On the music festival circuit this season
By Angie Balata
Egypt, while known for many things, including its rich historical heritage, has always been a country famous for its music. Competing with other countries around the world for the industrial scale of arts and culture production, it has long prided itself locally and globally for the creation and recreation of its highly eclectic music scene.
The range of Arabic genres, youth subgenres and foreign imports that exist in the local songbook is as diverse as it is rich. Historically, the ancient Egyptian goddess Bat, is said to have invented music in the dynastic kingdoms of the Pharaohs, and the earliest evidence of musical instruments, including harps, flutes and percussion instruments, dates as far back as the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Through the centuries of colonization and interactions with different empires, Egyptian music has been influenced by Byzantine, Indian, Persian, Greek, religious music from the Coptic Church and Sufi zikr rituals, Nubian, Berber, Gypsy and Bedouin music. In recent history, increased travel, the effect of globalization and the internet have seen new and diverse waves of musical influence come to Egypt (and vice versa) including rock, latino, African and different Middle Eastern trends (i.e. Moroccan, Iraqi, Sudanese and the Gulf).
Egypt has always served as a breeding ground for new interactions, influences, collaborations and recreations in music. Here, music has transformed into an industry serving everything from the commercial to the underground/alternative and the many shades in between. In recent years, there has been an explosion of creation and production in music trends away from the commercial. The rise of an independent scene, away from decades of commercial pop, has seen Egypt move into dramatically different directions.
While there is serious debate on the idea of ‘independent’ and the extent to which many of the musicians and bands within this scene can be realistically categorized as independent, the current wave of music production away from the commercial industry has led to the birth of a music space in which studios, venues, musicians, media, artists and festivals exist and produce a trend of music that diverges dramatically from mainstream Arabic pop. This music space is still in its early stages of development and, consequently, cannot yet be called an industry, but its beginnings can be found with the start of venues like Cairo Jazz Club (2001) and El Sawy Cultural Wheel (2003). These spaces were created around the idea of supporting, promoting and developing independent music.
Years later, the January 25 Revolution would see an explosion of musicians, who had previously only been known to and within these spaces, take a front seat on all media channels (i.e. TV, radio and internet). The vacuum left by mainstream superstars and their inability to cope with significant social, political and economic changes taking place in the first three years of the revolution allowed for the independent scene to take the cultural lead during those ever-changing and chaotic years. More importantly, it was the socio-political background from which most of the musicians in the independent scene had come from that allowed them to be natural leaders during a time that the ideas of the ‘nation’ and ‘state’ were being revisited, reassessed and rebelled against. It was also during those first years of the revolution that Egypt saw an explosion of non-mainstream art and cultural forms, including graffiti and music. This period was especially important to Egypt as it gave rise to a massive transformation in the non-mainstream music scene, particularly in the rise of festivals. While this has yet to make a global impression, today, Egypt has some of the most interesting and diverse music festivals in the region.
It’s become impossible to start a 52 Weekend calendar without April being a prime month for massive planning for music-related activities. While music events flourish over the year in Egypt, the end of March leading through April is what is known among the independent music space as The Season. It is during this time that the festival circuit begins, ranging from far off destinations to city locations.
Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) (March 19–April 9)
According to their public media, D-CAF is “Egypt’s first international multi-disciplinary contemporary arts festival,” with a special emphasis on both downtown (i.e. downtown Cairo) and contemporary. The ‘downtown’ focus, according to the festival, relates as much to the rich and eclectic setting as to the epicenter status of downtown in terms of social, poltical and artistic movements. The ‘contemporary’ aspect of the festival focuses less on a genre of art, than on the definition that focuses on the art “produced during our lifetimes, and is characterized by its interactive nature, and its more socially conscious approach to artistic creation in a world which is culturally diverse, technologically connected and constantly evolving.” Currently in its fourth edition, the festival generally takes place over a three-week period from March to April and aims to expose local audiences to a variety of local, regional and international audiences. Its varied program covers music, theatre, dance, visual arts and films, but, equally important it offers an unusual selection of venues, including historical buildings, old cabarets, storefronts, alleyways and rooftops. Visit www.d-caf.org for more information.
