Looking back through 2013, one cannot separate the year from the January 2011 Revolution and the months that followed. It is interesting to ask to what extent the previous two years affected Egypt’s cultural arena in 2013. What were the concrete gains of “popular revolt” and what parts of life are still prey to the very grievances that were at the base of the revolution three years before?
It is easier to assess 2013 through the prism of revolution and its expectations — a quasi-perspective on events, for what is 36 months in the history of a country aiming at a major social, economic and political, not to forget cultural, face-lift? But already there are clues to understanding the process. Examples of conceptual transformation are evident, but many cultural areas are still dominated by a persistent status quo.
But, to summarise the previous three years, 2011 can be identified by an explosion of two-dimensional creativity that documented and mirrored the revolution. Such spontaneous testimonies were especially evident in documentary movies, photography and street art, including music and graffiti. The artistic affidavits in fact played an important role in the ongoing revolt, first against the former president Hosni Mubarak and his empire, then the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
While exploring a new platform for expression, artists moved even further ahead, finding on the streets and public squares an important meeting point between the creators and many socially and economically underprivileged Egyptians who, prior to 2011, had hardly experienced or participated in any creative initiative. As such culture was being recognised as a necessity and a right of the people rather than a luxury reserved for the privileged.
Starting in 2011 but gaining momentum in 2012, many initiatives, such as Mahatat for Contemporary Art, the Noon Creative Enterprise and new projects and grants offered by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy focussed on the role of culture in civil society. Many musicians and performance artists, involved in projects either initiated or backed by independent cultural organisations and international cultural centres operating in Egypt, reached out to Egyptians living outside major cities and poorer urban areas. Such an atmosphere suffused the months when Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power (1 July 2012-3 July 2013), implementing their policies across all social sectors.
The importance of engaging and interacting with previously neglected communities was only validated by a direct threat that artists saw to core cultural principles and diversity. The months between September 2012 and June 2013 were characterised by the intensified fight for the country’s cultural identity against the policies and decisions of the Islamist president and his cabinet.
But it was in 2013 that many important artistic achievements took place, affirming Egypt’s cultural identity and the recognition of all Egyptians’ right to have access to or become active participants in artistic practices. In this sense, 2013 gave birth to a kind of ideological maturity — definitely a major gain of the 2011 revolution. But for the revolution to yield results and the people to benefit from such ideological realisations, this maturity needs to be supported by actual deeds, work on the ground on the part of both the independent scene and the government.
No doubt, each cultural sector shared much pre-2011 discontent, and the music field is an interesting example of post-2011 changes in culture or lack of thereof.
Music remains one of the most common and intuitive artistic forms of expression, and it is definitely the most accessible and effective in its outreach channels transporting the messages of its creators. Whether or not infused with socio-political content, the core creative poetics of one generation is in large part influenced by its surroundings as all sorts of changes affect the musicians’ behaviour and their body of work. In 2013, Egypt’s independent music scene underwent an applaudable shift.
Though chaotic, many music productions serving as accompaniments to the 2011 protests were very much needed in the artistic and historical context. Slowly, chants turned to songs, while many musicians began reflecting on transformations that go beyond the purely political stance of Tahrir Square. At the same time, tunes that depended on handy instruments, such as guitar or oud, started reaching recording studios, becoming a more established form of musical expression.
It was clear that in 2011 independent music productions attracted almost unconditional support from local and international champions of free expression. The typical example of such occurrence is Rami Essam, dubbed the “Revolution’s Singer”, whose three chords on guitar, Erhal (Leave!) chant at Tahrir Square and the beatings he received from the military police in early March 2011 earned him in October of the same year a prestigious “2011 Freemuse” prize from Freedom of Musical Expression. This was an important, though symbolic, move from the Swedish organisation, focussing on supporting freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide. What many musicians were forced to realise in 2013, however, is that the interest they received in 2011 and partially in 2012 was motivated by curiosity regarding the fruits of the revolution and undifferentiated support for creative freedom.
The year 2013 brought winds of change and other factors were soon knocking on the door as the initial enthusiasm for the Arab Spring as a phenomenon of the 21st century cooled. Today, independent musicians are expected to propose something interesting, artistically valuable and equally original, in order to make their way through the infinite jumble of ambitious, yet not always musically creative, propositions.
