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Arab, European music mingle at Cairo Citadel

At the 29th annual Fête de la Musique in Cairo, audiences were captivated by two unique, multi-ethnic musical concoctions. The first of two performances sponsored by the French Center for Culture and Cooperation took place last night at Cairo’s famous Citadel of Mohamed Ali, juxtaposing traditional and modern Arab and European styles.

Winding around the citadel and emerging onto an impressive plateau overlooking Cairo, under the shadow of the majestic Mohamed Ali Mosque, the crowd gathers for the evening’s entertainment. The backdrop of the mosque, the city skyline and the ancient arches that house the National Police Museum provide a romantic setting for the musical cocktail.

The first band playing is the Egyptian Project, which combines Egyptian folk melodies and rhythms with traditional European instruments and modern electronic sounds–to mesmerizing effect.

“Ya sahby, leah beateni?” (“Oh my friend, why did you sell me out?”), repeats vocalist Sayed Emam in the traditional Egyptian improvisational style.

The smell of shwarma wafting from the grill entices the mixed crowd of Egyptians and foreigners and adds to the oriental atmosphere. The ancient fortress, mixed with the lights and sounds of contemporary staging, is an appropriate setting for a concert in which the traditional meets the modern; where East meets West.

The whole story began seven years ago, when folk Egyptian musician Mostafa Abdul Aziz played the Arghul in Nantes, France. At the time, Jerome Ettinger, member of an electric-acoustic hip-hop group called Zmiya, had been inspired to learn the Egyptian instrument. He formed a new group called Orange Blossom, influenced by Middle Eastern styles.

Ettinger now travels around France playing his electronic-Arabic infusion for children in hospitals, and in a variety of public venues. He says that he listens to all genres of music and tries to bring generations together by mixing modern and traditional styles.

Orange Blossom began working with upper Egyptian band El-Nile Group two years ago. A year ago, they performed at the French Cultural Center, and have performed several times in France. They will play in Alexandria again tonight.

Gurvan Liard plays the hurdy gurdy and the accordion, both European folk instruments. Although the hurdy gurdy–a stringed instrument with a crank–is as old as the citadel itself, Liard says he uses it to play a variety of musical styles, including hip-hop. But playing with Arab musicians, he says, has been one of his more challenging experiences. “It was difficult to organize the music as the Egyptian folk musicians are used to improvising, and we are used to more structure,” explains Liard.

“We’re used to improvising, because folk music comes from the heart rather than from written musical notes,” says tabla player Rageb Sadek. Mixing between Egyptian traditional music and more structured Western styles may be challenging, “but a professional musician can play anything,” adds Sadek, who has played music for thirty years.

According to Sadek, who played the tabla for the soundtrack of Hollywood blockbuster “The Mummy,” the violin is one of the more suitable Western instruments for playing Middle Eastern music.

In between songs, the Egyptian rababa and the Western violin–both bowed string instruments–chime in with a tuning exchange. Although this violin has kept its Western tuning, it is well suited to Egyptian tones.

All in all, the group has successfully found a way to make its diverse musical traditions intermingle.

“We improvised in the rehearsals until we came to a form that works with the French team,” said Sadek. And the results have been promising–in November, the band plans to release its first album. In the future, Ettinger is also planning to look into Egyptian gypsy music, of which there are few recordings available–so he plans to visit Egypt more frequently.

Later in the evening, the crowd, after listening intently to the intricacies of the Egyptian Project, jumps to its feet to welcome the swinging rhythms of another Arab-European fusion band. This musical collaboration, “Sawah”–between Egyptian El-Tanboura and French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra–interweaves blues, jazz, reggae and Arabic folk music.

The Cairo smog, creating the same effect as a smoke-machine, dances under the lights alongside the elegant Zahra and the energetic El-Tanboura singers. The enthusiastic audience dances, and sings along into the night.

The same two bands will be playing at 9 PM tonight, June 24, at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. For more information, visit the CFCC website.

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