Sacred voices

At the Hayy Festival, Ati Metwaly joins in the invocations

Published on 25 August 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

The Hayy Festival (11-26 August) has kept the Genaina Theatre alive. Held annually under the umbrella of the Cultural Resource (Al Mawred Al Thakafy), a nonprofit organisation, the festival takes place during the month of Ramadan. This year it sheds light on woman singers.

For several years now, Al Mawred Al Thakafy has been one of a handful of dynamic artistic institutions in Cairo. Its founder and general director, Basma el Husseiny, makes sure that the organisation meets its basic mission of supporting artistic activity in the Arab region, encouraging exchanges between artists and developing young artists in Egypt and regionally. Accordingly, Al Mawred Al Thakafy contributes to the Cairo scene with constantly expanding programmes.

The open-air Genaina, located in Al Azhar Park, was inaugurated in April 2005. Designed and built under the supervision of the Young Arab Theatre Fund, it became a platform for many of Al Mawred’s concerts. The Hayy Festival is one of its major attractions.

The first round of the Hayy Festival took place a few months after the theatre opened. It aimed to enrich Ramadan with artistic activities involving artists and literary figures from across the region. Poetry readings, music and singing as well as story-telling, Sufi chanting, circus and puppet shows, covered two weeks between 13 and 27 in October 2005. The festival continued to offer Ramadan activities that varied in genre and place of origin even within Egypt, reflecting creativity in the Delta, Upper Egypt, Suez and elsewhere, with musicians from Spain and Arab countries fusing Oriental accents with jazz, rock, Latin, classical and other musical elements.

Over the last few years, however, paralleling Al Mawred Al Thakafy’s efforts, a number of newly opened organisations have increasingly hosted folklore and theatre performances and poetry evenings. The Ramadan Hayy Festival kept its originality by slowly shifting its focus to Arab women. In the past two years, the festival programming got smaller but judging by its large audience, it was still a great success. “We started concentrating on woman singers of different nationalities and backgrounds, giving one spot in the programme to an Egyptian artist.” El Husseiny explained that the choice of performer from the Arab World and Mediterranean region is not based on their qualities as singers and musicians only; each of them is expected to be active in the artistic scene and involved in an interesting project. Each year, a dedicated committee with members from a number of Arab countries studies potential candidates for the Hayy Festival.

Four singers who have already given concerts in this year’s Hayy programme are Ara Musa Honra from Spain (11 August), Maryam Saleh from Egypt (12 August), Badiaa Bouhrizi from Tunisia (18 August) and Karima Nayt from Algeria (19 August). Nai Barghouti from Palestine (25 August) and Susheela Raman from India/UK (26 August) are still to come.

Each of the four evenings offered a unique experience to the Genaina audience. All artists are deeply rooted in their musical heritage: echoing throughout were Spanish accents and Flamenco Rumba mixed with light Raggae, and Algerian traditions married to oriental jazz fusion or else the North African spirit emanating from the Tunisian performer. With their passion and dedication, all the musicians are actively involved in the world they live in. Their lyrics are sincere, at times straightforward testimonies and at other times indirect reflections about the socio-political issues surrounding them. Young, dynamic, present and aware, they make observations and transpose them onto their lyrics. At the same time, their music gives voice to women who find themselves caught between traditional influences and a fresh musical vocabulary.

Each performer is characterised by similar values expressed through her dedication to music as a craft even if performing skill varies: Aracela, who has been singing with her band for three years, is still growing artistically; Saleh’s artistic background and early involvement in music and arts give her a unique understanding of the profession; Nayt seems to have matured and is now searching for new definitions in her reunion with Sharkiat, a band she has worked with for many years (1999-2007) with that band’s founder Fathy Salama, a musician whose professionalishasm helped shape her understanding of the field.

At the same time each of the artists offered something original to the Hayy programme: Aracela, the vocalist of Ara Musa Honra band, filled the stage with spontaneous passion; Maryam Saleh’s sensuality had a strong impact on the audience; the dynamism pulsating from Nayt with Sharkiat was counterbalanced by a calmer evening presented by Badia Bouhrizi, the Tunisian singer. Buhrizi has a uniquely melodious voice, complemented by her lovely stage presence and a captivating sense of humility. Her touching tunes on guitar, accompanied in many songs by percussionist David Kuckhermann, subtly enveloped the whole evening.

Kuckhermann performed on a variety of percussion instruments including frame drums, cajon, riq as well as hang, an unusual tuned percussion instrument new to the Egyptian audience. Hang is a very young instrument created in Bern (Switzerland) at the beginning of the 2000s: a convex body consisting of hardened steel pans, chromatically tuned like a similar Trinidad instrument (with a concave body) that was used for communication among slaves and later on played during carnivals. Steel pans are beat with mallets while the hang percussionist uses his hands to play melodic and rhythmic lines from different areas of the instrument, generating a variety of tones.

As the Hayy Festival continues, the audience can expect two more concerts: the fourteen-year-old Palestinian singer Nai Barghouti and the accomplished Susheela Raman, whose musical experience ranges from Indian classical music sounds to the blues. Judging by concerts already attended, the two upcoming events should be equally interesting. Well-tailored programming and impressive organisation are among the festival’s crucial secrets of success. At the same time, the events attract a wide scope of listeners from young to old, from individuals to whole families, providing them with enough art to become a genuine gem of the Cairo scene.

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