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Horus drumming
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 05 - 2013

The first round of the International Festival for Drums and Traditional Arts (IFDTA, 19-25 April) overwhelmed the culture scene in Egypt despite the exceptional circumstances. The founder and president of the festival Intessar Abdel-Fattah gave the lie to the political situation with the event, which took place in various venues in Cairo as well as the Banha Cultural Centre and the Mansoura Cultural Palace Theatre.
Abdel-Fattah has been the head of the National Centre for Theatre since September 2012; he is also the head of Al-Ghouri Creativity Centre and the founder and president of the acclaimed annual International Samaa Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting held in Ramadan at the Salaheddin Citadel and Al-Ghouri Caravansary. The latter offers an opportunity to witness spiritual and religious chanting from around the world. Prior to all this, Abdel-Fattah founded the Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments troupe, which achieved great success and participated in many international festivals. Indeed it is the core inspiration for the IFDTA…
The inauguration ceremony welcomed all participating bands and troupes at the Bir Youssef Theatre within the Salaheddin Citadel; the festival administration chose Greece as the guest of honour and honoured the late Egyptian minister of culture Tharwat Okasha, the late icon of folk art Zakariya Al-Heggawi, the founder of Reda Troupe in 1959 Mohamed Reda, the folk heritage scholar Abdel-Hamid Hawass, the theatre icon Abdel-Rahman Al-Shafie, the late choreographer Kamal Naim, the vice-president of the Jeunesse Musicales de France Institutions Guy Dongradi and the Chairman of the African Union Commision Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Abdel-Fattah says, “Despite the fact that this is the first round of the IFDTA, this work actually started in 1990 which means that this wasn't just an entertainment festival, but a complete cultural, financial, economic and tourist forum. I dreamt of presenting the real Egyptian character – which cannot be presented in a one-sided way – after 23 years of founding Egyptian troupes for the traditional arts such as the Nubian Drums Troupe as well as various art workshops around Egypt. I imagined myself on board Horus's solar boat on a trip down the Nile heading from the Delta to Nubia: a journey of discovery monitoring the search for meanings and secrets. First I met a mizmar player from Al-Sharqiya governorate; I asked him to join me on the boat. Afterwards I met a soulamia (also called kawala) player from Mounofia governorate so I asked him to join us. And later I met a rababba player… I tried to gather all the symbols of the Egyptian character on my imaginary solar boat, so that when I arrived in Nubia I was in a position to hold a dialogue between different aspects of the traditional character reflecting the kind of harmony envisaged by the late geographer-philosopher Gamal Hemdan.”
This extended journey started with the foundation of the Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments Troupe, Abdel-Fattah explains: “When I created the Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments Troupe, I began my work with engendering an internal dialogue between all those popular instruments in one troupe. Our work proved hugely successful, and then I added the slogan Drums Dialogue for Peace – as this has to be the common language between societies around the world, it was applied more than 40 countries that we visited and within the workshops that were held in Egypt. The project of Egypt's Traditional Character was inaugurated by Minister of Culture Saber Arab at Al-Ghouri Caravansary in 2013, however. On that occasion I gathered all the troupes from all over the governorates of Egypt including the ones I founded and managed to hold a special dialogue among them, ensuring that the richness of the Egyptian character and its uniqueness would come through. It was truly a great dialogue between the troupes: regardless of their diversity, what they had to offer matched, united and simmered together. The research goes all the way back to 1990 as the event was preceded by 10 years of research in every governorate and city in Egypt. Finally the IFDTA emerged as the crown on the head of the whole project.”
Sheer size is remarkable. “The number of troupes that actually participated in the festival was more than I expected: 36 troupes from 27 countries from around the world, such as Pakistan, Germany, Togo, Greece, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, the Emirates, Iraq, Ecuador, Namibia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Guinea, China, Kuwait, Colombia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Romania. Such extensive participation was a result of a year of preparation in cooperation with Foreign Cultural Relations, Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of International Cooperation, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Antiquities, the General Organisation for Culture Palaces, which participated with its own troupes, the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Cultural Development Fund.”
