Hello from Cairo, Egypt! As our adventure is coming to a close, I look back with fondness and appreciation over the last week. Please enjoy as I do my best to try and adequately share our experience with you.
My name is Rebecca Schlappich, and I am honored to say that I have been a member of Cultures in Harmony for the past three years. I have cherished each project that I have participated in during my time with this fine organization, and our travels to Egypt are no exception. My Cultures in Harmony associates for this project are Patrick Sutton on guitar, and Demetrios Karamintzas on oboe. Our project is a collaboration with the world music/jazz fusion group Nour Project, headed by saxophonist Nour Ashour. Members of Nour Project include Ahmed Derbala on acoustic guitar and vocals, Fady Badr on keyboard and qanoun, Marwan W. Zaki on drums, Muhammad Nabil on percussion, Wael Badrawy on keyboards, and Ousso Lotfy on electric guitar.
After a long day of travel, Patrick and I arrived for our first rehearsal at Vibe studio with Nour Project. We had a brief introduction and then started digging into the music. Right off the bat it was apparent that these musicians are highly skilled on their instruments. While we as classical musicians are known for our ability to read music quickly and efficiently, many of these musicians rely on their finely tuned ears to learn their parts and retain large amounts of musical information very quickly. We spent the afternoon learning, both by ear and with the aid of some chord charts and melodies written out, seven of Nour’s pieces: 7azr ba7r (or C Curfew), Irene, Longa, Mofta7 El Farag (or Key of Happiness), El Sax Fel Tax, Hayyaso Sa’afo (or Clap and Dance), and Ooooooo.
After a few short hours of rehearsal, it was time to have some fun and test just how much information we retained from the day’s rehearsal. Our first performance was at the iconic Cairo Jazz Club. It is apparent as soon as you enter this club that it is the hub of musical life and excitement, and I would say a second home, for many of the musicians of Nour Project. The interior has been recently renovated, and it has the cool, stylized feel of a small bar and club you might find in the West Village of New York City. Time and effort has been taken to make this venue a place you want to visit repeatedly. We soundchecked, had a meal, and prepared ourselves for the evening’s performance. The place was empty when we first arrived, however by the time the show started around 11:30 the room was filled with people ready to enjoy the evening. Suddenly the band had grown from the 5 people we had met in rehearsal to 7 or so, including two guitars, two keyboards, saxophone, percussion, drums and sampler. The energy of the musicians was intoxicating. This was definitely a great introduction to the music scene in Egypt.
Early the next day Demetrios arrived from Germany, and the rehearsal process continued. Demetrios found his place with ease and skill, and we enjoyed the hours fine tuning the music we planned to play in Alexandria the next day.
As we learned the band’s songs, we also learned the stories behind these songs. Some, such as Longa, are based on traditional Egyptian melodies. Other original works have personal stories behind them. C Curfew was written during the revolution. In support of the revolution the musicians would find themselves playing music in a place nicknamed “The C” and as the time of the mandated curfew drew near they worked out the structure of this song. Other songs have lighter, more humorous stories behind them, such as El Sax Fel Tax, which is both a play on words and an homage to the time that Nour forgot his saxophone in a taxi!
Alexandria is about a three hour drive from Cairo, so a little after one o’clock we all piled into a bus and a couple of cars to make our trek to the Bibliotheca. In contrast to the cozy intimate space of the jazz club, the Bibliotheca has a spacious outdoor stage constructed in the square facing the entrance. With room to spread out, we really started to find out stride as an ensemble. The audience was excited and receptive, and we enjoyed the sound that the large outdoor venue afforded. After the concert ended and the dozens of enthusiastic fans requesting pictures and selfies subsided, we had the honor to dine with the Consul General of Alexandria, Mr. Stephen G. Fakan and Cultural Affairs Assistant Mr. Adel Samir Dekinesh. With the beautiful melodies of a solo lounge pianist accompanying us, we talked of many things: music, our pasts, our goals, the future of technology, and our shared and differing cultures. Mr. Fakan expressed his enjoyment of the evening’s festivities, and we are so grateful for his support and the support of the US Embassy in Egypt.
Following the performance in Alexandria, we had the opportunity to attend another, much larger, concert at Porto Marina, which I will address in a moment. Our final concert with Nour Project was at the cozy and intimate venue called The Room. As all of the musicians of the band are incredibly busy with multiple projects of their own, the band was slightly smaller, but no less accomplished or energetic. With two performances down, we relaxed and enjoyed our last time sharing a stage together. Luke Meinzen came on behalf of the US Embassy, who has so graciously supported this project, and it was a pleasure speaking with him.
During our stay our friends in Nour Project were also incredibly generous hosts, and we had the opportunity to experience Egypt in a way only possible with locals. We rode horses behind the pyramids late at night, watched the sun rise by the Mediterranean Sea on the North Shore, and experienced our first Egyptian rock concert at Porto Marina. The concert was the iconic Mohamed Mounir, whose fame spans 40 years and who is beloved by all Egyptians. There is not an American rock star that I can adequately compare him to, for I have never seen someone so universally loved and respected by an entire country, but if I had to choose I would compare him to Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Presley. The crackling energy of the evening was palpable and we were very fortunate to be invited backstage to observe the exciting, often chaotic, event.
In my final day in Egypt I convinced Wael to give me a lesson in Egyptian Arabic scales and tuning. He did me one better by also involving accomplished violinist Mohamed Medhat in my studies. Considering the ample use of quarter tones, relative lack of written music, and completely different approach to melody, I have a lot of homework to do! Luckily, they introduced me to famed Egyptian violinist Abdo Dagher via youtube videos, so I have plenty of resources to research when I return home.
I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in making this program a reality. Nour, Ahmed, Fady, Marwan, Muhammad, Wael, and Ousso, it was an honor making music with you. Thank you to the talented sound crew Osama Refaat, Ahmed Hakim, and Yousef Ahmad, for making us sound fantastic on stage. Thank you to Ahmed Sakran and Angie Balata, the band’s tour and business managers, for corresponding with us, organizing the events, and taking such good care of us. Thank you to Omnia Mohsen El-Ghoul, the band’s stylist, for making us look good, and from me personally, for keeping an eye on me and hanging out with me during my extra days in Cairo. Thank you to Stephen G. Fakan, the US Consul General Alexandria, and Adel Samir Dekinesh, the Cultural Affairs Assistant to the Consulate, for attending our concert and supporting our endeavours. And finally thank you to the US Embassy for their financial support of the project, without which none of this would have been possible. We are so grateful for the support of the US Embassy in Egypt and hope that we can continue our relationship with them in the future.
In all, our program in Egypt with Nour Project is an experience none of us will soon forget. Friendships were formed, much was learned about our respective worlds, and most importantly, beautiful music was made. Thank you so much to each and every person involved in this project, and Demetrios, Patrick and myself look forward to returning to Egypt someday and continuing our musical relationship with our new friends and colleagues.