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The International Samaa Festival for Sufi Music & Chanting: Now in Cairo
Qubbet El Ghouri is no stranger to Sufi and Dervish performances. The resident Al Ghouri Tannoura Dance group have been drawing crowds from all around Cairo for as long as we can remember.
This Ramadan, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture has joined forces with the Indian Embassy’s Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture to bring together Sufi musicians from all around the world. Musicians from Egypt will be joined by performers from North Africa, Asia, Europe and even the US.
The most common form of Sufi music comes in the form of the Qawwali. Coming from the word ‘qawl’ (meaning a saying of the prophet), each song is usually a retelling and dedication to a saying or a teaching. One such example of a qawwali singer is India’s Chanchal Bharti.
Bharti holds the honour of being one of the few female Indian Qawwali singers, and has been plying her trade for over twenty years, both in India and beyond. Acclaim has come in the form of awards and international recognition, but none of this has waned Bharti’s enthusiasm.
At the opening of the festival on August 15th, she shared the stage with seven other vocalists and instrumentalists, but was forever the heart of the performance. Every wave of her hand and shake of her head seems as part of the song as her voice does. She isn’t just going through the motions; listen carefully, and you’ll notice her nuances and touches compared to the other performers. Out of all the acts, who all took their place on stage at the same time, waiting to perform, she and her seven-man group stood out more than anyone; and not just because of their pink and black ensembles. Their performance was befitting of their billing. Bharti will perform again on August 21st, 22nd, and at the closing ceremony on the 25th.
Like many Qawwalis, Bharti’s pieces often last for around twenty minutes and longer. Our MTV generation-ears are more accustomed to three-and-a-half minutes of verse-chorus-verse-chorus arrangements; and so this is definitely not your standard musical performance.
There’s a very deliberate lucid but fluid structure to the Qawwalis: the combination of tabla, harmonium and raba amongst other instruments is actually very structured, and will sound so to a more familiarised ear.
Sufi music has a deep-rooted history in Pakistan, and so it’s no surprise that no less than fourteen Pakistani musicians and performers have travelled to Cairo for the festival. Sponsored by the influential Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, these performers come with a pedigree. Some performers such as Mohib Khamiso Khan have grown up with Sufi music; he is the son of legendary Pakistani flutist Akmal Qadri. Others like Riaz Ali have been trained at some of the most revered and highly regarded Sufi gharanas (houses). The Pakistani group will perform on August 18th and 19th.
Sufi music fans will be more than aware of Egypt’s own Samaa' Sufi Band. The group often perform at Al Ghouri led by Intesar Abd El Fattah, and their performances are often labelled as ‘messages of peace’. Don’t misunderstand this, though; this holds no political motivations. In fact, they are aware of the entertainment value of their performances; entertainment that comes from their skill as musicians. Any given performance can feature up to seventeen participants, all of which have an intricate part to play. Samaa’ Band may be the most captivating of the acts at the festival; their performances set them in a trance. You can see them on the August 21st, 23rd and 24th, and at the closing ceremony on the 25th.
This is no small operation; Sufi music might be a niche, but the efforts that the organisers and performers have undertaken to put the festival together are commendable. It may cater to acquired taste; but as a spectacle, the Samaa Festival is mesmerizing on every level.
According to Bakry, ‘Missing Pieces’ represents the fragmentation of the revolution: “The spirit of the revolution ended up breaking down and as time passed the sense of unity was lost and divided into different sects.” He captures this fallout by projecting the photos onto staggered, cardboard boxes, forcing a metaphor blankly contrived.
“The boxes represent two things. First, they give a feeling of waste and consumption that exist in cities like Cairo. Also, the brown boxes when laid out together give a sense of Cairo and its brown, box-like buildings. The images projected onto the boxes are broken down by missing pieces,” Bakry explains.
Every five seconds, a new image emerges. Some pictures appear amateur and blurred; others are purposefully blotched by shadows from the boxed skyline. In one image, a bearded face is framed over a Nescafe box, and in another a woman is split by a gap between the cardboard. Below her it reads: “This Side Up.”
“That was the hard part. I had to go around to supermarkets, the huge markets like Carrefour and no one understood why I wanted old boxes. Here in Cairo, it was actually easy to just buy them. But in Gothenburg you had to be there at the right time and the right place before they recycled them,” Bakry says.
Outside the curtained room at Mashrabia Gallery are mounted images from Bakry’s Gothenburg exhibition for sale but not worth the bill. A free postcard by the entrance makes a better souvenir.
At first glance the installation looks like a haphazard stack of used boxes with a random mess of photos overlaid. And at second glance, the fact remains. But if we overlook the artist’s form, one can empathize with his statement on the aftermath of the revolution and the re-emerging protests to date. “A lot of missing pieces needed to be complete again. They made the mistake of dividing, that’s why the results now are terrible. People need to reunite again,” Bakry says.