Abdel-Fattah goes on, “Organisationally, the festival was officially planned by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism and Foreign Cultural Relations, but a great deal of responsibility has fallen on the Foreign Cultural Relations people, who were in charge of hosting the participating troupes and managing their transportation and hotel reservations at the Pyramisa Hotel in Dokky and scheduling a short tour of the troupes to the Giza Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum. The Ministry of International Cooperation encouraged the festival since it was believed that it was a real cultural forum.”
But why the word “drums” in the name of the festival? How is this fare different from the “traditional arts” Abdel-Fattah has always presented? “Traditional arts and drums are simply two different kinds of art and I intended to mix the two together. I believe that they mingle just fine in spite of all the differences: on the one hand, drumming has its own philosophy and it's a very old art and on the other hand the traditional (as opposed to simply folk) arts are composed of troupes able to preserve the personal heritage of a country. I consider it very smart to combine the two in one festival. That's why it's an unprecedented event the world over and one of a kind in the Middle East. There were abundant troupes – affiliated to the General Organisation for Culture Palaces – participating from Egypt: besides the Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments Troupe, my sun boat, the Port Said Group for Folk Arts, the Malawi Group for Folk Arts, the Al-Sharqiyya Group for Folk Arts, the Toshka Group for National Folk Arts, the Al-Arish Group for Folk Arts, the Al-Anfoushy Group for Folk Arts and finally the Hasballah band which, first founded in 1860 by Sergeant Hasballah: it had almost vanished when I brought it to life again at Al-Ghouri Creativity Centre in the framework of the project Cairo in 1000 Years. They perform the folk heritage of Mohamed Ali Street and they have a distinctive role in preserving the arts of old historic Cairo…” In the same spirit, Abdel-Fattah now is trying to revivify the old art of the naqrazan.
For Abdel-Fattah, the audience is the real hero in this festival: “I didn't expect the huge number of audience that came to witness the festival. There were thousands and that was my challenge after a lot of warnings from people that the timing of the festival is very risky regarding what's happening on the political scene in Egypt and the continuous clashes taking place in various places that might keep people from attending. Yet the closing ceremony was historic and offered a spontaneous demonstration for the love of Egypt and I believe that the real hero in this festival was the audience many of whom created pages on Facebook for publicity and formed groups to help with the entrance of the audience. The closing ceremony featured all the troupes singing the national song Ya Ahla Esm Fel Wogoud (The Loveliest Name in the World), with high emotions emanating from the troupes and the audience as well.”
Did everything go according to plan? “During the preparations I expected the participation of 15 troupes,” Abdel-Fattah says, “while the actual participation was 27 troupes at first and the rest of the troupes joined after the festival already started – we couldn't send them away, that was my challenge. In a touching gesture, three members of the troupe from Uzbekistan, which was supposed to leave on the night of the closing ceremony, insisted on staying to attend the ceremony while the rest of the troupe travelled.” During the busy days of the festival Abdel-Fattah didn't have enough time for rehearsals for the closing ceremony; he had only three hours before the closing ceremony for rehearsals, but with his faith in the audience – familiar with his work – he presented the performance and did a number of improvisations that spread an atmosphere of intimacy.
“The festival was built on studies of the Egyptian character and experimental applications that we later applied. During the festival I heard a comment that was so intriguing I still remember it, ‘The festival did what many politicians failed to do in years of negotiations in bringing together various nations in one place to unite.' I consider Gamal Hemdan a source of inspiration and a model in my research process, which uses the same concept as the solar boat. I thought to myself, How do I embark on my journey? After the success of the festival there were various suggestions, some of which we already have partial clearances for, that the festival should travel from one country to another like the World Cup, upholding the Egyptian version after its achievements in sending a message of peace. I'm thrilled with the idea that the festival should travel from one country to another with the same concept of the solar boat to gather together the whole world. The human being becomes a nation and the nations become a human being.”

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