I listened and listened to the video of Ala Baley
, trying desperately to figure out how to write down this haunting Egyptian melody in musical notation. The key, I figured out. The melody, I more or less knew the notes; I just had to temporarily shut out the intricate ornamentation that gives much of the music's soul. But the rhythm? Where did it start? And how did the singer place the melody so precisely at such an awkward place in the meter, and in such a way as to make it all seem natural?
Cultures in Harmony
projects can often be humbling like this. One reason I truly believe that music is the universal language is that it is the great equalizer. My years and years of training at the finest schools of Western classical music help me barely at all when it comes to mastering the nuances that imbue much older Egyptian music with a sense of tragic sentimentality. Over the past week, the four musicians of Cultures in Harmony have worked very hard with our Egyptian musical counterparts to come to a middle ground, a place where Western classical, Egyptian classical, German rock, American rock, and Turkish traditional music can thrive together.
Our workshops, and indeed every aspect of our stay, has been incredibly well arranged and organized by the admirable NGO Bridge
, founded and directed by a lanky, easy-going, funny, and intelligent young man named Amr Abd El-Mottelib, who has become a good friend and is a good representative of the Egyptian youth who have inspired the world. On Tuesday, we arrived to rehearse at Al Cabina
, a very hip venue has grown, in two years' time, from a trash dump (literally) into the locus of Alexandria's flourishing music scene. The vibrant door on an alley not far from the corniche threading its way along the rocky shores of the Mediterranean is bedecked with a graffiti mural of a young woman and a swan. Inside, a narrow gravel entryway focuses the attention towards a small gap between buildings: Al Cabina is itself an even smaller alley, though one thoroughly cleaned up. A lending library stands off to one side, and an outdoor stage lies at the back (on Monday night when we first visited, the place was throbbing with music and people). We would spend our entire week here, rehearsing with an Egyptian saxophonist, oud player, a couple drummers, a couple guitarist, and a singer, making the air-conditioned basement studio into our musical home.
After an initial jam based on the Turkish Lounga Nihavend, our drummer wanted us to make up our own rock song with a more interesting meter, so after he suggested a 9/8 beat (3 regular beats and one slightly longer beat in each measure), we co-created our own progressive rock song. I whipped out pencil and paper to jot down some harmonies, which I later wrote out on my laptop (this Cultures in Harmony contingent jokes that we are a traveling Apple Store, given all our laptops, iPads, iPhones, and iPods).
We relaxed later at what used to be Pastroudis
, an internationally famous restaurant that opened in 1923. They have now been taken over by the nationwide high-end chain Abou El Sid
, but fortunately, the decor is very similar to the elegant, old world charm I remember from my 2009 visit to Pastroudis, and the menu has actually improved. We asked our Egyptian musical colleagues about what it was like to be here during the revolution. "A few days of struggle, and the rest: utopia!" They claimed that it had become easier for musicians since the revolution, but a few days later, we would find out that this is not always the case.
On Thursday, we visited the Village of Hope
, a home for mentally disabled youth run by the incredibly admirable and hard-working Nada Thabet, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
. She was inspired to found the Village of Hope when, soon after the birth of her son many years ago, doctors told her that he was completely disabled and could not sense anything except through hearing. She did not give up, however, and now he is much better. We brought along our Egyptian colleagues and had an amazing time performing everything from Mozart to Egyptian favorites for them. In the more rhythmic songs, the children would get up and dance along, their faces alight with exuberance.
Afterwards, we headed to a beautiful lake and ate at Labourreya, a lunch that was one of the sublime gastronomic experiences of my life: fresh squeezed melon juice, baba ghanoush, tahini, flatbread, carrots, beets, fisherman's rice, fried calamari, crayfish, tajine of calamari, and huge fish, chosen before the meal from a tank where they were still swimming.
On Friday, as we had finished rehearsing more and more songs without a clear potential concert order emerging, I suddenly realized that the order of the concert should reflect its name: Musical Koshary, a reference to the popular dish of pasta, rice, tomato sauce, and chickpeas. What if the audience could order the music from a menu, as though they were at a restaurant? My colleagues soon agreed, so instead of printing a "program," we will print a menu listing ingredients of our musical koshary (pieces of music that we have prepared) and ask the audience to order by number. It should be a fun and memorable way to promote the concept of a mutually respectful relationship between Egyptians and Americans as represented by our willingness to learn from one another's musical traditions.
Yet my euphoria at this cool concept was not to last. The Minister of Culture recently left his post as expected
. No event can proceed at a major cultural venue without the Minister's signature, and in this interregnum before the newly-inaugurated President Mohamed Morsi names his cabinet, there is no one to sign the approval paper. We had planned to perform this Monday at the Opera House in Alexandria and on Tuesday at the one in Cairo. Now, we could not perform at either venue.
After some frantic scrambling and considerable help from the American Center at Alexandria, we found a venue, an event, and even an audience: a celebration already planned by a language exchange program to take place at a local sports stadium. Given that the program has Egyptian students learning English and American students learning Arabic, they were thrilled to be able to incorporate into their celebration a musical concert that aligns with their mission. We will have to set up a sound system and stage that we rent ourselves, but we are guaranteed an audience of several hundred, so we are very relieved that the concert can proceed.
Socializing with our friends has provided many extraordinary first-hand accounts of the revolution. I had read that groups of youth had formed to protect their streets from looters released from prison by the previous regime to cause chaos. Now I have met them, and been astounded by their bravery at protecting their neighborhoods and families. One friend, a member of Rotaract
(associated with Rotary International), told me that while guarding his street, he was given bad food that sent him to bed for three days, and he still wonders if that was an insidious attempt by the regime to weaken those who were resisting them.
We visited Rotaract yesterday to offer a workshop to its members in which, over the space of two hours, we created and conducted musical compositions and then reflected on the lessons that the process offers to young leaders such as the members of Rotaract. Hopefully the democratic process by which we shaped the melodies and motives generated for the compositions will stay with them, but truth be told, Egyptians do not need lessons in how to work together. As President Obama said in the quote emblazoned on every ad for Mobinil, "We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people."
And in music, we musicians can learn from the sense of freedom and effortless access to powerful emotional expression offered by the best Egyptian musicians. My friend in Rotaract gave me a CD of Egyptian music made famous during the revolution, and I look forward to listening to it in detail.
And, as we prepare for Monday's big concert and then have to leave this astonishing, complex country on Wednesday, I will continue to try to figure out that song Ala Baley...not figuring out how to trap its aching melody in the five-barred prison of Western notation, but how to connect with the hearts of humanity as easily as that Egyptian singer's voice does, through various technological media and across three decades during which her society changed forever.