But it is not easy for independent musicians whose development and sustainability depends on their individual networking to struggle for existence and preserve musical values. In this context, the Eskenderella band is among the examples of creative sustainability of artistic standards that have survived since before 2011. Eskenderella’s talent continues to be recognised inside Egypt and across the region, while its members revisit audiences as a group, in smaller formations or in solo recitals.
Equally, singer and songwriter Dina Al-Wadidi serves as a symbol of consistency and musical growth. In 2012 she was awarded the Rolex Arts Initiative for promising international artists which allowed her to collaborate and receive mentoring from Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian innovative singer and songwriter, also known for his political commitment. Al-Wadidi continued to be involved in the Rolex initiative through 2013 gaining a well deserved artistic boost.
On the other hand the latest international success of Egyptian singer and songwriter Mariam Saleh took place in October when she toured Scandinavia with songs from her 2012 album Mesh Baghanny (I Don’t Sing).
Alexandria born, Maii Walid found her musical vocabulary in Cairo and in May 2013 her album Moga was released in collaboration with renowned Lebanese musician Zeid Hemdan.
Accordionist, songwriter and singer Yosra Al-Hawari’s success came to her as surprise with the 2012 release of her hit single Al-Sour (The Wall). Having musical education, Al-Hawari was motivated to continue her artistic development which bore fruit throughout 2013.
Another interesting 2013 gem is the Zajel Vocal Ensemble, consisting of singers who are graduates of the Cairo Conservatory or Music Education Faculty in Zamalek, who entered the scene in June 2013 with the song Motamaredeen (Rebels) uploaded to YouTube in support of the anti-Morsi campaign. The independent music scene gave several testimonies to their ongoing growth. With filtering taking place and mounting competition, those who made it — many of them not mentioned above — deserve recognition.
MUSIC UNDER THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE
Unlike the many independent artists, music institutions operating under the government’s umbrella have a modicum of artistic and financial sustainability. It was particularly interesting to see artists and intellectuals linked to government bodies not only join in the wave of protests of 2013 but also actually motor an unprecedented expression of opposition directed towards the ruling regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Let us point to the major events that shook the culture scene in May and June 2013. On 7 May Morsi’s cabinet reshuffle included the appointment of Alaa Abdel-Aziz as minister of culture. Since day one, Abdel-Aziz was rejected by the community of artists and intellectuals, on the grounds of attempting to “Brotherhoodise” the Egyptian arts scene. On 12 May, the minister sacked the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation Ahmed Megahed without explanation, outraging the creative community. On 27 May, he dismissed Salah Al-Meligui, the head of the Fine Arts Sector; and a day later he fired Ines Abdel-Dayem, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House. Many other dismissals and resignations in protest followed.
On 28 May, artists held a large demonstration at the Cairo Opera House grounds and later in the evening froze the performance of the opera Aida with an on-stage strike. On 1 June, musicians from the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, supported by the Opera’s musicians and staff, announced the continuation of their strike in place of the concert. On 5 June, artists stormed the Ministry of Culture building in Cairo and the same evening launched the artistic activities which continued daily on the street in front of the ministerial building until 30 June, the day of the nationwide demonstrations that eventually led to the removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime. On 17 July, by now re-appointed at the ministerial chair, Mohamed Saber Arab reinstated all the artists previously dismissed by Abdel-Aziz.
It is important to underline the crucial role of the artistic bodies which belong to the Ministry of Culture in May and June when the struggle for a diverse Egyptian cultural identity dominated the protests. With such upheaval, it was expected that many radical changes would take place. Abdel-Dayem returned to her office, revitalised. In an interview published at the end of July 2013 she stated,” I learned a lot in the past two months... We found regular people on the street interested in music and art. This will definitely be one of the crucial lessons that I have to take into consideration when looking at the role of the Cairo Opera House in society. Today we have to start thinking about how to reach out to all social strata and all generations... Any artist doing something valuable will find the Cairo Opera doors open. We are here to support all talents that might have nowhere to go else in the country... We have to face the changes and it is our role to use all the tools we have to support Egypt on its path to social and political self-realisation.”
