Every summer the historic Salah Eddin (Saladin) Citadel hosts the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing organised by the Cairo Opera House.
The 24th iteration of the festival honoured five artists who left their mark on the music and opera scene: Maestro Abdel Hamid Abdel Ghafaar, opera singer Waleed Karim, oud player Sayyed Mansour, makeup artist Ahmed Fekry and Ashraf Abdel Mohsen, the late Opera House sound engineer.
After a welcoming speech from the minister of culture the stage was set for the opening concert by Cairo Steps to the backdrop of the walls of the historic fortress. Their concert weaved in a variety of performers from the music scene.
This German Egyptian team is not new to Egyptian stages. They performed a number of concerts at the Opera House in the past five years, mixing their spiritual music with Coptic hymns and Sufi chants.
This unique mix is the brainchild of Egyptian musician and master oud player Basem Darwisch. In 2002, Darwisch together with the renowned German composer Matthjas Frey established Cairo Steps, performing what is coined as Oriental Sufi Jazz music.
Cairo Steps have been on a quest searching for the roots of spiritual music in various cultures, until they found their own mark and unique branding.
The band collaborated regularly with Maher Fayez and his Coptic choir Al-Karouz, in addition to a number of Sufi singers, including the late Sheikh Al-Helbawy. This year’s concert presented a new collaborator: the master Sufi singer Sheikh Zein.
Sheikh Zein’s unassuming appearance and modesty does not prepare the audience for his commanding presence once he starts to sing. He startles with a powerful voice and virtuoso performance that seems to transcend the limitations of earthly bounds.
The first piece, that mixes Arabic and Western music, was warmly welcomed by the audience. Unfortunately, there was a serious problem with the sound engineering which made it difficult to hear the voice of Maher Fayez in the second piece.
The band presented one of its latest compositions, Arabiskan, in which Sheikh Zein joined. The melodic piece of music, which starts with an Arabic theme before it departs into the world of jazz improvisations, is a sweet piece with a sentimental feel. Zein’s grand voice was not well matched to this particular piece of music. He eclipsed the music with his voice in the areas he was singing, then waited aimlessly for some time while the other musicians presented their work.
That issue was resolved in later pieces where the Sufi chanter had more synergy between him and the music.
The awaited collaboration between Sheik Zein and Maher Fayez, mixing both Coptic and Islamic chanting for the divine, did not rise to the high expectations, as Fayez sang the song while Sheikh Zein mostly responded with the choir. At the very end of the Coptic hymn the Sufi singer added a few sound undulations playing with the words “Ya Leel”!
This time, the long awaited collaboration did not feel organic, and rather than presenting a duet merging two forms of spiritual singing, it was tacked on.
A later piece introduced soloists from the Cairo Opera House, including flutist Ines Abdel Dayem (also chairwoman of the Cairo Opera). The performer who stood out the most was percussionist Max Claus, the youngest musician in the band. He got Western drums to masterfully respond to Arabic beats. At times he seemed to have more than two hands and two legs as he played so many percussion instruments moving seamlessly between beats, in perfect sync with Egyptian drummer Al Sawwaf, and with much energy and passion.
Passion was also key in the work of music director Sebastian Müller Schrobsdorff who played the piano and led the musicians with gusto.
Unlike his previous performances with Cairo Steps, where he had full house Opera audiences enthusiastically repeating songs with him, Maher Fayez was not able to capture the chaotic festival audience. Problems with sound and song choices did not help Fayez engage with the audience in the huge open space auditorium at the Citadel.
The concert seemed to end on a high note with the final piece titled Siwa. It was most successful in connecting the various elements of the production, giving audiences a fuller taste of the potential of this ambitious project.
However, the band did not stop there. They tried to offer a nationalistic tribute by presenting two songs from a very different genre. They performed a few lines from an old song by Abdel Halim Hafez, Ahlef Be Samaha we be Torabha (I Swear by its Skies and its Earth), inviting a singer to the stage to repeat the opening lines from that song over and over. This was followed by the group performing and singing the Egyptian national anthem.
This ambitious project of Darwisch and Frey, of finding the essence of spiritual music and recreating it in contemporary form, is a lifetime endeavour.
In this concert, they seem to have found all the elements of success and placed them next to each other, without merging them with synergy.
Working with Sheik Zein appears to be a step in the right direction. But as the company is based in Germany, the chanter lives in France and Maher Fayez and some of the musicians live in Cairo, the group did not have enough time to work together in order to allow for organic growth and development, and a true infusion of their artistic styles.
You can get a taste of this exciting music experiment in another concert this week at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina or wait for their upcoming concert in the Opera House in December to see if the various genres merge together to create a new kind of spiritual music.
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