On the eve of the fifth Cairo Jazz Festival (21-23 March), Ahram Online talks to its founder and director Amro Salah about the event’s history, vision and future plans. Published in Ahram Online.
The Cairo Jazz Festival, which will run between 21 and 23 March, was founded in 2009 by Amro Salah, a pianist and founder of Eftikasat, a prominent Egyptian jazz band.
In the festival’s first year, Salah was partnered by jazz vocalist Ahmed Harfoush and Eftikasat bass guitarist Samer George, but he now works alone with “friendly support” from his former colleagues.
Back then, the four-day festival kicked off at El Sawy Culturewheel and included Egyptian musicians Fathy Salama, Magdy Boghdady, Riff Band, West El-Balad, among others, alongside bands from Germany and Bulgaria.
Salah started AGWA Productions, which he uses as base for organising the festival, hosting a growing number of local and international artists at El Sawy Culturewheel.
This year, however, the festival has moved to other locations in Cairo: mainly Darb 1718 and Al-Azhar Park.
“We received good support from El Sawy Culturewheel but our vision regarding the festival started to differ on many levels. There was no conflict, simply a difference of views,” Salah explains.
To Salah, Cairo Jazz Festival is a cultural event aiming to bring jazz closer to audiences, improve perceptions about jazz and educate people about the genre.
“Our line-up is very big this year. It consists of bands and musicians handpicked by us as well as those recommended by cultural institutions in Cairo with whom we cooperate.”
With this year’s line-up, Salah believes he can present the variety of colours that characterise jazz.
“Jazz is still misunderstood by many,” Salah explains. “Contrary to what many people think, it’s not a difficult music. Jazz is a special kind of art; it was always a philosophy before being music. This is the essence of jazz.”
Salah goes on to explain that jazz is a very “elastic” term. “Many people are afraid of jazz, but they do not realise that it has many styles. Jazz hides many sub-genres inside it and has many colours, which are expressed at this year’s line-up.”
Salah adds: “On the first day we will have Ribab Fusion from Morocco representing jazz with a world music twist and lots of improvisation. Miguel Amando Group from Portugal will bring elements of electronic jazz, while GMH Orkester from Austria offers touches of rock-jazz. Neil Cowley Trio from the UK plays modern jazz, and Japanese band Mikarimba represents classical jazz. There are many musicians adding something original to the festival.”
He adds that Gilberto Gil from Brazil and Ziad Rahbani from Lebanon are great gems for the festival and praises their remarkable cooperation. Rahbani is in continuous touch with Salah and has been performing at the festival since 2010.
Ziad Rahbani, renowned composer and pianist – and son of Fairouz for whom he wrote many songs – is among the musicians returning to the festival. Rahbani is also involved in Lebanese politics, composing satirical musicals, and since 2006 he has been a columnist for Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Gilberto Gil, Brazilian singer, guitarist and songwriter, began his career as a classical musician, and then grew more interested in folk and traditional Brazilian music. These influences are reflected in many of his compositions.
Gil remains vocal on many political issues. His satirical version of the national anthem got him three months in jail in 1968. As his talent kept growing by the year, Gil garnered several Grammys and other prestigious awards. In 2003 he was appointed culture minister.
“It was Dina El-Wadidi who helped me develop a connection with Gilberto Gil. Dina is also performing at this year’s festival,” Salah says.
El-Wadidi is a winner of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which won her the chance to be mentored by Gilberto Gil.
“Gil is definitely one of the most attractive points of the whole event this year. He is an iconic figure and his music has lots of free expression. We are very proud to have him perform here.”
The festival will also host Egyptian musicians, many of whom are participating at the festival for the first time, such as El-Wadidi. Also interesting, each in his own way, are Kareem Hossam and Ali El-Farouk.
Salah also points to Sabrine who will be joined by Doum Do, forming an interesting project combining musicians of several nationalities. Eftekasat will join a Romanian virtuoso musician performing on bass clarinet.
In its fifth year, Cairo Jazz Festival is expanding, but the growth can be challenging. “Though we receive support from many entities, we are still short by over LE250,000 ($35,000),” Salah asserts, adding that foreign cultural organisations in Egypt have extended their support, but official Egyptian institutions have not.
“And when it comes to the corporations, they prefer to allocate their funds to activities where they can customise the event for their own benefit. Most corporations look for a specific niche and apparently the Jazz Festival is not their priority.”
Despite financial challenges, Salah is not discouraged and believes the festival will become a major jazz event.
“I wish we’d put more effort into educational part of this festival. I hope that in the future we’ll manage to organise more workshops and jazz camps that will last five to seven days, possibly before the festival begins,” Salah says.
“I believe we’ve already managed to gain good audience. People are no longer afraid to attend jazz concerts. With a good reputation, we can definitely expand and offer even more to the community in the future,” Salah concludes.
The fifth Cairo Jazz Festival will run between 21 and 23 March, presenting musicians from 15 countries. The festival will include concerts and workshops