt’s music scene does not lack true accomplished professionals and professional musical institutions, in other words: the second axis!

They are the centre of our musical arena. They have the power, the knowhow and understanding of what the music scene is about, what role it plays in the Egyptian society… And haven’t they surprised us with amazing ideas about how to keep up with the historical momentum? The New Cairo Opera House (National Culture Centre of Cairo): the pride of every accomplished artist, the prestigious four walls, the white mermaid on posh Zamalek Island, the glorious fortress overlooking Tahrir Square yet protected from it by the luminous Nile waters that surround it... Let’s have a look at the Cairo Opera House, victim of the famed date 25 January 2011.

The large red heavy curtain that successfully gives an end to most of the performances at the opera’s Main Hall did not help covering up the piling problems that are about to rip apart its walls.

The first wave of revolutionary demands reached the opera grounds on 13 and 14 February and was reflected in protests staged by artists and technicians. The protesters demanded that Abdel Moneim Kamel, the chairman of the Cairo Opera House since 2004, along with all top-level management, step down, blaming them for all the corruption on the premises. Protesters claimed that “the opera management takes personal gains from many productions and events taking place at the opera, weather financially or in assets, depriving employees and artists of deserved bonuses.”

Apparently, the protests were diluted by some actions taken by the management, such as salaries adjustments for some of the most underprivileged employees. Soon afterwards, the Alexandria Opera House joined in with their demands, voiced on and off throughout the year and adorning the desks of three consecutive ministers of culture: briefly Mohamed Abd El Moneim El-Sawy then Emad Abou-Ghazi before Shaker Abdel Hamid took over. It is also Abdel Hamid, the current minister, who has recently transferred some files testifying to the corruption of the Cairo Opera House to the prosecutor.

Along parallel lines, year 2011 saw the appointment of Nayer Nagui as the new principal conductor and artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra; Abdel Moneim Kamel is leaving the Cairo Opera House and Ines Abdel Daim has become its new head, giving up the management of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. As the changes are still to be finalised, musicians and audiences wait with anticipation for a new face of the Cairo Opera.

From the artistic point of view, for the Cairo Opera House, last year was possibly one of the poorest years in the opera activities. A few events worth pointing at took place over the past months: the return of the Swan Lake by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in April following eight years of absence; Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.3 in June, at which Mohamed Shams excelled; Marc Kissoczy’s baton giving one of the most successful concerts of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra with violinist soloist Monika Urbaniak-Lisik in September; The Impresario singspiel by the Cairo Opera Company recalling the importance of small operatic performances in October.

Despite some interesting accents, the year was filled with lots of bitterness while the Cairo Opera House seemed to be struggling with the realities. Many questions need to be raised: Why do poor quality foreign troupes keep being invited to Egypt to perform under the self-fabricated Broadway name (see my April review, “Bohemians of Broadway”)? Why does the opera fail to promote its activities for the large audience? Why do public relations offices work hard to repel – not attract – media and regular audience from events (a claim too often repeated by people attempting contact with this rather peculiar bureau)? Why doesn’t the Cairo Symphony Orchestra have a principal conductor and a clear programme for the season? Why are the programmes of the Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Opera Ballet Company painfully repetitive, offering mostly the same repertoire year after year after year? Excluding the Arab Music ensemble, which naturally reflects the musical preferences of the greater number of Egyptians, why doesn’t any of the Cairo Opera House companies try to reach out to the wide audience with well tailored programmes, interesting activities and audience development plans? Wasn’t the December combination of Lorkiana and El Leila El Kebira a key for attracting audience with this East-West bonanza? Though this specific blend is repeated almost every year, why don’t we see it working?

Why, while the outcry for change comes from the neighbouring Tahrir Square, does the opera respond with eccentric choices, like opera Aida – opening on 26 January – when the entire art scene is commemorating one year of Egypt’s Revolution? And, finally, maybe one of the most painful questions: Why do events dedicated to Ziad Bakir, the opera’s graphic designer shot dead during the protests on 28 January fail to include compositions that he favoured and as such seem to be a forcefully tailored commemorative obligation?

