Interview with Rafael Alcántara

Cairo's Music Scene between Censorship and Awakening

Last fall, the Munich saxophonist and singer Rafael Alcántara was invited to Cairo by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. In this interview with Stefan Franzen, he talks about his impressions of Cairo's music scene and the influence of the state

The German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa) promotes cultural dialogue between Islamic countries and Europe through its CrossCulture program. Rafael Alcántara was the first musician to take part in the program.

The most important contact address during your stay was the Egyptian Center of Culture and Art (ECCA). What are its functions and where does it stand in relation to the government?

Rafael Alcántara: ifa is pleased when you select an independent institute as a partner for its grant. The ECCA is not a government organization. In addition, it has set up rooms to record traditional music. It is purely a matter of documenting these traditions for posterity, as there are very few musicians left possessing a mastery of this sort of music. The same rooms are also made available to young, progressive groups so that they can have a platform for their work.

What is the state of cooperation between the ECCA and the state?

Alcántara: Complicated. It took a year before the ECCA was even allowed to open. When I was there, for instance, a planned co-production between a state orchestra and a traditional ensemble that the ECCA wanted to arrange was called off four days before rehearsals without any reason. The project was intended to be a purely musical cultural event, and was therefore not critical of the government. The ministry of culture merely wanted to demonstrate its power.

Authorities, in general, observe all independent cultural institutions, although there is no evident spying – things are done much more subtly. Any platform that allows for explicit critical commentary on the social situation is shut immediately. Musicians can only denounce social injustice through indirect, ironic imagery, and many do just that.

What kind of music is officially condoned or even patronized?

Alcántara: Those who are established have made some kind of arrangement with the government, so they always play a kind of music that isn't very authentic, but rather is intended to have an effect on tourists, meaning it is merely for display. This is also apparent at concerts given during Ramadan, when the tradition is to emphasize the cultural and celebratory character of the event, and audiences can experience everything from Sufi music to old Arabic poetry set to music.

Then there is opera, a relic from the British colonial period. It continues to exist as a prestige object with a conservative program for the upper classes and has no relationship with the reality of Egypt's population today.

And the young musicians are ignored?

Alcántara: They receive absolutely no support. Take one example. The band Wust El Balad has existed for ten years and been struggling the entire time. Only now, they have finally managed to come out with a CD! Curiously, it required a Lebanese label called Incognito, which is producing young groups at the facilities of the ECCA and perhaps soon will be marketing them in Europe. It is truly a sad state of affairs when it takes someone from outside the country to get things moving.

In addition, the Egyptian music industry is still dealing in cassettes – it seems like they somehow missed the boat to the CD age. And decisions are made by a small, elite group that prefers to follow the formula of American pop music than help new ideas become popular.

What is the mood like among young people and what are the main interests of young musicians? Are there underground, rock, and punk scenes?

Alcántara: I had the impression that they gradually had enough of Americanized pop music. They want to listen to their own music, although not necessarily in a strict, traditional style, but rather animated by innovative influences. The young musicians have an unencumbered way of treating harmony and chord structures that we in the West have long since lost. They use this material in a very natural manner, and the result is a fresh sound. The potential is unbelievable and it can show musicians in the West not to think too much, just do it!

They mostly play without any written music, even in eight to ten person ensembles, which surprised me, because here we always set down on paper any complicated arrangement first. They show a really fantastic combination of improvisational skills together with a sensitivity for structure.

Interview: Stefan Franzen

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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