This year’s 6th annual Cairo Jazz Festival (CJF), which opened on Thursday 13 March, came to an end on Sunday 16 March. The festival featured a wide variety of local and international musicians, in addition to workshops and master classes that took place throughout the weekend.
The CJF, which was founded in 2009 by Egyptian musician Amro Salah, hosted a number of acclaimed performances spanning across three Cairo venues for four days, the peak of which perhaps was the third day, Saturday 15 March.
The line-up on the third day of the CJF - with performances taking place between Azhar Park’s Lake Stage and Geneina Theatre - was diverse and impressive, providing sounds from Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon all the way to Portugal, the Netherlands and the UK.
The day’s programme kicked off with Tunisia’s Nabil Khemir, whose music is an innovative fusion between the lute and the guitar. Khemir is actually credited with the invention of the Rayjam, a double-necked electric lute and guitar, which he plays to perfection. As the sun set against the skyline of old Islamic Cairo, Khemir and his band played an hour-long set, featuring the Tunisian prodigy’s world-renowned jazz numbers, entertaining the crowd and putting them in the right mood for the night’s following act: the André Carvalho Quintet.
At the Lake Stage, Portuguese double-bassist Carvalho and his group entertained the audience with their laidback compositions and subtle melodies that offer a refreshingly unique combination of the bass, the melodica, the drums and the saxophone. The chilly breeze and the gorgeous backdrop of the Citadel further accentuated the relaxed, gentle quality of the music, creating an all-together perfect ambience. The following day, the André Carvalho Quintet performed again in Cairo Jazz Club as an extended part of the CJF programme.
Up next was the Yuri Honing Quartet. Although Honing, a famed Dutch saxophonist, has been playing music since 1990, he recently established the quartet in 2009. In addition to his saxophone, the quartet features a piano, a double-bass and drums. Together, the four musicians weaved a web of magic that enthralled listeners, some of whom were familiar with Honing from his 2009 collaboration with Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich. On Saturday, popular Egyptian female singer, Dina El Wedidi, accompanied Honing on stage; her powerful voice and memorable lyrics heightening the energy of the performance.
Another long walk to Geneina Theatre led audience members to the performance of the Rami Attallah Group from Egypt. The performance coincided with the release of the group’s new album, Shokran Jazzilan (Thank you very much). The album’s tracks are all composed by Attallah who in recent years has become a well-known name on Egypt’s jazz music scene. Attallah’s extensive music education was apparent in the tight and smooth compositions. While Attallah’s piano offers a typically traditional jazz experience, the group somehow manages to infuse an inescapable Egyptian feel to the music, staying true to the words on the album cover: ‘When Pharaohs Play Jazz’.
Back by the lake, final preparations were being made for Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila to take the stage as the crowd waited in eager anticipation. The band had performed in Alexandria last November, but it was their first performance in Cairo since their AUC concert in March 2013. The excitement in the air was almost palpable when frontman and vocalist, Hamed Sinno appeared on stage and addressed the crowd. The band then started playing and the audience made out the first strains of ‘Bahr’ (Sea), a melancholic number from the group’s latest album ‘Raasük’ (They Choreographed You).
Mashrou' Leila went on to perform most of the tracks from Raasük, including ‘Lil Watan’ (For the Nation), ‘Wa Nueid’ (And again and again), ‘Ma Tetrekny Heik’ (Don’t Leave Me This Way) and ‘Ala Babo’ (At His Door).' In addition, the group also played some of the most popular songs from its two previous albums such as ‘El Hal Romancy’ (The Solution is Romantic), ‘Imm El Jacket’ (O’ Girl in the Jacket), ‘Wajih,' ‘Imbembililah’ (which drove the crowd mad) and, of course, ‘Fasateen’ (Dresses), the hit that first brought them to fame.
For their heartrending ballad ‘Shim El Yasmine’ (Smell the Jasmines), the band was joined by British saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch, whose sax - along with band member Haig Papazian’s violin - filled in for Sinno’s famous sad, haunting whistle during the song. Kinch also rapped instead of Sinno in ‘Ghadan Yawomn Afdal’ (Tomorrow Is a Better Day), Mashrou’ Leila’s reinvention of British band Gorillaz’s hit, ‘Clint Eastwood.'
The band followed the popular 2011 cover with a new one, this time of Britney Spears’s 2003 single ‘Toxic,' which they had never performed in Egypt before. Fans were ecstatic over the ingenious use of the violin, the band’s trademark sound, and the bold lyrics, which Sinno belted out in captivating bravado.
Another highlight of Mashrou’ Leila’s performance was ‘Keef Betbe’ny Lal Roman?’ (How Could You Sell Me to the Romans?), a fast, angry number that the band’s Egyptian fans had fallen in love with when they first performed it in Egypt during their 2012 concert in Cairo’s Nile Garden. This time, the song had a new, slower arrangement, adding furhter emphasis to the bitterness in its words. Many who were disappointed when ‘Al Roman’ didn’t make it to the final track list of ‘Raasük’ are now speculating whether this recent, modified version could be included on an upcoming album.
As has been their custom for several concerts now, the band finished off their performance with their colourful fan favourite ‘Raksit Leila’ (Leila’s Dance), followed by the sad and soulful ‘Inni Mneeh’ (I’m OK): ‘Let us burn down this city, and build one that’s more honourable,’ Sinno sang, his voice met with screams from the crowd.
Mashrou’ Leila’s performance and the impassioned reactions it sparked amongst the audience prove that the bond that was created between the band and its Cairo fans after their first Egypt concert in 2011 during the Spring Festival - which had also taken place in Azhar Park (only three years ago the crowd could still fit into the smaller confines of Geneina Theatre) - remains strong. Back then, the band had said in an interview that they were delighted to discover that their second largest fan base (after Beirut) is in Cairo. It is evident that this statement still holds true today.
This year’s CJF, which closed on Sunday 16 March with yet another strong performance by prominent Egyptian musician Omar Khairat, has proved to be a great success. The festival continues to be one of the capital’s most highly anticipated cultural events, reviving the public’s interest in jazz and bringing artists from all around the world to Egypt. In the process, CJF exposes audiences to alternative types of music that they would likely not get the chance to listen to elsewhere. Moreover, the event creates a much-needed festive atmosphere in the heart of a city that has been grappling with political turmoil for more than three years now.