Egyptian musicians struggle amid pandemic as syndicate head seeks reopening of venues

Eslam Omar , Monday 8 Jun 2020

Many musicians say they are in dire financial straits due to the shutdown of cultural activities

People wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) walk in downtown Cairo, after Egypt's government made wearing masks mandatory in public places and public transport, in Cairo, Egypt May 31, 2020. REUTERS

Unemployment is rife in Egypt's music scene after the suspension of musical and cultural activities due to the coronavirus, the head of the country’s musicians’ union has said, calling for some activities to be resumed in light of the situation.

"Egyptian musicians are facing a very big problem," Hany Shaker, the head of the Musicians Syndicate, told a local television show on Saturday.

"I present this cry of distress from Egyptian musicians to the prime minister and the [coronavirus] crisis committee. More than 24,000 musicians’ families can't afford their living expenses," said the prominent singer.

There are 24,000 musicians registered with the syndicate, but this number does not cover all those who work in the sector or in the many jobs that depend on it.

All music venues in Egypt have been shuttered since March, alongside all cultural, sports and entertainment venues, with the number of recorded coronavirus cases now surpassing 32,000 and with over 1,200 dead.

Reopening of musical venues

The Egyptian authorities have said they are moving towards a gradual reopening of various economic sectors, including a resumption of international flights and tourism, reopening of hotels at reduced capacity, and reported plans to reopen mosques and restaurants under strict new social distancing protocols.

In his comments, Shaker suggested public entertainment activities be reopened with minimal attendance and strict precautionary measures.

"We must consider the reopening of the music sector,” he said. “I suggest, for example, holding concert activities in the open air with strict safety measures like sanitisation, masks and social distancing."

"We see wedding receptions being held illegally at the moment. We could instead legalise this and limit them; for example, instead of 500 attendees, the number could be limited to 250.”

Hany Shaker

Shaker said that, over the past three months, the syndicate had paid out over EGP 11 million in pensions and medical care, amid a lack of funds due to a dearth of member contributions from fees for live performances.

"I very sadly announce that some musicians have switched to other professions because they can't earn their living from music. Egyptian musicians are the rose of Arab art and Egypt's soft power. They are facing a major crisis," Shaker added.

Calls for assistance

Many members of the syndicate support Shaker's suggestion, while others have criticised his “very late actions,” saying many musicians who had approached the syndicate for help with their financial problems in recent months had not received any assistance.

"The syndicate head is a rich man. He cannot feel the misery of poor musicians," iconic violinist Abdo Dagher, 84, told Ahram Online, adding that his own monthly electricity bill alone “is more than EGP 2,000,” which is almost the entire pension he receives from the syndicate.

Abdo Dagher

The internationally acclaimed musician, who played a big role in shaping the Egyptian music scene by teaching generations of musicians like Ammar El Sherei and Hassan Abu El-Seoud, calls for financial support for troubled musicians.

"Art is part of the state. Although I know they're facing a lot of problems already, they must take care of artists, because art defines the country," said Dagher, speaking from his self-isolation at home.

‘Richest’ syndicate

Veteran percussionist Ayman Sedky, who has toured the world presenting Egyptian music with the Sharkiat band of Grammy Award-winning Fathy Salama, has stated that the syndicate must support affiliated members who are stricken by unemployment.

"The Musicians Syndicate is the richest union in the country. They take a percentage from each gig played, from a solo performance in a bar, to various wedding gigs in hotels, and from all international musicians performing in big or small festivals or events in Egypt. Foreigners even pay in dollars and euros," said the 65-year-old musician, who plays with various bands.

Ayman Sedky

"We are in an extraordinary situation and I know lots of humanitarian cases of musicians who can't afford their family's living expenses, some suffering from diseases like cancer and needing expensive chemotherapy, or kidney damage needing weekly dialysis," Sedky said.

Switching careers

The situation is tough for Mamduh Wahab, a 38-year-old singer and percussionist.

He has been benefitting from the government’s monthly allowance for those who work in the irregular economy.

"I have been a member in the syndicate for almost 14 years now. I currently work as a microbus driver to support my family. I have three kids that need to be fed, in addition to monthly bills and instalments. The irregular employees’ allowance is only EGP 488 and it can't pay my house bills for two days," Wahab, who is known for Nubian-rooted influences, and for performing one of the earliest concerts at the El-Sawy Culturewheel venue, told Ahram Online.

Mamduh Wahab

"Even the syndicate's medical care is hard to reach. I tried to meet the doctors at the [syndicate] headquarters many times and they are usually not present. The syndicate should at least give us a monthly allowance of EGP 500. We are suffering and I know dozens of musicians who have even worse circumstances," Wahab added.

‘Not ready’ for music yet

Emotionally affected by the pandemic, composer and clarinettist Mohamed Fawzy, who has played with most major Arab singers and bands, either in studio recordings or at concerts, is against the re-opening of artistic activities, urging musicians to switch careers instead.

"I am reconsidering my career and all musicians should search for other jobs. People are not ready for arts now. They want to hear good news, not good music. Art is not a priority now. People only use hospitals or supermarkets," Fawzy said.

Mohamed Fawzy

"Why do musicians ask for the return of activities while the Ministry of Religious Endowments doesn’t request the reopening of mosques? Art requires a good mood. Any art form released now would not be noticed. Look at the online streaming concerts or live performances by solo artists. They don't get views. People are dying. Who would dare go live to play music?" Fawzy said.

With the coronavirus infecting a number of Egyptian musicians, including some of his friends like young singers Nehal Nabil and Ameer Youssef, Fawzy describes the pandemic as "a hell; it's destroying everything and only God can save us from it."

Moves to reopen economy

The Egyptian government has announced its intention to reopen a number of sectors, including aviation and tourism.

However, according to the government's three-stage plan for reopening, entertainment venues will not be reopened until the third phase of the plan.

With Egypt currently entering phase one, the third phase is nowhere in sight and its date will be determined depending on how the coronavirus situation develops during the previous stages.

Only cinemas, mosques, sports and social clubs and restaurants might be reopened soon, after the coronavirus committee holds a meeting later this week. Meanwhile, many hotels are already operating under strict rules.

Last week, the Cairo International Film Festival’s organisers announced that the festival will be held in November with a commitment to social distancing and other precautionary measures.

In a number of Western and Arab countries, many theatres are being prepared for reopening to a limited number of audience members.

For example, Tunisia will resume activities this month with strict social distancing and safety measures, with a limited attendance of 30 people at indoor venues and a maximum of 1,000 outdoors.

However, even the reopening of cultural activities may not save the day for the majority of troubled musicians given that the reopening will take place gradually.

Many initiatives are being formed worldwide in solidarity with musicians, but no real campaigns for this cause have been launched in Egypt, whether from the government, the syndicate, or civil society.

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