Basem Darwisch is best known for his internationally acclaimed ensemble Cairo Steps, yet his creative life is as versatile as the sounds of his music. The musician’s life is filled with fascinating turns, each adding its own colour to the palette of rich personality.
To quote Amin Maalouf’s words on identity, Darwisch is an example of a creator without a defined set of boundaries; his identity “is not compartmentalised, it is not split in halves or thirds” but “made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.”
From Coptic culture to Saeedi (or Upper Egyptian) music, from Sufi chants, Egyptian and Nubian sounds to jazz, and from ethnic to classical music, Darwisch’s identity is a dense carpet, tightly woven. Yet the braided strings speak a single, uniform language, transferring the internalised narrative of their creator to the world beyond the oud.
Meeting Darwisch is an experience in its own right. It takes place at an old stylish coffee shop in the heart of Heliopolis; it is filled with one thousand and one decorative items - old masks, dream catcher, paintings with folk or ethnic themes, small wooden sculptures - each carrying its own story and memory, just like the musician as he begins to reminisce.
“It’s a nice place,” he comments as he takes his seat, not distracted by the city’s bustle. “I spent my early years in this neighbourhood. It has this unique flavour.” He mentions his family, who have no professional link to music. “My brother however is one of my most honest critics. I listen to the opinion of three people before sharing my work with the world: my brother, my musician son, and my late wife.” Darwisch lost his life partner Katharina last May, and he dedicated his last composition, Dahab (released earlier this month), to her.
“My encounter with music began at the church; it was part of worship and common practice for the families directing their children to Sunday activities. Following the Sunday mass we would sing, act, play an instrument or join other cultural lessons.” Darwisch got his first oud at the age of ten. “Father David, one of my church teachers, handmade this oud for me,” he smiles. “It was amazing.”
Many children enjoy Sunday church activities, but only a few continue in the creative field. Before even entering high school, Darwisch met Wagih Aziz, a composer, songwriter and oud player, who introduced the young man to the artistic scene. “At the time Aziz worked for the Talia Theatre in Cairo,” the musician recalls, clarifying how, step by step, his relations with professional musicians and bands started deepening. Interestingly, when he joined them in performances across Cairo theatres, no oud was in Darwisch’s hand. “It was Aziz who played oud, and I would accompany him on accordion or guitar.”
The oud would however take the lead soon afterwards, while he studied German and linguistics at Ain Shams University, when he was hardly 20 years old. “I was surrounded by the German community organising cultural events. I decided to join. The first performance I gave on oud was that of Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. A friend accompanied me on piano. You can imagine the surprise on the listeners’ faces,” he recalls his first attempt to fuse two contrasting cultures.
During his university years, Darwisch travelled to Austria where he spent one academic semester. “I didn’t really like Vienna. I returned to Cairo to complete my studies.” Like almost every young Egyptian man, following graduation, Darwisch joined the military. “This is when oud saved me… My commander wanted to learn oud, so I taught him; I continued to play, enjoying it immensely.”
Darwisch’s journey with theatre with a big T continued. As a musician, he took part in performances staged in first few rounds of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. “It was the end of the 1980s. I have a copy of the payment I received: LE 600! This was a lot of money,” he laughs.
But since a young man’s passion is unlikely to cover his financial needs, with a number of responsibilities on his shoulders Darwisch began to work as a tour guide, a career he took seriously, studying Egyptology and earning a guide’s certificate. The field proved to be his second passion. In 1990, he left Egypt to Germany and enrolled in Egyptology at the Heidelberg University. But, remaining at heart a musician, he also networked with German musicians and explored the jazz scene in Manheim and Heidelberg, among other cities. “I was fascinated by the freedom of improvisation in jazz. I found it to be very similar to the improvisation we have in Arabic music, even if it is set in different sequences and harmonic rules.”
It was during his stay in Germany that Darwisch joined Salamat (1994), a folk band consisting of Sudanese and Egyptian musicians with whom he went on tour to France, Spain and England.