Indeed, Abdel-Dayem opened the Opera’s doors wider than ever before while musicians were filling the premises with a variety artistic propositions. One cannot deny Abdel-Dayem’s skill in this regard. On her reinstatement the “opera for all” policy has been reflected in larger audiences. And, though as events taking place on all stages operating under the Opera House accumulate in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour, it becomes difficult to control the quality of the performances, the necessary filtering will eventually take place. But this is not the major concern about this renowned institution. Being linked to the Ministry of Culture, when addressing cultural transformations, the Cairo Opera House is trapped within the same administrative dynamics and formulas that characterise the ministry. It is no secret that, though promising to implement many changes, Egypt’s ministerial body is paralysed by its own gigantic size.
Decades of laws and policies duly cultivated, regardless their validity in the face of the people’s needs, not only turned the ministry into the government’s mouthpiece, but more tragically also created a huge rift between the ministry and society. Today, with thousands of employees on the ministerial payroll in a questionable cultural expertise — including people connected to hundreds of cultural palaces dotting Egypt’s governorates, many of them non-functioning — the Ministry of Culture is paying the price of its own logistical mistakes coupled by years of alleged administrative and financial corruption. As such any palpable artistic activities bringing value to the field remain likely to disappear within the ministry’s monstrous structure.
The Cairo Opera House is privileged to have a unique positioning with highly educated and talented artists on board. The problem however remains in the whole administrative setting. With at least a few hundred administrative personnel, the Opera might be experiencing the same burden as the ministry. According to the labour law, this huge body is obliged to keep those numbers on the payroll while it is not benefiting sufficiently from the limited skills they have to offer. As such, the logistic backbone is the huge challenge hopefully to be addressed in 2014. Though not easy, it should not be completely impossible to restructure this important national institution to better serve its artists and relevant community.
Should it be a dream to think about a general formula that could work for all, the Ministry of Culture and all the bodies operating under its wings and facing similar issues? Putting in mind budget limitations affecting all the companies of the Cairo Opera probably invitation of the international troupes, orchestras and choreographers seems like a yet another dream for 2014. However, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to at least ask for new productions to be performed by the Cairo Opera Company whose repertoire, over the past years, has become increasingly and as such painfully repetitive? It is of course equally important to introduce young and emerging soloists to that repertoire.
Should any of the aforementioned dreams be realised by the end of 2014, one will certainly feel that the 2011 revolution bore fruit on the practical, not only the ideological level.
One cannot close an assessment of 2013 without recalling two great losses that shook Egypt’s music scene last year, marking end of an important era of Egyptian culture.
On 25 February 2013, Abdel-Moneim Kamel passed away. Kamel was the creator and spiritual father of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Following a bright career as a dancer in Egypt, then international glory marked by performances in the Soviet Union and Italy’s La Scala, Kamel returned to Egypt in the 1980s. He dedicated his life to forming Egypt’s national ballet company, turning the ballet troupe operating under the Academy of Arts into an internationally renowned corps, part of the Cairo Opera House. While sustaining his position as artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, in the 1990s Kamel was appointed the Artistic Director of the Cairo Opera House. He finally became the chairman of the Cairo Opera House between 2004 and 2011. During his life he choreographed and directed numerous ballets, with many finding acclaim internationally.
Monday 16 September 2013 marks death of Ratiba El-Hefny, the Egyptian soprano dedicated to both Western classical and Arabic music. Her career blossomed during the golden age of Egyptian culture in the 1960s and, while performing in Egypt and internationally, she became rector then dean of the Higher Institute of Arab Music in Cairo. El-Hefny established numerous ensembles and choirs many of which operate until today: the first children’s choir in Egypt, the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir; the Umm Kolthoum Ensemble for Arab Music, the Religious Songs Ensemble and the National Arab Music Ensemble. In 1988, she became the first chairperson of the new Cairo Opera House, a post that she held until 1990. She was the artistic director of the Arab Music Festival held annually at the Cairo Opera House. A large audience knows El-Hefny from her radio and television programmes dedicated to Arab music, which she hosted for over two decades.
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly