Cairo, always a cultural center, is now a political one too. But the city's vibrant arts scene is revamping itself, with the help of the Cairo Jazz Festival - and an unusual German band.
Taking Cairo and Alexandria by storm: the German Women's Jazz Orchestra
For musicians, the most important thing in the world is making music - that's the message that Angelika Niescier, conductor of the German Women's Jazz Orchestra, would like to convey.
"When you feel that urge, then you have to keep playing, and keep learning," said Niescier, punctuating her point with hand gestures. Niecscier is passionate and animated, and when she talks about music, she uses her whole body to do it. She laughs out loud; she jokes around; she makes faces of surprise or contemplation.
Then, she stands up on stage and pours every ounce of emotion into her saxophone-playing, thrilling the audience. Her playing tells stories - of envy, suffering, passion, anger and joy, with her entire body swinging and twitching to the music.
A big weekend for Egyptians
Niescier, a composer and conductor from Cologne, recently took her 12-woman orchestra to Egypt. They first gave a concert at Alexandria's modern library and cultural center, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Then, they were one of 13 groups to perform at the three-day Cairo Jazz Festival, which ran this year from March 17-19. The festival is now in its third year.
The 12-woman group is strictly professional
Understandably, Cairo has shown little of its famous cultural side since the revolution in late January that led to the February ouster of authoritarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Jazz Festival was one of the first major cultural events scheduled in the capital since the revolution, and it took place on an important weekend: on Saturday, March 19, Egyptians were asked to vote on a referendum over changes to their constitution - the first free election in decades.
"The [festival] attendance was positively surprising; more people came every day," said Amro Salah, director of the Jazz Festival. With nearly 3,000 tickets sold, people from a wide array of cultural backgrounds came to hear performances. "It is an enormous success for us, because it tells us that we've gained the trust of a lot of people in the past three years."
It is not only the international bands that attract a wider audience to the festival, however. Educational programs and workshops, organized by the Egyptian Jazz Society, are also popular.
"It's not about politics; it's about life"
Despite its reputation as the region's cultural mecca, culture and politics used to rarely cross paths in Cairo - until January 25 of this year when protests erupted throughout Egypt.
"It was always better not to get politically involved," said Egyptian singer Noha Fikry. "Everything always stayed the same anyway, and there was little hope for any change."
But then the revolution politicized the entire nation. What once seemed impossible, has now become reality: Everyone, everywhere, is talking politics, and the Jazz Festival was no exception. For example, Fikry told the people attending her concert that they should go out and vote at the referendum, and utilize this new right.
"It's not even about politics. It's about our lives," she said.
Anti-government protesters during Friday prayers in Cairo on Feb. 11
Red for revolution
Foreign peformers who came to the festival were also "thrilled at how the Egyptian youth fought for freedom," Salah said. "They felt incredibly inspired."
For Niescier, the chance to be in Egypt at such a time made her grateful.
"It's an unbelievable experience to be in this country so soon afer such a historic moment," she said, and at the same time, she praised the organizers for going through with their festival plans despite the political upheaval.
Niescier had arranged a piece for the band's performances in Alexandria and Cairo, and dedicated it to the revolution and the Egyptian people.
"You have to honor a moment like that, " she said.
The piece, called Red - "for the color of revolution" - was the last one she and the 12-piece orchestra played on Friday evening, and it got a standing ovation.
"I hope the new regime will be more open, and will be open to music and art projects, without prejudice," Niescier said, adding that in post-revolution Egypt, she expects people to have less patience for government censorship than ever before.
Author: Amira El Ahl / jen
Editor: Louisa Schaefer