EVENT REVIEW – Cairo Jazz Festival IX (Opening)

Last night I attended the Cairo Jazz Festival (9th Edition) for the first time. It was the opening session of the festival and was held at Ewart Hall at the American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Campus. I had heard about the festival before when it used to be held at El Sakkia Culture Wheel in Zamalek but had never managed to make it to one of their events.

A few years ago (ok, more than a few) when I was on tour with musicians from the UK here in Egypt, I crossed paths with Amro Saleh – the founder of Cairo Jazz Festival and frontman of the Egyptian, oriental jazz band Eftekasat. His band (not Eftekasat) and mine were sharing a bus ride to and from El Gouna/Hurghada for a weekend performance. Those 10 hours (or so) on the bus introduced me to some great musicians in the Egyptian scene and led to my band and me attending our first Eftekasat gig at the Geneina Theatre in Azhar Park and a live jam session during my performance at the Cairo Jazz Club back in 2008.

Amro Saleh’s immense efforts in hosting the Cairo Jazz Festival year after year are substantial and evident. The 9th edition – running on 28/29/30 of September – boasts a line up from 9 different countries; Austria, Czech, Denmark, Egypt, Hungary, Japan, Netherlands, Panama and Portugal, spanning across three days and mainly taking place at AUC’s Tahrir campus – at both Ewart Hall and the Oriental Hall. Additional events are taking place at Room Art Space in Garden City and the Cairo Jazz Club in Agouza as well as a couple of workshops.

Arriving at the AUC campus brought about a mixture of odd feelings – mainly nostalgic ones. I hadnt set foot there since 2006 when I was still a student there and I couldnt help but notice how much smaller everything seemed as I made my way to Ewart Hall. I was greeted by friendly volunteers who took my ticket, gave me my stub and lead me to my seats as Amro Saleh was giving the opening speech. I wasnt aware that I could choose my seat when booking my ticket and so found myself being led to the first row – not the best sightline in the house and so I asked to be seated elsewhere. The usher complied but let me know that if these seats are booked I will need to move once their ticket holders arrive.

Tickets were (and still are for the remaining duration of the festival) available to be purchased online through Ticketsmarche – which is a great convenience – however, my issue with Ticketsmarche is, that despite buying tickets online, one still has to go to a store to have them printed and pick them up. These are the same stores one can go to buy tickets from in the first place! The concept of e-ticketing seems to have been over-looked and I’m not exactly sure why.

The first act to perform was The Cairo Big Band – a group usually consisting of 16 members – established and lead by Hesham Galal on Piano. They performed a set of Jazz covers, some featuring Amr Yehia on Vocals, and were joined by the Alexandrian band Massar Egbari for an exclusive performance of a new track soon to be released by Massar Egbari. It was my first time hearing either band live and I was impressed by the level of musicianship displayed. The big band sound was tight and well-rounded but their stage presence was lacking. Half the musicians were not visible on stage, either being blocked by other musicians or by the grand piano on stage – this could’ve been easily fixed with the use of risers on stage to create two or three different levels. Amr Yehia’s vocals were beautiful he displayed a good grasp of the genre but I felt no real connection with him as a performer – in contrast with seeing him perform at a wedding a couple of years ago where I thought he had great showmanship. Transitions between songs were not smooth, leaving awkward silences as the audience waiting which could have easily been filled by either Hesham Galal or Amr Yehia saying a few words or at least introducing the next track and sharing it’s name with the audience. Massar Egbari’s guest performace was a much welcomed break within the slight monotonous feel of the set and definitely refreshed the audience.

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The Cairo Big Band ft Amr Yehia
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The Cairo Big Band ft Massar Egbari

The change-overs between each set were not very quick ones but seemed organised. The audience were informed that they were free to exit the hall if they wished to do so and perhaps get a coffee or something, however only the university cafeteria was offering any refreshments and closed up before the second interval/change-over.

The Mathias Heise Quadrillion – introduced by Amr Yehia – a four piece band hailing from Denmark were the second act to perform. Their music was a jazz-rock fusion of original compositions featuring guitar, bass, drums, keys and  harmonica. Their stage presence was almost tangible. They performed with such livelihood and passion – in stark contrast to the previous set – and truly looked like they were immersed in the music and enjoying it. Their tracks were beautifully executed compositions with clear influences of Herbie Hancock and the Weather Report as stated by them. I found myself getting lost in the sonic world they created and gently smiling with bliss.

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Mathias Heise Quadrillion

A few things during that performance disappointed me that had nothing to do with the performance itself. By the time the second act was playing I had already gotten used to the number of photographers who were zipping left and right, up and down the stage to get their shots. I understand that these things need to be documented, however when the camera man is literally standing on the edge of the stage and walking from one end to the other blocking the audience’s view of the performers, I found myself quite annoyed. Also equipment that had been packed down after the previous set being hauled out of the hall during the second act’s performance were a distraction from what was happening on stage and should not have been happening, out of respect for the performers on stage if not for the audience!

Eftekasat were third on the bill, and had been the ones I was most excited about since I hadnt heard the other acts before. It took a little longer for the stage to be set up and we saw a 10.15pm start. Their band members had changed somewhat since I last saw them live, but their sound was still just as blissfully rich. The blend of oriental scales and rhythms with jazz sent currents of electricity down to the audience… I was surprised that people weren’t getting up to dance, or at least bop – I must admit it took quite a bit of effort to restrain myself, but the stiff wooden chairs of Ewart Hall helped with that. But still, feet were a-tapping, hands a-clapping on knees and heads swaying to the beat. Eftekasat played different tracks from their three albums (Mouled Sidi El Latini, Dandasha and Gar Shakal) including; Rosova Dolina, La Belle Algerie, Third Eye, Dandasha and Jazzmina. The violin took over parts that were originally meant for Qanun or Nay or other instruments and hypnotised the listeners with intricate lines intensely delivered by Mohamed Aly – who later surprised the audience with heavenly vocal improvisation mid tune! Watching the band interact with each other as they performed was entertaining in its own right, especially the playful expressions displayed by Ahmed Hesham (drummer) to Ahmed Aly (percussions) and their reactions to certain sections, accents or transitions as they were played. These interactions, charm and stage presence coupled with the beautiful compositions left the audience happily overdosing with the after effect of a brilliant performance.

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The night was greatly enjoyed and launched the 2017 edition of the festival off successfully. The festival team quickly plunged into taking down equipment and signage outside Ewart hall in preparation for a swift closing. Overall, a well done event worthy, of which the organisers must and should be very proud. See below for the rest of the festival schedule and click here for more information.


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