On a quiet Sunday night, a small crowd gathered around the corner stage at Cairo Jazz Club as Noha Fekry, a jazz singer, stepped in front of the mic. Fekry, dressed in a simple black sweater dress, stood unassumingly behind the microphone belting out standards while one of Egypt’s most well-established jazz artists Amro Salah, played the keyboard accompaniment. Tonight, they were billed as the Amro Salah Trio featuring Fekry, but like most of Cairo’s musicians, is just one of many permeations in Egypt’s growing music scene.
Dimly lit, with rich red walls and copper-coloured metalwork running throughout the ceiling, the Cairo Jazz Club feels cozy and intimate even on nights when the audience is sparse. While the club is one of only a handful of venues in the city that host live music, it is the oldest, and without a doubt, has had a large hand in shaping the country’s small independent music scene.
In various incarnations, including the well-known Eftekasat, Salah has been playing at Cairo Jazz Club since it opened a decade ago. At the time, the country’s nascent music scene offered the few bands that existed no performance venue. When, Ammar Dajani, Akram El Sherif and Alex Rizk bought the club they wanted to change that. ‘From a scene perspective, there was no venue, no channel for musicians and we wanted to build that,’ Dajani says. ‘We have a vision that goes beyond the bottom line, we chose a commercial business model to fulfill cultural goals.’
In the beginning, he continues, the club had only three acts and a single live night of music a week. Now, every night offers something different and the club has become a hub for musicians and the birthplace for many of the city’s most popular acts. ‘It’s a working space for jam sessions, a place where everyone who cares about music meets to listen to musicians and bands who otherwise wouldn’t have that space to perform,’ says Salah, who also organises the club’s annual Cairo Jazz Festival, which brings together acts from around the world for an eight day jazz extravaganza.
‘There are really no places where you can go and listen to live music, and you don’t have to worry about how you look, you just show up and have fun,’ says Rizk. ‘This is what drew me to opening the club, this is how the jazz club could be and it’s a vision we all shared.’
With only one jazz night a week, the club is more jazz in spirit than line-up and is more a venue that has become a known testing ground for independent bands trying to find an audience. With different genres playing nightly, a diverse crowd of music lovers is drawn through its doors.
‘There’s a general crowd that shows up because they like the atmosphere and then there’s fans of bands, and that’s a new maturity of people to follow certain bands and not others,’ says Dajani.
As the music scene developed, the owners have helped bring musicians together, encouraged and suggested different musicians pair up who may not have ever considered collaborating, and pushed artists to try new ideas and continue growing musically.
‘I think it’s a collaborative underground scene here. It’s not big, so people help each other out because we all have one message: to try to come up with a new art for Egypt,’ says Adam Al Alfy, who plays the bass guitar for rock band Cairokee.
Because most bands are unsigned, and few have albums released, the live shows remain vital. ‘The emphasis remains on the live show in a setting where records aren’t available. But, I don’t believe any of the artists who put out
CDs these days expect to make money, it’s a calling card and marketingfor the show,’ Dajani tells us.
Over the years, the jazz club has acted as a de facto agency. Before Facebook, few bands had their own website and when people wanted to hire a live act for weddings or events, the call, inevitably, was placed to the club. In response, they launched it’s own agency in 2010. Though, only a few bands are signed on officially, the agency has paired artists with international singers brought in by foreign embassies, and helped spread awareness of Egyptian artists across the world.
Dajani spends his days in the agency upstairs from the club. The walls are covered in old show posters, and a whiteboard marks out his daily schedule for the month. Traffic noises filter in from the busy roundabout outside.
Dajani, an affable 38-year-old who grew up in Abu Dhabi looks the part of part-time musician turned businessman. With his long, curly hair pulled back into a pony tail, Dajani sits behind a large oak desk, smoking a cigarette as he explains that last year’s popular uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak was more than a political movement.
Since the revolution, he says, there’s been a rising popularity for young, independent bands that borrow Western music styles and instruments, but sing in Arabic. During the uprising, many of the Egypt’s pop stars remained silent, unwilling to support the protesters. In that vacuum, independent bands, whose pre-revolution messages explored their social and political discontent found a sympathetic audience amongst the thousands who demonstrated. The result, Dajani says, was a ‘cultural revolution’.
‘These bands have given a local alternative to Egyptian pop, that’s their appeal. It was a cultural revolution as well, so there was a new feeling of anti-mainstream, and a ‘hooray’ for everything grassroots,’ he adds.
Indeed, the club was packed on a recent Saturday night, when Cairokee took the stage. The band, which spent years struggling to relative anonymity before finding fame with its Sout Al Horreya (Sound of Freedom), whose music video shot from inside Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising in January. The song was a collaboration between three Cairokee members and Wust el Balad singer Hany Adel. Now sponsored by Coca Cola, the band was set to release its first album in January. Cairokee, according to Dajani, has made the cross into mainstream.
‘The concept of band is becoming more common, because to date, there are no bands in mainstream Arab music, just singers and stars. Now, Pepsi and Coke are fighting their corporate wars on stage with band sponsorships. Great! It’s happening and it will continue to happen.’ In the future, Dajani sees the scene becoming an industry, with its own “niches and subcultures.”
‘Basically, this is what the young ones are listening to, and when they grow up and become mainstream culture propagators, this music will become mainstream once they become mommies and daddies.’
And as it grows, Dajani is sure Cairo Jazz Club will continue to grow with it.
Photographer: Laurence Underhill