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The Samaa Sufi Music Festival at Al Ghouri

The International Samaa Festival for Sufi Music & Chanting: Now in Cairo

reviewed by
Haisam Awad
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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-cairorevamp_usered 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.

360 Tip

Don’t be late; you may have to stand or worse yet, you’ll be refused entry.

Best Bit

Theatrical, energetic performances.

Worst Bit

The opening was a little unorganised; one performance was cut abruptly at the end of the night because of time constraints. It’s also impossible to get your hands on a detailed schedule.

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