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Lights out in Ramadan?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 07 - 2013

This year, Ramadan coincides with a political moment that has been detrimental to all artistic, including musical, activities. Yet, among the programmes that defy that moment is the Cairo Opera House Ramadan programme and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy's Hayy festival, the latter held at El-Genaina Theatre. Though Hayy, it seems, will hold the regular set of concerts, the Opera offers a smaller than usual programme limited mostly to Egyptian musicians.
In 2012, the Cairo Opera hosted dozens of events in its Ramadan series performed at the Open Air Theatre and expanding to other locations in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour. This was topped with the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing, which took place at the Panorama Theatre set up at the 12th-century citadel of Salaheddin. This Ramadan, between 23 July and 6 August, the Opera will host concerts by well-known Egyptian singers such as Medhat Saleh, Dina Al-Wadidi and the Eskenderella band as well as Nesma Abdel-Aziz on the marimba in a performance also featuring violin and guitar at the Open Air Theatre, not to mention three Small Hall performances by troupes from Sudan, Yemen and Indonesia.
All of the Egyptian musicians performing at the Cairo Opera House are well known to local audiences. Some of them have been pursuing international careers or touring extensively. Some of them were actively involved in the past two months' events which were marked by opposition to the former minister of culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz. Following a series of strikes and protest marches on 5 June, Egypt's intellectual community began its occupation of the Ministry of Culture, and many artists — Eskenderella capturing the patriotic spirit, or Nesma Abdel-Aziz injecting the audience with large doses of energy to celebrate World Music Day on 21 June — gave daily evening concerts organised outside the ministry. Those artists and several others will be returning to perform at the Cairo Opera House throughout the month of Ramadan. But due to the unstable security situation, it is advisable to double check with the Opera before setting out.
The Hayy festival, for its part — which has been going on for eight years now — is one of the most interesting and finely tailored series of artistic events taking place in an open-air location, deep inside Al-Azhar Park. In its first years the festival hosted mainly Egyptian performers from all across the country with activities going beyond music to include poetry readings, story-telling, Sufi chanting, circus and puppet shows. As the folklore accents associated with the Hayy festival spread to other, often newly opened venues, Al Mawred Chairperson Basma Al-Husseini thought of shifting Hayy's focus to women singers from the Arab and Mediterranean region. As such, the festival hosted remarkable women from Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria and Spain, among other countries. Occasionally, the programme would feature a woman like the UK-based Susheela Raman, from India, who performed in 2011.
This year the festival kicks off on 18 July with a concert by Noura Mint Seymali, from Mauritania. Continuing until 2 August, Hayy will concentrate on musicians from Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq and Morocco. Due to security concerns, El-Genaina found it more challenging this year to bring musicians to Egypt. Charles Akl, the director of El-Genaina Theatre, says the programme is now final and does not expect further changes or cancellations so long as the artists live up to their commitments; he insists that El-Genaina will not suspend any of the concerts unless holding them means subjecting the audience to danger. “This year, we tried to create an interesting compilation of different performers from different geographical locations, while assuring that their music has something unique and interesting to offer,” Akl explained. Over the past years, he added, there were a number of returning musicians, and this year Sanaa Moussa from Palestine — already well-known in Cairo — will perform on 26 July.
Moussa was born in Deir Al-Asad to a celebrated musician and singer. Following in the footsteps of her father, who worked with folk songs from Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Moussa explores the folkloric riches of Palestine, telling stories — passed from generation to generation — of the Palestinian nation and its women. Moussa has performed across the Arab world and Europe. Since 2008, she has had her own band, Naw Athar.
Noura Mint Seymali from Mauritania (18 July), Nawel Ben Kraiem from Tunisia (25 July), Baydar Al-Basri from Iraq (1 August) and Khansa Batma from Morocco (2 August), on the other hand, are all new to El-Genaina theatre. Each will offer an interesting taste, and the audience can expect a series of memorable concerts.
Seymali started her musical explorations at the age of 13 as a vocalist backing Dimi Mint Abbas (1958–2011), one of the Mauritania's most renowned musicians. Seymali's music is a fusion of folklore, reggae, blues, hip hop and zouk with lyrics tackling contemporary issues such as desertification, women in Muslim society and terrorism in the Maghreb.
Ben Kraiem, who lives between France and Tunisia and performs with the Cirrus group, took an important turn when she released her single “Mama Please” in 2009, which won an award at the Monte Carlo International Festival. After that she embarked on an international tour and gained recognition with songs in three languages — Arabic, French and English — enveloped in a fusion of pop, world and electronic music drawn featuring guitar, bouzouki, violin, darbuka and djembe.
