9 dicembre 2004
First Euro Mediterranean concert for inter-cultural dialogue, with Cairo symphonists conducted by Nayer Nagui and soloist Eugenio Bennato, Italy
Vedue Main Hall, Cairo Opera house, 4 December
Since time immemorial the Mediterranean Sea has played an important part in the lives of Near and Middle Eastern, South European and North African countries. At the crossroads of three continents it has always been a privileged zone for cultural contacts, commercial relations and political conflicts. Peaceful travellers, audacious traders, ruthless warlords and mighty seamen carried their varied cargoes to one or the other of its sunny shores.
Mediterranean history goes back to the expansion of Egyptian and Aegean civilisation from the fifth to the third millennium B.C. and, later on to the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Biblos, Sidon and Ugarit, followed by Greek and Roman empires and, in morn times, by French and British supremacy over the countries of the Southern Mediterranean. Following World War II, a number of organisations and associations have been formed with the aim of bringing about a better understanding and a closer cooperation between the different Mediterranean nations of the three continents.
One of these organisations, the “Mediterranean Lab Foundation” organised the first “Euro-Mediterranean Concert for inter-cultural Dialogue” last Saturday, at Cairo Opera’s Main Hall under the title: “Let the Mediterranean be a sea of peace”. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the “Fondazione Laboratorio Mediterraneo”, in collaboration with the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Egyptian Ministry for Culture have decided to promote the first Euro-Mediterranean concert in the framework of the Italian-Egyptian intercultural meetings for the year 2003-2004.
Saturday’s concert took place under the auspices of Minister for Culture, Farouk Hosuy, Italian Ambassador to Egypt, Antonio Badini and the president of the Mediterranean Lab Foundation, Michele Capasso. It opened with the “2004 Mediterranean Culture Prize” awarded to Kamel Zoheri, president of the Council of Greater Cairo Library “for his important work in promoting inter-cultural dialogue”.
Performed by members of Cairo’s Symphonists, under the baton of Nayer Nagui, the concert was a medley of Mediterranean melodies and rhythms; presented by pianist Talal Tutunji from Jordan, musicians and singers Eugenio Bennato from Italy and Hasna el-Besharia from Algeria, with the cooperation of Fathi Salama, a well-known Egyptian musician regularly seen and heard at Cairo opera’s small hall and open-air theatre. Star of the opulent, though rather repetitive spectacle, Eugenio Bennato, was a permanent guest on stage, leaving his place in the limelight only when introducing singers such as Hasna el-Besharia, in her long white robe and colourful turban. Her homeland is the Southern Algerian Sahara, though she has been living in Paris since 1999, where she was invited to take part in the festival “Femmes d’Algerie” and where she discovered she could freely express herself through her music and her songs. Hasna el-Besharia is a celebrated musician in Algeria and mainly in the Beshar region where she lived since 1972. She is daughter of Gnawa musicians, playing popular traditional music, to which she adds her own compositions. In 2001, aged 51, she published her first album in Paris. On Saturday night, she swayed sang and played the guitar and the Gumbri, among others, while the house applauded her with screams of rapture.
The entire concert was chiefly rhythmic, with percussion occupying a privileged place among the instruments. The symphonists, too often silent, waited for their next cue, as guitars, drums and Darabokas were having their chance to dazzle. Zaina Chabane, vocalist, dancer and choreographers from Mozambique, Roberto Mennona, guitarist, Samir Tourkour on the Darabokas and a young but excellent Laura Klein at the Douf, were among the remarkable musicians of Eugenio Bennato’s ensemble. However multicultural, the concert seemedto have a further purpose: it succeded in showing that Mediterranean tunes and rhythms are similar, whether from Africa, Asia or Europe, and that they can easily be sung in Italian or in any other Mediterranean language.
Eugenio Bennato’s songs were mostly filled with nostalgic loneliness, mingled with a certain longing for happiness, at times reminiscent of a solitary voice “crying in the desert”. There were, however, moments of passion and overwhelming joy, as the dancer came on stage behind the musicians, whirling and twirling, swaying with outstretched arms, her silhouette projected on the white backdrop, resembling a bird taking flight, and suddenly stopping as the music came to a close.
At one point, Bennato told his audience that in 1998, he had written song dedicated to the boat people, those poor souls who undertook and adventurous trip northwards, to European Mediterranean shores, hoping to find kinder living conditions and better prospects. But their luck had run out and they were made to turn back with shattered dreams and broken spirits. The song was of a rather slow, melancholic beal, reminiscent of a Marche Funebre in mournful memory of the many hopes that had died.
Another song was a swift “Haila Baila”, with the return of the dancer this time on front stage, with boots and an ample frock stamping and pounding the floor while twisting and turning with the rhythm speeding to its Finale. Time had come for the dancing spree: the performer came on in a diaphanous red costume, with quick movements of her feet reminiscent of India’temple dancers. Her steps were innovative and exciting. Then came Zaina Chabane, the beautiful African lady, who gave guest ask: “Is that culture?” It may not be deemed opera-worthy culture to some, but it is part of folklore and a rich heritage, celebrating the female body in all its beauty and allure.
Songs of silver moons, of “lady beautiful”, of blue skies and velvet nights soared into the hall, while the show moved dreamily along, without a break for over 140 minutes. That night the Mediterranean made headlines, with its anthem and its exotic spectacle. There was, nevertheless, quite a lot of Deja-vu, but the ecstatic audience kept asking for more…