Cairo Jazz Festival
Soundscapes without Borders

Cultural life in Egypt had been at a virtual standstill since the revolution. The Cairo Jazz Festival was the opportunity to celebrate both music and the revolution. Amira El Ahl was there

​​The most important thing for a musician is to make music. "When you feel this urge, then you are compelled to play and continue to learn," says Angelika Niescier. Even in conversation, one can feel her passion for music. And her passion is contagious. When she talks, her whole body moves, she laughs, and whenever she pauses to reflect, is surprised, or jokes with her conversation partner, she twists her face into a grimace.

Then she goes on stage and plays a saxophone solo expressing the complete palette of human emotions. The audience is carried away by her enthusiasm from the very first moment. She lets her saxophone sing of lust, envy, and suffering. It rages and curses. All the while, her whole body shakes, wriggles, and swings. Just as suddenly, in the next moment, she is entirely still.

Jazz after the revolution

The German Women Jazz Orchestra under the direction of the Cologne composer and saxophonist Angelika Niescier thrilled audiences on the weekend, first with a show at the Bibliotheka Alexandrina and then with an explosive performance at the Cairo Jazz Festival.

The twelve-piece orchestra was one of 13 groups on the venue for the third such jazz festival to be held in Cairo. Jazz music was the focus of all events from Thursday to Saturday night in the Sawy Cultural Centre in the heart of the capital.

Since the revolution of January 25 leading to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, cultural life in Egypt came to a virtual standstill. The jazz festival was the first large-scale event after the revolution and took place on a weekend that was decisive for the political future of Egypt.

Saxophonist Angelika Niescier (photo: © DW)
With heart and soul: Angelika Niescier, director of the German Women Jazz Orchestra, especially arranged a piece dedicated to the revolution for their performances in Egypt

​​Egyptians were called upon to vote in a referendum on constitutional change – the first truly free election in the country in decades.

"We were positively surprised by the size of the audiences. More people came everyday," said Amro Salah, director of the Cairo Jazz Festival. Almost 3000 tickets were sold and, this year, the public came from the most diverse social strata. "We see it as a great success, because it shows us that that we have established a basis of trust with Egyptians over the past three years," says Amro Salah. The public wasn't only attracted by international bands, but also by educational programmes and workshops organized by the Egyptian Jazz Society as part of the festival.

"It's not only about politics, but about our lives"

Until the revolution of January 25, the spheres of politics and culture rarely mixed. "It was always better not to become involved in politics," says the Egyptian singer Noha Fikry. "Everything always followed the same course and there was hardly any hope for change." The revolution, however, has politicized everyone in the whole country. What previously seemed impossible is now reality. Everywhere, everyone is talking about politics.

The Cairo Jazz Festival is no exception. Just before her performance with the Amro Salah Trio, Noha Fikry reminded the Egyptian audience to take advantage of their right to determine the future of their country and go and vote. "It is not only about politics, it is about our lives."

Even the foreign guests got caught up by the new mood in the country. "The foreign bands were impressed at how Egyptian youth fought for their freedom," says Amro Salah. "They all felt extremely inspired."

Red like the revolution

​​Angelika Niescier also followed the upheavals in Egypt each day. "I am unbelievably grateful that I've been able to be here during this time," said the winner of many competitions, who was also awarded with the Echo Jazz prize in 2010. "It is an incredible experience to be in this country so shortly after such a historic event." Niescier was also particularly impressed with the organizers of the festival, who despite all the turbulence succeeded in staging the event as planned.

For the performances in Alexandria and Cairo, she especially arranged a piece dedicated to the revolution and the Egyptian people. "A time like this really deserves to be acknowledged," explained the composer.

This is the last piece that the twelve members of the German Women Jazz Orchestra performed during their show on Friday evening. "Red – it's the colour of passion, self-empowerment, and revolution," announced Angelika Niescier in introducing the piece. At the end of the concert, the public treated the twelve women to a loud round of applause and a standing ovation. "Every one of these musicians is a great master of her art and they have a really distinctive sound. I am proud that they have enriched our festival," says Amro Salah.

The jazz musician is sure about one thing – the revolution will fundamentally alter cultural life in Egypt. "I hope that the next government will be more open and be unbiased when it comes to artistic and music projects." Most Egyptians are also certain that censorship is something that will no longer be tolerated by the people.

Amira El Ahl

© Deutsche Welle/ 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp

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