Cairo festival highlights universal spiritual heritage

If the Samaa’ Festival helped prove anything, it was that models of spiritual music and religious chanting are similar everywhere.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Artists perform during the 11th International Samaa’ Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting in Cairo. (Hewar Foundation for Peoples Arts and Cultures)
A message of peace. Artists perform during the 11th International Samaa’ Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting in Cairo. (Hewar Foundation for Peoples Arts and Cultures)

CAIRO - Cairo vibrated to the mellow melodies of the 11th International Samaa’ Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting the last week of September. The many music festivals in Egypt bringing together Arab and non-Arab participants raise the interesting point about similarities and differences between Egyptian music and that of the rest of the world.

It would be interesting to determine whether Egyptian music has its own specific characteristics that distinguish it from the rest or perhaps it has fused with world trends because of the globalisation of audio arts, losing its effect on audiences.

If the Samaa’ Festival helped prove anything, it was that models of spiritual music and religious chanting are similar everywhere. The underlying concepts are practically identical. In the Cairo festival, performers from around globe joined to deliver the same message of peace and reveal the profound common humanistic values in all cultures.

The festival included performances by local, Arab and non-Arab artists in various historical sites and public spaces in Cairo. The festival lived up to its promise in creating, through art and music, a common space where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds could express and share what makes us all human. It gave the proof that spiritual music knows no geographical or cultural boundaries and can touch all people, regardless of their differences.

The concepts of spiritual commonality and human unity were expressed through concrete and innovative artistic experiments in previous years at the Samaa’ Festival. In one experimental piece, African-American artists mixed the sounds of church bells with calls for prayer from mosques and Sufi liturgies. Similar experiments this year brought together artists and performers from Syria, Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria, India, China, Greece, Congo and other countries.

This universalistic vision seeks to unite arts, cultures, concepts and faiths — let’s chant together, let’s pray together — and creates intercultural contacts and communication, interfaith tolerance and stops extremism. This is not in contradiction with the philosophy of music that respects specificities of local authentic popular music and the shared human characteristics and values.

Composer Hisham Gabr, inducted into the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, said Egyptian genes, especially those connected with culture and art, can renew themselves after accidents. He said soft power can’t be forever stifled beneath the ashes. It will remain covered until it recovers its strength, then it will shine for a long time.

Gabr, who founded the Cairo Chamber Music group, said Egyptian music, in its refined models, has its own personality. Since pharaonic times, it has accumulated layer upon layer from the various civilisations. It has taken from the musical heritage of the Arabs, Europeans, Africans and Turks, who had been influenced by musical forms from the Balkans, Central Europe and as far away as ancient Andalusia.

Gabr praised that musical openness among performers because it deepens the human experience and intercultural communication. He said that kind of artistic dialogue, if it does not damage the authenticity and roots of popular music, would lead to more musical strength, richness and multiplicity of genres and styles.

Gabr said disarray in the Egyptian music scene is because of the absence of towering musical figures capable of evolving by learning from foreign experiences without losing sight of local achievements.

In the world of art, there is a constant give and take. Egyptian musical luminaries as Sayed Darwish, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Mohamed Fawzi and Baligh Hamdi have made significant contributions to world music.

Abdel Wahab, for example, is credited with enriching traditional musical moulds with foreign rhythms, such as tango and samba. He introduced new orchestral distributions and made heavy use in his compositions of Western instruments, including the bass, violin, cello, mandolin and guitar. Shortly after Wahhab’s innovations in Egyptian music, purely instrumental pieces and symphonies appeared. Egyptian composer Omar Khairat has excelled in this genre.

Egyptian ears and souls are longing for a musical renaissance. Gabr said he is optimistic it will come.

“Perhaps the state of Egyptian music is not as excellent as it used to be but our Egyptian creative talents are quite capable of a great comeback and they will continue carrying their role of being musical beacons thanks to their instinctive capacity to learn, digest and create,” he said.

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