He also joined many Afro-Egyptian and Arab bands in Europe in the mid 90s. In 1997, together with the late Hossam Shaker (1963-2021), a kanoun player, Darwisch founded the Berlin-based Egyptian band Rahalah, giving concerts and workshops in Spain, Germany and Egypt. It was also with Shaker that he presented music in an Egyptian booth at the International Frankfurt Music Fair (1999), an event at which the two young men crossed paths with a remarkable musician.
“During the Music Fair, people kept coming and going. I didn’t know most of them. Then this man approached. He asked me if I could pass by his studio the following day. So, we did. Little did we know the man was in fact Simon Phillips, the internationally renowned US-based English jazz, pop and rock drummer. The same day we met German pianist Matthias Frey and former BAP saxophonist Büdi Siebert. What an experience it was. Shaker and I recorded together with Frey and Siebert.”
Spreading his wings, Darwisch collaborated with numerous celebrated musicians. In 1999, he joined Sharkiat, the Grammy-award-winner Fathy Salama’s band, for numerous concerts. He then played with Mohamed Mounir’s, giving concerts in European cities. In 2000, together with Frey and Siebert, Darwisch formed an oriental jazz trio. It was this that led to the genesis of Cairo Steps.
The band was formed in 2002, as a collaboration between Darwisch and Frey. “The name of the band obviously refers to Cairo, Egypt. The word ‘steps’ however stands for discipline, which I would link more to German culture,” Darwisch smiles as he explains the double meaning behind the apellation. “In other words, it is Egyptian music, made in Germany,” with components from both cultures strongly present in every composition.
Throughout two decades, Cairo Steps has featured prominent Egyptian musicians and created dynamic cooperations between the two countries. The ensemble has released five albums and singles. Oud Lounge came out in 2012, followed by Arabiskan (2016), Silk Road (2016), and Flying Carpet (2017), born of a cooperation between Cairo Steps and the German jazz ensemble Quadro Nuevo.
This cooperation also saw the participation of flautist Ines Abdel Dayem, Egypt’s former culture minister. Moreover, in 2021, Darwisch and Quadro Nuevo were honored with a German Jazz Music Award for his composition Cafe Groppi. The composition is included in Quadro Nuevo’s 15-track album titled Mare; arranged by the renowned Egyptian jazz pianist Rami Atallah, Cafe Groppi features Darwisch on oud and Rafat Muhammad on percussion.
The Cafe Groppi success took place while Darwisch was producing the album Diwan Cafe (2020-2021), which makes room for renowned musicians to showcase their creativity: pianist Rami Attallah in Cairo Vibe, ney player John Sami in Fayoum, Rageed William on duduk in Ward, and Wael El Sayed on the accordion, among others. The album has a highly personal, contemplative character, on the one hand demonstrating the creativity of each musician and, on the other hand, speaking of Darwisch’s ability to embrace cultures and package them into a single musical offering.
Many of Darwisch’s singles also feature renowned soloists such as Marwa Nagy, Ali El Helbawy, Monica George, Peter Ghattas, Ali El Helbawy and Sheikh Ehab Younis, among others. The latter cooperated with Darwisch on one of his latest, Naeim Redak (The Blessing of Your Approval), a true tribute to both the Sufi chanting and Western musical canons. Joining Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G-minor and Sufi singing, the composition is one of the hallmarks of Darwisch’s creative identity.
A large list of renowned musicians, music engineers, producers, directors, both Egyptian and German, have contributed to the journey of Cairo Steps. As such Darwisch’s music is a vessel carrying shining gems that glitter with skill and personal character. They support with arrangements, orchestration, and music production. Pulled together by Darwisch, the oud player’s voice is dominant, with the compositions being his musical meditations and possibly his self explorations.
“I was born in Upper Egypt, therefore I am Egyptian. I am Coptic, from an Orthodox family that is very tolerant. At the same time I was born in a Muslim environment. I absorb everything that surrounds me. I love spiritual music and Sufi music, I admire Egyptian folklore. Those are the fundamentals of my identity. They were then topped with Western influences and especially jazz and classical music,” Darwisch explains, stressing that great contribution that Katharina, a soprano singer, made to his development.
