INTERVIEW: Basem Darwisch takes Cairo Steps to orchestral horizons

Eslam Omar , Wednesday 11 Dec 2019

Ahram Online interviews Cairo Steps ensemble's founder ahead of their new orchestral performance with the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui

Basem Darwich

Egyptian composer and oud player Basem Darwisch is taking his Egyptian-German ensemble Cairo Steps to classical horizons, collaborating with the Cairo Opera Orchestra for the first time in three concerts, in an orchestra conducted by renowned maestro Nayer Nagui.

Gaining international success with their modern jazz approach to spiritual music, whether Coptic or Islamic Sufi, through oriental compositions, the internationally-accredited Cairo Steps are exploring orchestral colours in a new project that will be launched at their favourite venue, the Cairo Opera House, on 19 and 20 December, two days before re-introducing it to the Alexandrian crowd.

"It's a new launch for Cairo Steps. We will show the world how Egyptian music can be presented with a modern orchestral jazzy sound," said Darwisch, who was keen to speak to Ahram Online ahead of his anticipated concerts.

With exploring Egyptian cultural heritage being their main mission since their founding in 2003, Cairo Steps, who "merges and combines traditional Egyptian and oriental grooves with modern jazz and classics, using vocal inserts with old Arabic poems," announced in the summer that they were turning a page towards orchestral music.

"Classical music is a very interesting playground which I thought we must invade," the Bani-Mazar-born Darwisch said, explaining that "the problem of the music scene in the Arab world is that whoever succeeds in one project, keeps repeating it and the crowd becomes attached to familiarity."


"Cairo Steps as a renewable music project is keen to introduce a new idea in each project. I like to challenge my abilities as an artist as well as approach the crowd with an appealing sound," said Darwisch, who led Cairo Steps at various prestigious venues in Germany, Egypt, Kuwait, the UAE and other countries.

The project, which took Darwisch more than three years of hard work and costly preparations, was given a soft launch at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 26 October, but Cairo Steps considers the Cairo Opera's concerts to be the official launch.

Cairo steps is collaborating in the project with various experienced orchestral arrangers including Nayer Nagui, Mohamed Saad Basha and George Kolta, as well as younger Egyptians Steven Simon and Rafeek Gamal.

"I really didn't expect such success in Alexandria. As the Cairo Opera House is considered the project's main venue, we want the concert to be perfect and that really demands a lot of effort and expenses."

Despite the boost of the opera and other bodies, Darwisch has faced a challenge in finding a sponsor for his "not commercial enough" music, before German oil company Wintershall Dea "rescued the project" as part of their intercultural interests.

"I hope that big companies in Egypt focus more on the artistic aspects, not only the commercial, in their sponsoring of arts projects," Darwisch said, thanking the project's sponsor.

Alongside Darwisch, Cairo Steps combines an arsenal of experienced musicians, including pianist Rami Attallah, Rageed William (nay and duduk), bassist Stefan Hergenröder, saxophonist Wolfgang Wittemann, drummer Muhammad Ra'fat, Ragy Kamal (kanoun), accordionist Wael El Sayed, percussionists Hani Al Sawaf and Azeema, cellist Jan Boshra and violinists Emad Azmy, Nehad Gamaeldin, Shady Abdelsalam and Shereen Azmy.

Sound engineered by Andrew Dawoud and Andrew Spergen, the programme will be split into two, with Shams, Bokra, Garden City, Saidi, Arabiskan, Sham El Nesim and Amber in the first, before playing Cafe Groppi, Dance Du Nil, Dahab, Siwa, Sanctum, Gnossinnne No.1 (ft. Sheikh Ehab Younis), Ole Cairo and Khaliji Steps in the second.

Cairo Steps have frequently featured many renowned performers including flutist Ines Abdel-Dayem, Egypt's current minister of culture.



Cairo concerts:
Thursday 19 and Friday 20 December at 8pm
Cairo Opera House, Main Hall

Alexandria concert
Sunday 22 December at 8pm
Alexadria Opera House, Sayed Darwisch Theater

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