The last two questions reflect blatant examples of how this professional institution is totally detached from the reality of the country it is supposed to serve, how it is isolated from its people. But what role does the national opera carry in the country?

Over the past months, the Cairo Opera House proved to have a high level of immunity to revolutionary activity. At the same time, and to its misfortune, the Cairo Opera House is faced with a new challenge that came to the surface with the recent elections: the rise to power of the Islamists. A few of them formulate statements troublesome to artists while the Ministry of Culture, though it grasps seriousness of the situation, doesn’t offer pragmatic solutions for saving the arts scene.

Inside the Opera premises, not only is the Cairo Opera Ballet Company worried about its future; the problem is also much more profound; it goes beyond a simple threat posed by the Islamists to ballet as an art form. In one of my recent conversations with Ines Abdel Daim, it was apparent that she realises the detachment of the classical music from the Egyptian society. Understandably, this detachment will on its own work against the Cairo Opera House and will very soon pave an easy way to the graveyard of all art forms exercised by this institution.

But the Islamists need not interfere – it’s enough for them to watch, with delight, the slow and painful death of the Cairo Opera House. As long as the management doesn’t take critical and immediate action to restore the main mission of the opera house, as long as it does not suggest a clear and strong plan of outreach, as long as it does not set truthful artistic priorities, the future of the institution will not be bright. Abdel Daim is ambitious and very energetic; hence I remain hopeful that the new management will save the status of the institution that it represents.

2011 was not easy for the entire arts sector. The independent music scene is booming and responds to a high demand for its productions. Institutionalised music has a big homework to find a formula for its own existence. Let us not forget a number of interesting initiatives that provided a ray of light in those difficult months. Even though the former minister Emad Abou Ghazi cancelled two of the biggest annual festivals held in Cairo: the 23rd edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (planned for October) and the 35th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (planned for November), this year’s 21st Citadel Festival for Music and Song escaped the same sad destiny and for ten days filled the stages of the Citadel of Salah Al-Din (Saladin) in Cairo.

While the aforementioned cancellations used the lack of sufficient security as an excuse – while we all understand that the core of the problem is the lavish budget allocated in those festivals – the Citadel event succeeded in providing the setting. With some effort, technical improvements and wise programming, the Citadel Festival can be a shining gem in the music scene.

Away from the governmentally controlled events, in August Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy offered yet another edition of the Hayy Festival organised by the Genaina Theatre, presenting musicians from the from the Arab World and Mediterranean region. Though this year its activities were more limited than usual, the festival didn’t lack enthusiastic audience. On the other hand, a few days bridging April and May witnessed the Cairo Contemporary Music Days (CCMD), motored by Sherif El-Razzaz, head of the European-Egyptian Contemporary Society. CCMD aims to develop a network of contemporary composers and provides musicians from Europe and the Arab countries with an opportunity to present their compositions. This extremely valuable initiative still needs a strong logistical support to promote its presence and reach the audience, something that was neglected this year.

As much as the last year created a sense of disorientation to many, it was also an eye opener.

One year has passed since the revolution erupted. New energies set great challenges for the whole scene. Independent musicians were in their element and truly grasped the moment. For others, last year served as a painful realisation of their role in new realities. Clearly, the biggest homework is yet to be done by the Cairo Opera House. Too many examples from the last decades proved that music is not an entertainment only. Music, musicians and musical institutions play crucial roles in society. Music needs patience; it does not bring about immediate effects but in a long run it shapes minds. Music is a responsibility. Art is a responsibility. If we don’t use our professions to be a part of people, to verbalise our concerns, raise questions and state our position, to develop language with all social strata, to create hope, then why do we consider ourselves as part of this society?

Egypt’s hope for change invites everyone – not only independent musicians – to take action. Let us hope that the next months will pave the way for meeting all the challenges.

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