The Chinese Gardens are a brief interlude in the Cairo International Conference Centre’s otherwise uncompromising concrete uniformity, offering sculptured lawns, shady copses and ponds. They were a fitting setting for the 4th SOS Music Festival, whose ‘let’s go original’ ethos is centred around providing an alternative to the mass-produced mediocrity of much of contemporary Egyptian mainstream music and, according to the SOS website (www.sosmusicfestival.com), aims to “promote originality and creativity” by encouraging musicians “to dig deep into their own culture and keep an open mind to experiment with different elements of music.” In keeping with this philosophy the seven acts (six Egyptian and one international) were therefore only allowed to perform original material.
The first acts onstage performed to an audience of feeble numbers - all the sensible people arrived later, just as the sun was putting on its coat and leaving, rather than risk sunstroke. Those that were there sought refuge underneath the trees – some 300 metres away from the stage – while a handful of hardcore fans sweltered and swayed in front of the stage. Idle Mind soldiered on through the virtually empty desert, belting out standard heavy metal compositions with a few nice melodic touches and startling everyone with their Megadeth-style roaring. Two-piece Arab Rap Family had to do battle with both a low turnout and technical problems, their backing track repeatedly and suddenly coming to an impromptu stop with a loud microwave-like beep. Their act was undoubtedly undermined by the billing, rapper MC Monadel urging the audience to approach the stage so that the band could “feel their energy.” His attempts to create momentum through the standard “when I say X, you say Y!” incantation also fell flat and would have undoubtedly worked better with a larger, less hot, crowd. The two rappers were accompanied by a female singer with an impressive vocal range but whose operatic-style falsetto warbling was contrived, if not baffling. Overall however, the group’s performance was an enjoyable enough Arabic language take on the Black Eyed Peas formula.
One of the highlights of the day was undoubtedly Basheer. Mohamed Basheer, a native of Aswan, combines the rhythm and heart of Upper Egypt with funk and soul sounds to create excellent and exciting music. He was joined by members of funk troupe Vybe on this occasion and the set, which included trumpet, synthesiser and Tabla, was fantastic: think Stevie Wonder meets Mohamed Mounir. Basheer will inevitably draw comparisons with Mounir because of their shared Aswan heritage and identical choice of haircut if nothing else, but while there is a certain and similar joyful rhythm to both singer’s music, Basheer nonetheless has a unique and distinctive sound.
Even after 5 p.m. it was still sweltering, prompting Basheer to urge members of the audience to retain their enthusiasm and not expire from the heat -“we’re all Egyptians and we all love the sun!” he declared, the veracity of which statement was directly challengeable by firstly, the presence of several distinctly un-Egyptian looking specimens and, secondly, the hordes of Egyptians still seeking refuge under the boughs miles away. This prompted me to think that the SOS organisers should have perhaps made some concession to the sun, by either starting and finishing later or reducing the number of acts if necessary.
Nagham Masry fuse eastern and western musical traditions together and top it off with lyrics drawn from Egypt’s best-loved popular poets (such as Amal Donkol and Salah Jaheen). The audience loved lead-singer Sherbini’s cheerful and upbeat delivery and were wowed by Ousso’s incredible guitar solos. Vybe followed shortly afterwards, preceded by their reputation for performing excellent renditions of funk, soul and R’n’B classics. Their own compositions were disappointing, and while lead singer Shady Mohamed Gamal El Din Hamza was in good voice, the music itself was humdrum and uninspiring and – according to audience members who have seen them before - their performance apparently lacked the energy they usually conjure up when doing covers.
The star of the night was incontestably Iraqi guitar virtuoso Elham el Madfai. El Madfai, who strongly resembles Winston Churchill without the jowls, performed with an insouciance which epitomes cool and which was undiminished by the fact that he was wearing a fishing hat. He seems to produce heavenly Segovia-quality ripples on his classical guitar without being conscious of actually doing so: while talking to the crowd, or looking back to issue instructions to his band. He and his group of superb musicians seamlessly turned out tune after great tune to the enraptured crowd, pausing only to affix an Iraqi flag given to him by a member of the audience to his guitar stand. He played for an hour and a half - outplaying half of the crowd itself which dutifully left to take sisters and girlfriends home once the clock approached midnight.
Music festivals are a rarity in Egypt, and SOS is therefore fulfilling a crucial function in giving a platform to music which would otherwise not be heard by people who would not otherwise hear it. While it is great that there was free entrance, the whole rigmarole surrounding actually acquiring tickets left much to be desired: it was necessary to complete an online questionnaire, including a question as to the applicant’s opinion about having to complete a questionnaire in order to obtain tickets - which called for much self-restraint. Successful applicants were then sent an email instructing them to go a cafe in distant Heliopolis in order to pick up the tickets. The SOS website claims that this system is designed to restrict access to “the right crowd, who want to be there for the music and the good time, and to prevent any misbehaviour.” While this may ostensibly be the case, I noted that the website, and the questionnaire, did not offer an Arabic language option. The SOS organisers would therefore seem to have (presumably unwittingly) employed an elitist audience selection policy which had the effect of excluding monolingual Egyptians.
Originally published in al Ahram Weekly