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Cairo Jazz Festival Builds Bridges Across Nations and Generations

CAIRO—Playing the Cairo Jazz Festival is an ambition for any Arab artist. So says the Bahraini-Palestinian singer and songwriter Banah, who realized that goal this year.

The 13th edition of the international festival, which recently concluded, was its longest and largest ever, according to Mostafa Farouk, the festival’s media coordinator. “For the first time, we had activities for nine days presented by 20 bands from 13 countries,” he said.

The Egyptian pianist and composer Amr Salah started the festival in 2009 to raise awareness of jazz in Egypt.

The art form originated from blues and ragtime music amongst African American people in the Deep South of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and quickly won fans around the world.

‘Jazz Diplomacy’

Three groups from the United States were among the performers at this year’s festival.

In his speech at the opening ceremony, Jonathan Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt,   said the American bands’ participation recalled six decades of “jazz diplomacy,” going back to Louis Armstrong’s historic visit to Egypt in 1961. That trip is celebrated in an iconic photograph of jazz legend playing the trumpet for his wife in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

The participation of three American bands’ in this year’s festival recalls six decades of “jazz diplomacy,” going back to Louis Armstrong’s visit to Egypt in 1961, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt said.

Farouk said that in the time separating Armstrong’s visit  from the young bands  participating in this year’s Cairo Jazz Festival, one  could trace the continuing evolution of this musical genre over the years.

“Jazz has its own charm, like a wide sea of multi-colours and tunes,” said Farouk. “This can be seen in the concerts of this year’s jazz festival.”

International Participation

Besides the three American bands, there was  strong European  presence this year, with about ten bands from Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Luxembourg sponsored by the European Union’s programme in Egypt.

The Sudanese musician Tariq El Hawy made a first appearance at the Cairo festival, as did Banah, the Palestinian singer from Bahrain.

In her show “Tribute to the Divas”,  Banah presented songs by many female jazz artists from the Arab and Western world. “I was happy with the show because I sang in a variety of ways, in more than one style, and in more than one language,” she said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

Scenes from the Cairo Jazz Festival

Banah  explained that she became attached to both Western and Arabic jazz songs  when still young. “I was raised and grew up on Fairuz’s songs, especially her jazz songs composed by her son Ziad Rahbani,” she said. “In my concerts, I always try to combine jazz with the Arabic songs I present.”

“In Palestine, we have many jazz singers,” she said. “It is a musical and lyrical genre that has an audience everywhere.”

Tariq El Hawy played two sets: one with his band in an act called “Blues Workshop & Jam,” and the other with Egyptian and Lebanese colleagues in an act called the “All Stars Blues Experience”.

Bridges from Pioneers to Today

Keeping alive the artistry of jazz pioneers is among the festival’s goals.

The Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani was honoured at the second festival in 2010. This year, two of Egypt’s pioneers of jazz music were honoured: Hani Shenouda and Magdy Baghdadi.

By celebrating their lives and music,  the organisers hope  to build bridges  to the new generation.

“I was raised and grew up on Fairuz’s songs, especially her jazz songs composed by her son Ziad Rahbani. In my concerts, I always try to combine jazz with the Arabic song I present.”

A Bahraini-Palestinian singer and songwriter

In this context, the festival included a photography exhibition titled “Legends of Egypt’s Jazz Bands”, which displayed dozens of photos  of bands like  “Al-Massrieen”, “Les Petits Chats”, and “Sky Rockets”. It also featured jazz stars like Ismail Al-Hakim, son of the late writer and thinker Tawfiq al-Hakim, and the singer Bob Azzam.

Next to the photographs of Hani Shenouda, visitors could read the words of the late Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who applauded Shenouda for employing Western jazz music in Arabic songs. Mahfouz’s words encouraged Shenouda to found the band “Al-Massrieen”.

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The festival took place at the Tahrir Cultural Center of the American University in Cairo. Tarek Attia, director of the center, said the center played a role in presenting the photographs in a way that made visitors feel  part of a  dramatic experience,  as if they were attending a concert by one of the bands.

“We were in constant contact with the festival organisers, discussing how to tell the stories of the Egyptian bands in the gallery so that it looks like an interesting journey observing the 1960s and the rise of Egypt’s jazz bands,” said Attia. “We also sought to provide the audience with an opportunity to enjoy a concert, besides hosting seminars on related topics, like the history of jazz.”

Related Reading

To read more about jazz and its influence in the Arab world, see the following selected articles from Al-Fanar Media’s archives:


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