Almost Perfect

Notwithstanding faulty sound engineering, Ati Metwaly discovers how summer can be a many-spleandoured thing

Published on 12 August 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

“Summer Festival — Open Air Theatre” — the title says it all. During the hot summer weeks the Cairo Opera House didn’t give up on its activities. The summer Festival covered over one month, starting on 1 July and going on till 9 August, overlapping with the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing (31 July 31-10 August).

This year, the Summer Festival offered a significant number of dance and music performances from the Latin American region. On 18 July, Martina Camargo gave us a glimpse of Colombian culture. Camargo is called the “Ambassador of Tambora” for her popularization of Colombian folkloric music and the tambora in particular across the world ( tambora is a folklore genre from the singer’s hometown, and its name originates from the Colombian drum instrument tambor ). Likewise, a group from Ecuador presented their Expressión Latinoamericana on 12 July.

From Latin America to the United States: The UCSB Middle East Ensemble (MEE), which was performing for four consecutive evenings (14-17 July) consists of American artists presenting Middle East traditions from dance to a wide audience in the United States. Their performance in Cairo was definitely intriguing to Egyptian audiences. Of course, the Summer Festival didn’t lack for Egyptian artists (Manal Mohei Eldin, Emad Hamdy, Nesma Abdel Aziz, Fathy Salama, Yehya Khalil, the Religious Song Ensembles, Medhat Saleh, to name but a few.)

Three of those events drew my attention. They included harp, classical guitar and marimba. Through the last few years, Manal Mohei Eldin, Emad Hamdy and Nesma Abdel Aziz, respectively, contributed to the revival of those instruments on the Egyptian music scene.

Many of Manal Mohei Eldin’s recent harp recitals incorporated a big variety of oriental melodies and songs, which understandably attracted a new audience to her performances. On 19 July, accompanied by several instruments (including Middle Eastern ney and darbuka ), Mohie Eldin played well-known songs from Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Fayrouz, Asmahan (Amal Al-Atrash) and Omar Khairat among other compositions arranged for the harp. Sayed Darwish’s immortal “Te’let Ya Mahla Norha” and a beautiful arrangement of Dalida’s “Helwa ya baladi” moved the audience in particular. One of the evening’s highlights, as Mohie Eldin described it, “a piece close to her heart”. was Mohamed Saad Basha’s composition titled Amina, performed by the harpist for the first time.

With this sublime choice of melodies, especially dear to Egyptian audiences and no less attractive to foreign listeners who attended the concert, a stable sound engineering of the evening would have definitely added to its success. Not only did one speaker emit a prolonged distortion till it had to be turned off, but a few annoying microphone squeals (typical feedback when a microphone is getting too close to a loudspeaker) perforated the listeners’ ears more than once.

Sound distortions didn’t stop other musicians from performing in the Open Air Theater, and Emad Hamdy as well as Nesma Abdel Aziz also experiences a few technical surprises on their respective evenings. However, Emad Hamdy’s “Flamenco Guitar” on 24 July faced an even bigger artistic problem: the absence of one of the two flamenco dancers.

Still, it must be said that in spite of those inconvenient — obviously unexpected — circumstances, both Hamdy and Yasmin Eid managed to save the show. Eid accompanied the guitarist with short inserts of flamenco dance and singing, the hand clapping characteristic of several styles presented during the evening, as well as a concise explanatory narration about each number.

The “Flamenco Guitar” programme incorporated a variety of flamenco, such as alegr’as and (similar in rhythm) Soleàres (known as Soleà) as well as Buleriàs (flamencos originating from Càdiz in the Spanish south and western Andalusia). Eid’s brief dance to the Spanish folkloric dance with castanets proved to be attractive enough so the audience asked for it as an encore. It is believe, that flamenco, Farrouka, originates in north- western Spain. It is usually performed by men; yet during Hamdy’s evening we listened to his solo guitar accentuating its captivating beat. A number of Spanish rumbas, Spanish dance which derives from the influence of Afro-Cuban Rumba brought back from Cuba to Spain in the 19th century, were among the best pieces played by the guitarist.

We should raise our chapeau to Hamdy’s professionalism and perfectionism. He is a very confident artist who does not, for a moment, compromise on his artistic output. He has a good stage presence and convinces the audience with ease.

In Issue 934 of the Weekly, Nesma Abdel-Aziz was described by Sayed Mahmoud as “The Cute Girl of Marimba.” Indeed, Abdel-Aziz has a charm which, parallel to her unquestionable talent and skill, is among her dominant qualities and an audience magnet. No wonder her 30 July concert attracted a particularly large number of listeners. Abdel-Aziz on marimba was accompanied by musicians on strings, flute and piccolo, percussions, piano, as well as nay, darbuka and qanun (kanun). She performed mainly arrangements of well-known Arabic songs (from Warda, Fairouz, Om Kolthom, among others) arranged for marimba. Understandably Fairouz’s trademark song, “Sahar El Layali” made the audience clap to the music.

Abdel-Aziz also played a few compositions from the classical music repertoire, rhythmic remixes of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. We may argue about the value or validity of those remixes, nevertheless their incorporation into an evening filled with Arabic melodies is a step towards presenting different pieces to new audiences. I cannot say that Abdel-Aziz’s audience enjoyed those pieces and, alas, the listeners remained perfectly unresponsive and motionless, as if immune to the highly dynamic techno-like remix of the Vivaldi’s concerto.

Summer Festivals add a refreshing spirit to any city. The audience always enjoys indulging in a lovely atmosphere of the outdoor settings and forgets about worldly worries; at the same time artists and technical staff should not disregard a variety of elements contributing to events. As much as the Cairo Opera House Open Air Theatre is a good location for summer music events, it is not the easiest venue in which to control sound levels and acoustic output. Squealing microphones and all other repetitive distortions are in fact serious issues, which take away from the delight that those events ought to give us by the end of the hot and hectic day.

This year’s Summer Festival included a good variety of artistically interesting and valuable performances and it would have been just perfect had the technical side managed to omit the relevant faux pas.

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