I saw the man with the best schnozz in the oriental jazz business - Fathy Salama - yesterday evening, as part of the ‘Fathy Salama vs. Screwdriver Rock Project.’ This was a piece of school homework given to them all where they had to work in pairs and prepare a class presentation in the Sawy Cultural Wheel on ‘fluctuations in jean tightness in contemporary rock: emerging trends after the Bon Jovi apex.’
Unfortunately project in this context is a muso word which means lots of people on stage at once, including a fit Swede, a Sikh, granddad on castanets, Fathy, and Screwdriver, who are a band and not useless tools.
Regular readers will know by now my feelings on fusion music but I will repeat again than the collision of e.g. Scottish highland folk and Hawaiian traditional wedding songs is like seeing a British person in socks and sandals newly arrived on the continent who encounters a continental acquaintance and they go to kiss each other on the cheek(s) and the Brit forgets that it’s two kisses and is surprised and flustered to find the face looming in on him again and the process inevitably results in some inelegant and misplaced head bobbing and possibly accidental kissing on the lips if not accidental insertion of tongues in nostrils or other orifices necessitating immediate suicide for the Brit. Fusion music is the audible equivalent of this: not pretty, and slightly awkward.
Consider for example the mighty Tabla which in its natural habitat is the lion of any musical jungle. I challenge anyone to hear a good Tabla soloist and not dance or clap or at least tap his finger on his knee vigorously. And yet when placed in the zoo next to a bass guitar and discordant keyboard solos and friggin China Bells if it is not lost altogether Tabla sounds tired and worst of all annoying. This was the case tonight despite the excellence of the nimble-fingered Tabla player.
But then oriental jazz will suck the feeling out of any instrument (and for only 20 LE - she’s cheap). This was again confirmed tonight: it’s something to do with oriental jazz’s rhythm, and its fondness for making a keyboard and a bass guitar have a race to see who can reach the top of an Arabic musical scale the first upon which the winner is inevitably serenaded by an interminable percussion solo the task of listening to which I lighten by counting the number of hairs on the head in front of me.
Tonight’s proceedings were however made more bearable by the aforementioned Swede and granddad castanets. The Swede, one Frederick Jille or Gille was brought on to play a small pair of drums, because God knows the percussion section wasn’t big enough already with a full drum kit, a Tabla player, granddad castanets and another drummer. He was more perfectly put together than an IKEA store-displayed shelving cabinet what with the cheekbones approximately a millimetre below his eyes and golden tanned skin and shining blonde hair swept back into a Sumo wrestler-type bun. He actually bore a passing resemblance to another fine Swedish export, Freddie Ljundberg, and ladies I advise you to look at this picture immediately, but careful not to cut yourself on his facial bone structure!
In order to take my mind off the music I thought how much Mr Frederick was like Sweden itself, in that you barely noticed his presence but whenever you did were impressed by his beauty and efficiency.
Meanwhile, at the geriatric end of the stage, a senior citizen was knocking out fantastic stuff on the accordion while next to him granddad castanets strutted his stuff. Granddad was dead short, and bedecked in a galabeyya and turban and big gold ring on his little finger. When I went to get tea someone referred to him affectionately as ‘el 3omda,’ and he was indeed very much like a village mayor. He was the most animated of all the hundreds of people on stage, at times performing castanet solos during which he would wobble his head and thrust one arm above his head Flamenco style before spinning and then dramatically dropping to the floor and proceeding to wallop it repeatedly with his castanets like an infuriated child (hip problems meant it looked touch and go whether he would be able to stand back up). His performance was actually slightly menacing at times, and the failure of the audience to whip itself into a frenzy prompted granddad to come to the front of the stage, narrow his eyes, raise his hands to head-level and clack his castanets meaningfully, as if saying clap you bastards or I’ll be castaneting with your balls next.
Another highlight of the night was the appearance of Screwdriver’s male bass player in a black fishing hat whose sides flapped down to his shoulders and whose front almost entirely obscured his face: it was as if someone had thrown a large jellyfish over his head. It’s a look, I suppose. The (very good) lead guitarist meanwhile had chosen to take risks with his outfit in a pair of pressed jeans and short sleeved checked shirt topped off with a side parting. All he lacked were pens in his top pocket. Also, his guitar probably weighs more than him. Many of Cairo’s lead guitarists are extremely slender, I have noticed. Are their metabolisms unable to keep up with their furious nightly renditions of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’?
The prize for fancy dress must be given to Sam, an ‘Egyptian rapper from New York’ who appeared out of nowhere and took his place amongst jellyfish head and the atrophying Mormon. He was dressed in long 1920s footballer shorts and a vest exposing a nipple which stared out at the open-mouthed crowd like some sort of one-eyed beast. His silver bling sparkled as he rapped (sounding very much like Jay-Z), for about five minutes before spending the rest of the night trying to alleviate his awkwardness by emitting an ‘aywa’ every now and again while the others sang before giving up and sitting down.
Algerian singer Karima Nite was sensational as always. She looks like Fairouz on acid but with massive Mariam Fares type hair, and has an incredible voice – I can’t understand why she’s not more famous. They ended with an ‘Algerian folkloric’ song from Oran called salloo 3al naby which was fantastic. I have always liked hearing the guttural intonations of Algerian Arabic in music, despite not being able to understand a word. It sounds meaty and fortifying somehow. The spring of this last song sort of made up for the acres of arid oriental jazz desert we had to stumble through, but the mostly lukewarm reception of the audience confirmed to me that there is something lacklustre and clinical and joyless about this music.
The heat these days has forced air conditioning-less people out of their homes and onto the relatively cooler streets at night, and walking home from the ba2al last night at midnight was like being the invisible man in people’s living rooms, with entire families sitting on porch steps, women fanning themselves and men in vests drinking tea, while elsewhere all-season gangs of lads held court in their usual positions on the trunks of cars. Nothing compares to walking at night in the summer, enveloped in that sighing heat and everywhere a certain stillness, broken only by the sounds of a distant game of backgammon, conducted in silence by two solitary figures in the darkness. Or am I just easily pleased.