Theater of Dreams (April 10–12)
Organized by Mahmoud Zeidan, Theater of Dreams, began as a three-day camping music festival that brought the best DJs, both locally and a few international greats, to the famous Ras Shitan hideaway. In its second edition, the festival is going to occupy one of Sharm El-Sheikh’s biggest clubs, Space Sharm El Sheikh. The festival will feature some of Egypt’s favorites, including Aly B, A-Squared Gawdat, Gaser El Safty and Marc Wahba. And from Toolroom Records, DJ’s Mark Knight and Mark Storie come to Egypt for the festival. Visit www.facebook.com/Theater.o.d for more information.
India by the Nile (March 30–April 17)
This is the first festival in Egypt dedicated to Indian arts and culture — which is odd, considering there was a time when Egyptians were heavily consuming Indian music and movies. Nonetheless, the powers that be saw it fit to finally make a most logical connection between these two nations. Hosted by the Embassy of India in Egypt, India by the Nile is a celebration of contemporary and classical Indian music, dance, theater, visual art, film, food and literature. In its third edition, the festival has expanded to include the cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailia. The aim of the festival is to open a space for collaborative exchange and dialogue through the arts and public discussions. This year, India’s most famed actor, Amitabh Bachchan, adds a twist of the unexpected with a public discussion at the Cairo Opera House and a retrospective panorama of his most famous films. Visit www.indiabythenile.com for more information.
Dahab Bedouin Festival (March–April 2015)
Almost tucked away quietly is the Dahab Bedouin Festival. The festival began in May 2011 with the aim of promoting Bedouin culture, environmental awareness and the multiculturalism of the beach town of Dahab. It is a non-profit event that brings people together to hang out, do activities, exchange with the Bedouin and listen to live music when the day ends. The goal is to promote eco-tourism, responsible and ethical travel, alternative travel and holistic holidays according to the organizers. There have been three editions so far of the festival and it has gained quiet momentum. This year’s dates haven’t been posted as of the publishing deadline of this article, but follow their blog and Facebook for the details. Visit www.bedouinfestival.com for more information.
3alganoob Tondoba Bay (April 10–12)
Keeping in mind that each story has versions, but it seems all agree that the seed for the original 3alganoob began at the Tondoba Eco-lodge and Deep South Diving Club, when friends decided late into a night of chatter and dreams to start a music festival focused on independent music and musicians. The first two editions took place with the team intact before they parted ways to their respective festivals. 3alganoob Tondoba has unwaveringly stuck to the original plan, even keeping the logo (yes, there are two festivals with the same logo out there). Flaunting a simple musician line-up and a “back-to-basics” attitude, 3alganoob Tondoba Bay is all about the chill. Visit www.deep-south-diving.com for more information.
3alganoob Soma Bay (April 10–12)
This festival boasts, “changing the definition of camping forever, with three days of non-stop music,” which includes non-stop activities and music. Among the activities are diving, yoga, snorkelling and kite surfing. This year’s line-up features 19 bands from around the region, including Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt. Oddly, the festival is also promoting “the coolest beach clean-up” which seems to indicate a clean-after-yourself attitude since after all, Soma Bay is not really known for being on the not-so-clean end of the spectrum. Beyond the music, the festival makes big claims supporting and promoting tourism to new locations so as to apparently benefit “tribes-people living in the area.” Beyond the very unwise, condescending attitude towards local communities, this year’s edition has taken on most of the strategies of the two previous 3alganoobs, with the added difference of location and a wider musical line-up.
If you are after some good music and want to hang out with some very cool bands and musicians, this is definitely a festival to check out. Also, if you are not big on camping, the Soma Bay location offers a variety of bed-based options. Visit 3alganoob.org for more details.
Oshtoora (April 10-12)
Oshtoora is all about building a temporary state. It is the only gathering of different entities from the independent scene, and not just from the world of music. The organizers have somehow managed to collect the largest group of independent minded individuals to collaborate together on building an Oshtoora village and have people live in the temporary state for three days. Boasting sponsor-free support, the festival built a business model of mutual association and collaboration to make it all possible. Their partners in crime include, Kiteloop (for kite surfing and hosts of the morning stage), Mada Architects (the mad scientists behind the locations architecture), Zawya (the creative team behind the Zawya cinema who will be taking care of the film events), Ma7ali (the Maadi deli and grocery known for offering quality food and fair-trade prices), Solarize Egypt (to help push solar energy use as part of respecting the environment) and Dream Studio (who have local renown for sound services and music production). While the music line-up is still being announced, so far the tab features 13 bands from around the region, including Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Morocco and Egypt. Visit www.oshtoora.com for more information. et