A midsummer night’s fracas

Ati Metwaly assesses the seasonal fever

Published on 4 August 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

In many corners of the world, summer is the time for festivals. Theatre, dance and music are among the dominant themes of these annual events, which attract millions of viewers in countries all across the world, boosting international exchange and elevating artistic sense while keeping tourism buoyant. In Europe alone, thousands of festivals are held during the summer months: the BBC Proms in London, the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Budapest’s Enescu Music Festival, the German InterHarmony International Music Festival, the Berlin Music Festival, Italy’s three-week Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds), the Vienna Festival Weeks, and many, many more; all have the aim of reinvigorating the art and particularly the music scene, imbuing the urban landscape with a festive flavour and testing the ability of art to gather peopleÉ

Summer festivals speak to audiences and musicians alike, communicating values all their own. Audiences enjoy a greater dynamism while musicians are afforded a greater range of opportunities, often more prestigious. Festival organisers constantly compete among themselves to provide better outlets and feature bigger names, producing a more attractive repertoire. All of which is particularly relevant to the Arab world, where summer music festivals play an important role in select countries. The Marrakech Popular Arts Festival, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music are well established in Morocco, while Lebanon offers the Byblos Festival — a well-known outlet for Arab and international performers. In Tunisia and Egypt, which have their own summer festival traditions, the Arab Spring might be expected to disrupt the flow of such activity. But unlike Libya or Syria, where vast numbers of protesters are being killed on a daily basis, in Egypt and Tunisia the cultural scene is privileged with the chance for uninterrupted cultural activity, whether altered or not. And indeed while January’s Jasmine Revolution has had no effect on Tunisia’s summer festivals, it is surprising that Egypt is struggling with a number of dilemmas in festival organisation, using the increasingly fashionable “political instability” expression as an excuse.

When the 46th edition of the International Festival of Carthage (Festival International de Carthage, 8 July-6 August) kicked off, Ezzeddine Bachaouch, the Tunisian Minister of Culture, expressed the hope that the event will –bring joy and happiness to the hearts of Tunisians who have not been able to rejoice after their revolutionÞ. In a city whose population hardly exceeds 20,000, festival stages include the Theatre Municipal, the Musee de Carthage, the Palais El Abdellia, Ennejma Ezzahra and Mad-Art, among others. Symphonic concerts, classical music recitals, Arab music, folk groups, jazz, hip hop, ballet and theatre: each day offers a rich variety of artistic propositions from Tunisian artists as well as performers not only from the Arab world but from Europe, Latin America and the USA. From Egypt, Eskenderella gave a concert at the Palais du Baron d’Erlanger on 27 July. Paralleling Carthage, the 47th International Festival held in town of El-_ammamat (Festival International de Hammamet) held between 6 July and 11 August is in big part reflection of Carthage music and theatre activities. On 6 August, the 29th edition of Festival of Medina (Festival de la Medina) kicks off in the old quarter of Tunis, and will continue until 27 August on a small number of stages. Themed “Tribute to the Tunisian Revolution” (Hommage a la Revolution Tunisienne), the festival sheds light on young Tunisians who were marginalised under Ben Ali.

It is obvious that Tunisia’s road to democracy has not interrupted the country’s artistic movement. Understandably, the Jasmine Revolution echoes in the festivals’ repertoires; Tunisians have had the chance to refresh themselves artistically in creative outlets, while the international audience boosts tourism revenues. Faithful to their audience and their artistic values, to Tunisian organisers political instability is no excuse. In this context one cannot help recalling Egypt’s Minister of Culture Emad Abou Ghazi’s decision last May to cancel two of the biggest annual international festivals held in Cairo: the 23rd edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, to be held in October (a month after its usual date in September) and the 35th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, planned for the end of November. Abou Ghazi explained this decision with reference to political instability, but the Tunisian festivals are the perfect counter argument for worries expressed by the Egyptian government. Those festivals could have been revamped the better to serve Egypt’s cultural scene.

Nevertheless, the summer craves ambitious musical projects to vitalise Cairo and Alexandria, drawing in international contributions and attention. In all its history, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture has never organised a large music festival. Well organised, such a festival could reposition Egypt on the international cultural map. It is hard to see why Egypt and specifically Cairo, with its hundreds of venues and thousands of professional musicians, is unable to launch a large-scale, well-planned music festival presenting the full range of genres and attracting major international artists — it would provide a major platform of exposure for all Egyptian musicians. Had such a festival existed, nonetheless, it would have been cancelled by the Ministry of Culture this year. Egypt’s music scene thus remains at the mercy of initiatives that are smaller in both size and impact, the work of cultural institutions that rely on the perseverance of individuals with strong belief, few of which are planned for the summer. The third edition of the Cairo Jazz Festival, organised last March by Amr Salah from Eftekasat band under the umbrella of El Sawy Culturewheel, incorporates musical and educational elements, presenting Egyptian and international musicians. Similar is the three-day International Cairo Jazz Mania, organised last October at the Citadel by the Yehya Khalil Foundation for the Culture of Jazz Music.

The term “festival” is among the names El Sawy Culturewheel tends to give to any programme of concerts performed on its stages. The centre goes to the extreme of calling one- day events with no more than two or three bands in one genre a festival. In many cases — and this is not limited to El Sawy Culturewheel — the term “festival” is a catchy tool attracting donors to the event, while in fact they do not differ from any other concerts held by individual performers and bands. On the other hand, Al Mawred Al Thakafy’s biannual Spring Festival held in April or May (with the last round taking place in 2010) presents important repertoires, bringing together musicians, dancers and writers from the Arab world for audiences in Cairo and Beirut. The 10th International Summer Festival held annually at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria is an ambitious project held throughout July and often extending into August. Film screenings, events centred on the performing and visual arts are accompanied by concerts. Though in past years the festival seemed more ambitious, today its impact on the local and regional scene remains insignificant.

For its part the Cairo Opera House organises a summer festival at the Open Air Theatre, followed by the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing. The paradox is that, while both are initiatives of an institution that has all the best tools and knowhow at its disposal, they continue to suffer from organisational, technical and logistical flaws. It is well to point out, in this context, that mediocre festivals have more of a negative than a positive effect on the totality of the music scene, especially when organised by an important institution like the Opera House. So much so that the music scene may in fact do better without them. They do attract new kinds of audience (see Citadel Festival review in issue #1058) but do the organisers care about them? Apart from raising the number of concerts in their resumes, such festivals offer musicians nothing at all. Many of the musicians in question are already performing at important venues all year round; festivals such as those organised by the Cairo Opera House do not provide them with life-changing opportunities.

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