On Sunday 29 July, the Cairo Opera House’s open-air theatre hosted its first Ramadan Evenings event with the renowned Iraqi musician Ilham Al-Madfai
Published in Ahram Online and expanded version in Al Ahram Weekly
This year Ramadan features a multitude of artistic events taking place across Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Music events make up the majority of artistic performances, presenting Egyptian and international singers to local audiences. Equally, theatres operating under the Cairo Opera House management prepared a set of interesting events to enrich their evenings during the holy month.
This is not Ilham Al-Madfai’s first visit to Egypt. Over the past decade, he has returned regularly to entertain Egyptian audiences at the Cairo Opera House and Citadel theatres.
Born in 1942, the guitarist, singer and composer produces a unique combination of Iraqi and Arab traditional music with Western elements. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 and formed his first band, Twisters, in 1961; at the time it was the first band in Iraq to incorporate contemporary instruments such as electric guitar into performances of traditional Iraqi music.
Though he studied architecture in London, music remained the important if not the major part of his life. In 1967, on his return to Baghdad, Al-Madfai explored musical genres further, combining them into a single melting pot in order to generate his own artistic language that has been captivating hearts and gaining him wide popularity for many years. Fusions of Oriental music, jazz, Latin tunes and techniques brought to light countless folklore songs from the Iraqi cultural heritage. After his years of glory when Al-Madfai became the most popular artist in Iraq, he had to leave the country in 1979 for more than a decade, only to return with another group, Firqat Ilham (Ilham’s band).
In 1999 Al-Madfai released an album by EMI music, titled Ilham al-Madfai, which got the platinum album record prize (1999-2000) for being the best Arabic selling album under the Virgin Records label). A series of albums on EMI’s Arabia label followed, each highly rated by listeners. BBC Radio 3 summarises his long successful career: “Ilham’s songs seem to provoke realisation and bring solace in equal measure. Whilst he has been building bridges between previously alien musical cultures, his music has itself acted as a bridge over troubled waters for millions of fans in Iraq and the wider Arabic diaspora.” Countless positive comments have followed from Al-Madfai’s fans from all around the world, where he either performed or was tracked down.
On 29 July, the Open-air Ttheatre was filled with an attentive audience gathering to meet, once again, the Iraqi icon. People from all walks of life and across generations were invited to join the concert free of charge, which would nonetheless transport them to the rich folds of Ilhami’s original music, arrangements, and captivating fusions.
With his guitar, an inseparable companion, and his signature hat, the virtuoso engaged the crowd with numerous compositions. At this advanced age Al-Madfai has accumulated many successes and memories, strong links he has built with his audience over decades. Today, his history and virtuosity continue to raise chapeaux and reach audiences’ hearts. The passion and professionalism of the musician was evident in a number of songs many of which had the audience singing along. Khuttar, Tuffah (Apples) or The Bazringosh are among the best-known among Arab listeners who keep returning to concerts waiting for them and for many compositions by the Iraqi master.
With Ilham Al-Madfai opening Ramadan Evenings, and a long list of renowned Egyptian musicians and international guests that will still be hosted by the Cairo Opera House, it is important to take into account sound engineering. Al-Madfai’s concert was seriously blemished by problems in sound quality and unacceptable distortions.
Such problems lower the overall performance quality; they are extremely painful to the audience’s ears, and definitely do not live up to the artistic levels expected from such evenings. It is also useful if the event organisers – whether it is the Cairo Opera House or other parties involved in the logistics – could provide any printed material, a minimal note about the artist, his achievements and the programme. Such additions can be as simple as a photocopied sheet of paper, yet they make a big difference to many listeners.