The Best Music in the "Place"

As is often the case in the Arab world, one almost has to search with a magnifying glass to find an independent art and cultural scene, even in Egypt. It is, however, increasingly showing signs of flourishing. The Egyptian Center for Culture and Art is one of the independent cultural centers to have emerged in recent years in the mega city Cairo. By Sebastian Blottner

​​ Egypt is led by one of the strictest regimes in the Arab world. The cultural infrastructure, in the stranglehold of an autocratic system, is not alone in having been abandoned to a creeping decline. Beyond the steady stream of mass tourism neatly channelled through the county, Egypt's social problems are enormous. Against the background of social injustices, it is no wonder that hardly any exciting cultural inspiration currently comes from this country so proud of a cultural heritage spanning thousands of years.

Yet, something is happening. Over the last few years, independent centers, clubs, and galleries have established themselves, while managing to maintain their distance from the corrupt state administration and narrow-minded cultural officials. They are, of course, observed, but tolerated – primarily due to the disinterest and a lack of appreciation by the repressive authorities. One of these independent centers is the Egyptian Center for Culture and Art (ECCA).

"A Place" in the heart of Cairo

The founder and head of ECCA is Ahmed el Maghraby. He was himself an official in the Ministry of Culture and later a cultural attaché in Paris. Eventually, he wanted to escape from the stuffy atmosphere of officialdom and finally do something meaningful, unhindered by excessive bureaucracy and corruption. He gave up his diplomatic career and began preparations for his "A Place" project, or "Makan" in Arabic.

Ahmed el Maghraby (photo: Sebastian Blottner)
Ahmed el Maghraby established the ECCA in order to rekindle an awareness of Egypt's rich musical heritage

​​ The ECCA headquarters is located on Saad Zaghloul Street 1, right near Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, between the green Garden City and the bustling downtown quarter. Both an office and a club, this is where the ECCA devotes itself to the maintenance, documentation, and revival of Egyptian traditional music. The aim is to reawaken a sense of Egypt's rich musical heritage in a people who are drowning in Western mainstream pop. Instead of promoting the levelling of culture, the ECCA wants to preserve and further develop cultural diversity.

Concerts, tea, and cigarettes

At least twice a week, public concerts are held in Makan. The Mazaher ensemble, a group of musicians that play Zar music, perform here regularly. The music induces its listeners into a trance-like state and was traditionally part of domestic rituals where people were freed from the influence of evil spirits. The rituals were not only almost completely forgotten, but were also suppressed in a society increasingly dominated by religious traditionalists, who regarded the practices as un-Islamic.

Makan remains an active place even between concerts. Almost around the clock, there are rehearsals, jam sessions, and social get-togethers – there is not much to differentiate work from pleasure here. The special atmosphere of the "Place" derives from the people it attracts. Especially in the evenings, there is a steady stream of musicians and intellectuals on friendly terms with each other.

Terabytes for the archive

Concert recordings become part of the ECCA archive, but such events are not the exclusive source for its music collection. Documentary material is recorded from all over Egypt. Recordings range from traditional work songs of Nubian farmers, which could be compared to original blues music, to the cheerful songs of the descendants of gypsies living on the Sinai and the folk melodies of the inhabitants of the Nile Delta.

Concert at the Makan (photo: Sebastian Blottner)
The ECCA doesn't only organize concerts, but also archives traditional music that has fallen into obscurity, thereby saving cultural treasures that would otherwise be lost

​​ The audio and video archive of the ECCA already takes up innumerable terabytes. A great deal of what Ahmed el Maghraby and his team have dug up is close to disappearing. There has never been a notation system in Arabic music, and repertoire and theoretical knowledge have been passed down orally for centuries. In particular, the numerous local variations on Egyptian folk music are frequently known, if at all, by no more than a few elderly musicians in any particular community.

Expanding the circle of impact

Maghraby hopes to change this and reverse the trend. CDs have been released, a studio for building instruments is in the planning stage, and two books on traditional folk instruments in Egypt have already been published. The building of a second ECCA residence is almost completed in the oasis of Fayoum south west of Cairo, where further concerts and workshops will be held.

Maghraby's friends and colleagues serve as a network of talent scouts. Once the current musical state of affairs has been documented, the aim is to promote musical projects, concerts, and tours, as well as motivate a new generation of musicians. Everyday office work at Makan also means responding to festival requests and taking care of visa applications for frequently very old and often illiterate musicians from the countryside.

Maghraby doesn't only want to simply preserve the musical traditions of his homeland, but also to connect them with modernity and aid in their continued development. The band "Nass Makan," which Maghraby has formed out of over 20 musicians previously promoted in the ECCA, has become the organization's biggest attraction. It features traditional flutes alongside electric guitars and modern drum kits together with traditional framed or "doff" drums.

Many have already told him that Nass Makan is the most important, outstanding, and best in Egyptian music to be heard since the 1970s, says Maghraby, not without pride. Step-by-step, his goal of steadily expanding the ECCA's still manageable circle of impact is being realized.

Sebastian Blottner

© 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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Website of the ECCA