2013 Cairo Jazz Festival shows the colours of jazz

Dan Tookey, Wednesday 27 Mar 2013

2013 Cairo Jazz Festival presents the diverse facets of jazz despite sound and advertising issues during the three-day programme at Al-Azhar Park and Darb 1718

KJ Denhert at Lakeside (main) stage, Azhar Park. 5th Cairo Jazz Festival, 21-23 March 2013. (Photo: Dan Tookey)

The 2013 Cairo Jazz Festival hosted musicians from 15 countries spread over three days 21-23 March, showcasing the incredible and often breathtaking variety found in the jazz genre.

In its fifth year, the event has expanded significantly from its humble beginnings at El-Sawy Culturewheel to Al-Azhar Park and Darb 1718. 

Al-Azhar Park was a beautiful setting for the festival. The main stage was situated next to the lake. The side stage, though smaller in capacity, had the greater view, looking down over the City of the Dead and up at the Citadel.

The choice of location and pricing is testament to the type of audience the event targeted. Al-Azhar Park is known for drawing many social classes on weekend and evening outings. The park offers a number of music events throughout the year, on its various stages. Although the workshops at Darb 1718 were free, tickets for the performances at both locations ranged from LE30 ($4) to LE200 ($25), pricing out many, and limiting them to middle class and upper-middle class audiences.

The culture space at Darb 1718 is situated in the centre of a economically under-privileged area, but the audience attending both workshop and performances were predominantly middle class, as was the case at Al-Azhar Park. Apart from advertising flaws, the festival's website was in English, automatically limiting outreach for advertisment.

Cairo Jazz Festival opening night

Nevertheless, the festival kicked off with a number of captivating performances. The first day, Thursday, 21 March, started with Ribab Fusion on the main stage, performing contemporary jazz with oriental overtones. The group gave a lively performance, holding the majority of the crowd with their fresh sound and Moroccan instruments. On the other stage, Egyptian Dina El-Wadidi gave a strong performance to a smaller but engaged audience, bringing a collection of songs inspired by social issues. 

Kristina Tuomi from Germany followed, slowing down the tempo by singing a mixture of folk and jazz with lyrics drawn from the poetry of Shakespeare and Edgar A. Poe. The evening closed with the Ali El-Farouk Trio from Canada and Egypt and Brazilian Gilberto Gil.

Upon taking the stage, Gilberto Gil drew attention to the proximity of the two stages and how the sound from the lakeside stage was clearly audible at the other stage. This problem was most prevalent during the Ribab Fusion versus El-Wadidi performances. Gill’s announcement drew cheers from the crowd and highlighted an issue that should have been thought of and addressed before any performance on either stage. After these problems, the organisers opted for a linear programme for the rest of the festival.

Jazz-inspired events

The second day opened an hour late on the side stage with the first three artists playing in reverse as listed on the programme. Japanese group Makarimba led by the outstanding marimba player Mika Yoshida Stoltzman began the evening. Her performance initially drew little encouragement from the small audience. Yet, as time went by and the crowd increased, the audience became more forthcoming with their praise for the talented musician.

Mitko Rusev followed with a collection of melancholy songs; "Song of Wind" perfectly complimented the encroaching dusk, visibly moving some members of his audience. 

Placing the Neil Cowley Trio after Makarimba and Rusev was a wise decision, as their exuberant and energetic performance would not have suited being followed by the two more low-key artists. The British group appear to be a traditional jazz trio with a piano, drums and double bass line-up, but any dalliance with the ‘traditional’ ends there. 

Described by Mojo in 2008 as playing ‘jazz for Radiohead fans,’ captivated the predominantly young audience. Songs such as "Rooster was a Witness" contain an indescribable humour that can only be heard, not described. The audience gave the band one of the few standing ovations of the festival.

At the lakeside stage, the audience witnessed Eftekasat’s oriental jazz-fusion set. Festival founder Amro Salah played the keyboards with the Egyptian group. Tenor-clarinettist Alex Simu stole the show with several mesmerising solos. The GMH Orkestar played a cocktail of jazz inspired by Austrian folk music, with Franziska Hatz on vocals and accordion. Her enthusiasm for their music encouraged some members of the audience to dance towards the back of the stands. GMHO’s music showed, more obviously than anywhere else, in the festival how expansive the jazz genre truly is. 

KJ Denhert closed the unusually cool night with a set that simply oozed with blues. Although the American artist played a variety of genres, "Choose Your Weapon" was the highlight of her set. The track is a reggae number that Bob Marley himself would have wished he had written. The track contains light undertones of Stevie Wonder’s "Jammin’" and has lyrics that won the 2011 John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Despite a reasonably small audience, KJ provided an astounding close to the second evening. 

During the day on Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23, workshops encouraging children to engage with jazz, and intimate performances were held at Darb 1718. Denhert’s workshop had to be cancelled due to poor attendance. Considering the enthusiasm she received at privately organised workshops there seems little doubt that the few numbers was a result of poor advertising.

The final day saw strong performances from the relatively unknown Arch Stanton Quartet from the USA and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio from Holland. Lithuanian Dainius Pulauskas Group played a mix of progressive jazz-fusion with tenor-saxophonist Rimantas Brazaitis, eliciting strong reactions from the audience with his melodic and emotional solos.

Ziad Rahbani’s performance closed the Jazz Festival. A huge crowd gathered to see the Lebanese icon for what was billed as a 90-minute set but in reality barely lasted 60. The audience clearly enjoyed his music and Rahbani's droll remarks through the evening drew several laughs. Though one would have wished for Rahbani's concert to last as advertised, his position in the Arab music scene talks for itself.

Though few of the musicians at the festival played traditional jazz, the bands are a clear example of how a variety of influences from around the world have infiltrated the genre and gave it many different facets.

The organisers should be commended for attracting several global icons such as Gilberto Gill, Ziad Rahbani and KJ Denhert. The children's workshops brought an important educational element to children and adults alike. Had the events been well advertised, the festival would have had a higher turnout.

In it's fifth edition, the festival has offered a variety of gems. The logistical and sound issues organisers can address for next year's festival.

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