Al-Basri studied opera singing in the Hague, the Netherlands, where she has lived since 1997. She has already studied ballet in Syria when she moved there. Today, Al-Basri sings in Arabic, Dutch and French; she has participated in numerous musicals, performed in a series of international festivals alongside international musicians and orchestras.
Khansa Batma is a graduate of the Casablanca Conservatoire. Her repertoire includes Moroccan folk music incorporating Western elements, with rhythms blending East and West. To date, Batma has released three albums; the last, “The Dark Album”, proved very successful with young people.
This year, Ramadan is different from previous years due to the second wave of the revolution, which peaked on 30 June, as well as enormous developments at the political level with much uncertainty and some discontent. The 30 June Revolution has left the Egyptian street in a staggering state of instability, with people thinking twice about crossing the eastern part of Cairo due to pro-Mohamed Morsi protests occupying two of the main routes in Heliopolis and Nasr City — Salah Salem and the Autostrad road — while the army has closed off the street in which the Ministry of Defence is located, Al-Khalifa Al-Maamoun, creating wider traffic problems. Despite the positive energy of the triumphant protests, people could tell there would be some cost in the aftermath of the coupvolution, and every day there are new possibilities for clashes between supporters of the deposed president and pro-coupvolution citizens all across residential Cairo and Alexandria. This has had a negative impact on the festive Ramadan spirit, and much cultural activity has been cancelled as a result of the security situation.
One of the most popular and sought after events in Ramadan was the International Samaa Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting, which succeeded to present spiritual and religious performance traditions from all across the world for five consecutive years at Al-Ghouri Caravansary and the Salaheddin Citadel, but according to Intessar Abdel-Fattah, the president of the festival, this year's round will be postponed till September. “Till yesterday I had insisted on holding the festival in Ramadan like every year, but yesterday's incidents made me change my mind and I agreed to postpone it till September,” he said, referring to 8 July, when Morsi supporters attacked the Republican Guard headquarters on Salah Salem Road, resulting in the death of 57 of them. “However, we're going to hold one night of celebration under the slogan ‘Message of Peace' with the Samaa troupe featuring Sufi chanting, church hymns, a troupe from Indonesia and local voices from Egypt's provinces at Al-Ghouri Caravansary.”
Likewise, the monthly Al-Fan Maidan event, which presented performances on the street all across Egypt: this very successful initiative — as evidenced by it's Abdine Square concert in Cairo, for example — will not be taking place any time soon. Now that the Ministry of Culture sit-in has ended, what is more, street performances outside the ministry in Zamalek — the Zorba ballet, for example — are no longer being held. Only at the Open Air Theatre and the Small Hall of the Opera House are concerts taking place — among the highlights are the celebrated Egyptian singer Ali Al-Haggar, the Eftekasat band, the Arab Takht ensemble and Abdel-Fattah's own Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments Troupe. Yet all of these are subject to change or cancellation depending on security considerations.
The Cultural Development Fund has come up with a vivid plan for the holy month, but there is no finalised schedule as yet. Some 70 performances will take place at the Amir Taz Palace, the Talaat Harb Centre, the Arab House of Song (Amir Bashtak Palace), the Al-Ghouri Caravansary, Bait Al-Seheimi, the Creativity Centre at the Cairo Opera House, the Manesterly Palace in Manyal, the Freedom Creativity Centre in Alexandria and the Al-Ahram Centre for Arts on Galaa Street, downtown. Highlights include the Ana Al-Masri (I am the Egyptian) troupe performing patriotic songs, the Tannoura troupe, the Samaa troupe the Mawlawya troupe, the Al-Nil Troupe for Folk Instruments, the Nubian Drums and Folk Instruments Troupe as well as Layali Al-Sira Al-Hilaliya (Al-Hilaliya Epic Nights).
El Sawy Culturewheel's programme is not as dynamic as it used to be, however. This year it hosts a daily seminar at the River Hall followed by an Oriental takht from Sunday till Wednesday. The Umm Kolthoum puppet theatre will be held every Thursday with a retrospective of the late singer Abdel-Halim Hafez's songs every Friday and folk performances on Saturdays. The whirling dervishes of the Tannoura are holding their regular performances — which they do throughout the year — at Al-Ghouri Caravansary, located right between Al-Azhar and Khan Al-Khalili, on Saturdays and Mondays. Most disappointing, however, is the fact that the annual festival held at the Salaheddin Citadel on the Al-Mahka Theatre stage, and organised by the General Organisation for Culture Palaces jointly with the Ministry of Culture, has been cancelled. This was a huge success featuring exhibitions, screenings and fairs as well as concerts, yet it is evidently incompatible with the current state of instability.

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