“It was Katharina that opened my mind to Bach, Mozart and other composers. I would attend her rehearsals and concerts, listen to her sing and talk about music.” Undeniably this close contact with classical music, the long discussions and analysis he had with his wife, left a strong imprint on Darwisch’s craft.
As such, his music is a unique, balanced and very conscious, born of the creative spontaneity combination of ethnic, Egyptian, jazz, classical and contemporary music, among other genres. With oud being the protagonist in numerous compositions, Cairo Steps music benefits equally from interesting combinations of instruments, accordion, piano, saxophone, bass guitar, qanoun, ney, flute, duduk, percussions, and a wide range of strings. They are supplemented by concerts that carry a symphonic character, such as those presented at the Cairo Opera House under the baton of Nayer Nagui.
Darwisch’s identity is also visible in his choice of topics. Many of his compositions draw our attention to locations in Egypt. Hence we find Dahab, Siwa, Garden City, Cafe Groppi… Such locations speak to Darwisch’s nostalgia, embedded in memories from his childhood and youth, all of which remain vivid in his mind and creativity.
At the same time, Darwisch yearns for an Egypt that is no more. “Over the past decades, Egypt has changed a lot. No priority is given to culture; a lot of productions are of very mediocre quality. Meanwhile, we lose many people who represent our Egyptian culture - take the instrument producers as an example - and since those jobs cannot secure anyone a reasonable living, there is no one to replace them.” The same is true of numerous renowned musicians who are no longer with us.
Darwisch goes on to point to governmental decrees that additionally paralyse cultural development: high taxes on the artistic field, or fees to be paid in order to obtain permission for foreign musicians to perform in Egypt. He says that such procedures greatly limit the possibilities of valuable culture flourishing. “Usually, the inviting country takes a percentage of the musician’s contract. In Egypt, the tax for a foreign musician can be triple that of his actual salary. This makes it impossible to invite international names to perform in Egypt. If we want to be at the international level, the laws need to facilitate, not hamper interaction with world cultures. Our life should not be limited to mainstream or commercial creative products. We need niche cultures as well, which while speaking to smaller audiences, make a huge impact on millions of minds, in the long run.”
Darwisch is fully aware of the network of laws and relations at the heart of the Egyptian music scene. He is also aware of the hardships that many musicians go through managing their projects.
In fact, apart from creating music, Darwisch also has a rich portfolio in artistic management and shares his experience through workshops. The Cairo Steps website highlights the details of those, held across the Arab region and beyond. Titled “How to build your business in the music industry,” the art management sessions allow the participants to grasp “skills, concepts, and methodologies necessary to manage the legal, financial, artistic, and ethical issues that face the contemporary music business profession,” the website states. One such workshop will be held at Cairo’s Cultograph on 5 November.
“I have a management background as well,” Darwisch clarifies, explaining that, over the past three decades, he worked in the corporate environment in Singapore, Japan, India, etc. “I have been dealing with huge budgets, and created strategic planning of IT-related projects. This helped me plan the trajectory of Cairo Steps. I think it worked out.”
Indeed, over almost two decades, Cairo Steps has established itself as one of the most sought-after ensembles in the region. The band represents many creative values. While joining cultures, it has become a platform for numerous musicians to express themselves. Authentic musical traditions in combination with an innovative approach to art and management have allowed the ensemble to reinvent itself and grow without jeopardising its core values. Its concerts in Cairo and elsewhere in the world always gather large audiences, a fact that proves that creative content and good management can be a recipe for success for even the most niche projects.
Ending the conversation with Darwisch, one feels truly enriched. His music speaks for itself, while the stories he shares unveil the many layers that contributed to its creation, together with his own identity. Coptic background, Muslim surroundings, Sufi and spiritual explorations, fascination with Egyptology, recognition of German and European art, classical music and its transatlantic progeny, jazz, as well as love for the many faces of the homeland and lessons learned in theatre, respect for the traditions and openness to innovation, and a strong managerial backbone: all these go into who Basem Darwisch and Cairo Steps are.
Cairo Steps upcoming concert is on Friday 4 November at the Marquee, Cairo Festival City, featuring Sheikh Ehab Younis
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.