Monday, March 07, 2005

Marjorie; 3/5/05, 5am

“Egypt is where the music comes from”

“Egyptians are the only ones in the Arab world who know how to express love in their songs and in life. Egypt is our Hollywood. It is where the music comes from, the love, the poetry. For a musician, to be admitted in Cairo is to be admitted to the world.”

Quote from an anonymous Moroccan woman we met in a Cairo nightclub.

So we traveled all night Tuesday, hardly slept, and got to Cairo Wednesday evening and headed straight to a nightclub to see a belly dancer. After the show, Liz and Andrea got up on the stage to dance with the band and people flipped out. After a couple dances, this really sweet Moroccan woman came over and asked them if they were Arabs because they danced so naturally, she was sure they were. She was raving about their dancing and apparently all the people at her table, all Egyptians, had been taking bets about whether the girls were Arab. Oh and she also brought a message from one of the Egyptian guys at the table: He wanted to marry Liz. Right there and then.

So when the woman found out we were musicians, this was what she said about Egypt. To be famous in Middle Eastern music, you have to first be famous in Egypt. So Raquy is passing through the gate and she seems to be on her way to becoming famous here. Oh also, our new friend, whose name I have to withhold in case her husband is reading this blog, said she has been having a passionate love affair with an Egyptian for eight years and that is how she knows Egyptians are the only ones who know how to love. Her lover is also married, she comes here for business and they have a rendevous. That was our first night.

A prayer before practice

Said El Artiste began the first rehearsal of his dumbek orchestra with Raquy tonight with a prayer. Before they played anything, Said led his whole group of nine drummers in a short prayer-- they recited the opening words of the Koran. Besides being a phenomenal dumbek player and composer, Said appears to be a very spiritual person. I noticed that he and his brother both had this same “birthmark” on their forehead, it was like three spots in a triangle shape. So I asked him about it, and it turns out, not a birthmark. They are like callouses on the forehead from bowing your head to the ground when they kneel down to pray. On the wall of his office is a beautiful picture with 100 names of Allah. He told us he doesn’t care if anyone copies his music because his music is between him and God. But he is also a total rock star, you would never know by looking at him or watching him perform how spiritual he is. You can really feel the beauty of Islam all around this city. All the little shops that sell food in our neighborhood have radios on and instead of music, they are listening to Koran chanting, which is like beautiful music. We got right onto the Egyptian musician’s schedule which means we stay up till dawn every night. Right before we go to bed, there is a call to prayer and it is so beautiful and haunting. You fall asleep listening to that. Also this morning when I was sleeping, I heard the Friday prayers being chanted for hours. It was very soothing. Oh, Raquy said some of teachers, when they hear the call to prayer, stop the lessons and kneel down to pray. When we practiced earlier at Raquy’s house, we stopped playing during the call to prayer so we wouldn’t bother anyone praying. So you can see life here is played to a different rhythm.

Said’s drum troupe

At one point, we were sitting in Said’s office and he broke out the scrapbooks and we saw pictures of his whole ensemble. So they are about 40 drummers -- six of them are women—even though we have never really seen another woman in his studio. Only nine of the troupe were at the rehearsal tonight for the big upcoming concert. So the troupe is divided up into different smaller groups who do play the different styles of different parts of Egypt. They play the drums of their region and also wear the costumes. They have the Saidi guys from Upper Egypt (the south cause that’s how the Nile flows, as they say) who play a drum called a Nakhrazan, they are round and played with sticks tied around their necks. They have Nubians, who play frame drums, the women do the Zar, or trance ceremony. He is really trying to keep all the percussion traditions of Egypt alive and also to elevate dumbek to a solo instrument. Said doesn’t play for dancers anymore, he used to, and now says he has moved beyond that because “dancers are crazy.”

Misc. stories from Cairo

Shopping at a pharmacy at 5 a.m.
The first night we got here, after our nightclub experience we did a little shopping at 5 a.m. on Kasr el ayni, the main drag in our neighborhood in Garden City. Cairo is such a lively, all night town. Maybe because it’s so hot in the summer, people are used to getting stuff done really late at night when its cooler. So there are plenty of shops open at 5 a.m., including food, tea and yes, even a pharmacy. So we stopped in to purchase some things. Meanwhile, my flip-flops I was wearing had broken and I couldn’t walk in them. So after a while of just hanging out and getting what we needed, the pharmacist told me he also had shoes upstairs. So we went upstairs and did some shoe shopping at 5 a.m. at a pharmacy in Cairo. These guys who work there were asleep on the floor and I was trying on shoes. When I came downstairs, one of the 10 guys who were still working in the empty pharmacy in the early morning was trying to sew my broken shoe together with a needle and thread. Just another thing you’d never see in NYC.

Rami’s drivin’ like an Egyptian
Said’s studio is in El Haram, a neighborhood near the pyramids where a lot of musicians live near many of the big music clubs of Cairo. It takes about an hour to get out there in completely insane Cairo traffic. Rami drives us out there in his grandfather’s car. Behind the wheel, Rami’s Egyptian blood really comes out. He’s weaving madly in between lanes and screaming at everyone in Arabic and practically crashing into pedestrians who just dart in and out of traffic every two seconds like it’s not actually a life-risking thing. And did I mention, the air in Cairo is about 99 parts exhaust fumes and one part actual air.

Lebanese riqs vs. Egyptian riqs
My first day here I took a riq lesson with Rami’s riq teacher, Ustaz Ashraf (seen in an earlier blog channeling the spirit of Mahmud Hammuda) , who is adorable. He came to the lesson in a suit and tie. Rami had warned me that he didn’t think much of our expensive Lebanese kevork riqs, possibly for nationalistic reasons, they think Egyptian riqs are much better. He really tried to be diplomatic when I asked him if he liked my riq, but I could tell by the way he kept grabbing it out of my hands and giving me his riq to play, what he really thought. So he showed me a lot of cool stuff in Egyptian rhythms and at one point, I was struggling with something and he gave me his riq and right away I got it and it clicked in. So I said, it must be the Egyptian riq. He LOVED that. We instantly bonded and he wanted to know when our next lesson was. After the lesson we went out for a coffee in an “Ahwa” or coffee house.

Finally, our apartment
Our apartment is totally gorgeous, first of all it’s absolutely huge, at least four times the size of my apartment in Williamsburg. The space is such a luxury after New York life. The ceilings are about 12 feet high and it is like really old world in a kind of decrepit but nice building. It is in a neighborhood of lots of beautiful villas and fancy embassies and stuff. So we have a giant living room and dining room with a huge terrace outside of both looking out at beautiful trees and house. Three huge bedrooms, one of which is taken up only by Andrea’s belly dance costumes. Two bathrooms, big kitchen. There is so much space. The first night all three of us slept together in my bed though cause we talked until dawn then just fell asleep. You are all invited to come visit.