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Cooking up a multicultural musical feast
Published in Daily News Egypt on 14 - 08 - 2007

For nearly an hour-and-a-half of non-stop music, a handful of fortunate guests were treated to the first and only performance of Music Matbakh in Cairo.
The British Council-sponsored band performed last Saturday at the council s headquarters in Agouza.
The concert was the band s second gig in Egypt following a show-stopping performance at the fifth SOS Music Festival last Friday in the North Coast - which was attended by a crowd of 2,000 young men and women.
The Music Matbakh (Music Kitchen) project took nearly four years to see the light of day. Fourteen musicians from Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Britain were assembled under the direction of Justin Adams, Robert Plant s guitarist. They succeeded in merging their distinctive musical skills, backgrounds and techniques into a coherent set of songs, reflecting their diverse cultural and musical heritage as well as the things they have in common.
This hybrid mix of electronica, hip-hop, jazz, Western classical compositions, Arabian folk, funk, reggae, the rich Moroccan desert arrangements and several other musical styles produced an eclectic sound.
Infusing the Western rock sensibilities with the oriental Egyptian and Arabic melodies is a staple formula Egyptian underground/alternative bands and artists have been adhering to until they almost drained it completely of any freshness or potential.
That wasn t the case with Matbakh, whose short-lived collaboration has the potential of reinventing the aforementioned formula. Part of Matbakh s success is attributed to the limitless boundaries and horizons of their music. Not only do they blend the general, well-known musical genres, they also experiment with the indigenous sounds of gnawa, Syrian symphonies and Sufi traditions.
Their lyrics are not focused on the typical love verses or sappy patriotic anthems. These are angry, poetic protest songs accompanied by a lively and entertaining group that put mainstream Egyptian and Lebanese music to shame.
The essence of the band s unique musical approach was quickly put on display with the opening song of the evening that saw Lebanese rapper RGB taking center stage along with Jordanian singer/songwriter Ruba Sakr in a song about occupation.
The band coasted into mystical territory with the second and the third (Lebanese Children) cuts of the set. This was when the intense hooks of RGB stood against the delicate voice of Lebanese singer Asma accompanied with the archetypal chords of Egypt s Ousso s guitar and the tender strings of Ahmed Medhat s violin. The result was a couple of mesmerizing tunes filled with sweet melancholy embedded in pulsing vigor.A classical, instrumental number from keyboard player Andrew McCormack and Syrian ney flute artist Moslem Rahal slowed things a down a notch before Ousso, Medhat and Sakr burst into a fragile, meditative ballad preceded by a lovely solo by the country s best guitar player.
From that point onwards, the music rushed into countless directions and numerous variable levels.
The fierce ballad Arabian Desert burst out of nowhere, with Ousso s shrilling guitar steering the song into a slightly ominous direction, fostered by Sakr s voice and working in contrast to Syrian Issam Rafae s soothing oud and the moody whistling of Rahal.
Moroccan musician and vocalist Hicham Bajjou s shook the stage next through the chorus of Ragab, another rap-driven song featuring a rapid rai-sounding violin from Medhat and a very catchy throbbing from Tunisian percussionist Lotfi Soua, producing the best dance track of the set.
A jamming collection of each performer s signature musical solo lines were showcased during Struggle, which continued to elevate the show into a true sonic frenzy.
After a calm star, the majority of the sundry attendants were shuffling their feet, waving their hands or jumping as high as they could to Highway to Casablanca.
The last song of the concert was the only the most bouncy, brisk and brain-damaging number, it represented the pivotal moment of the project. Elements from the musical genres, backgrounds and skills of the 14 musicians merged in an eccentric, magnificent melting pot.
By the time Medhat introduced his band mates, a heightened sense of genuine fervor and ecstasy was looming beneath the humid air of the city. The utter novelty and aptitude of the performers was overwhelming. The passion they unashamedly wear on their sleeves demands respect and admiration.
The concert was, by far, the most impressive and ambitious performance this reviewer has witnessed in Egypt.

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