A light illuminates the nondescript building that is Makan, or ‘Place’ in English. The small, modest sign on the side is unimpressive when compared to the experience that waits inside, one of the most entertaining and culturally engaging night spots one can while away a hot summer night in Cairo.
Just a short walk from Tahrir at 1 Saad Zaghloul Street, Makan is part of a larger project by the Egyptian Center for Culture and Art to preserve traditional music.
A visit to Makan is both a cultural and social experience.
Upon entering the building, the patron is greeted by monochrome portraits of musicians rising to the ceiling. After forfeiting the LE 20, roughly $3.50, entrance fee the concertgoer is ushered into the next room full of simple but ornate wooden chairs. The rough walls surrounding the stage are decorated with multiple colored lights and memorabilia of days gone by. The atmosphere of the room in whole is that of stepping back in time.
As the lights dim the diverse concertgoers find their places. The audience ranges from Egyptian women in hijab sitting next to expats in spaghetti string shirts to old men with their grandchildren on their laps.
After they take their seats, the musicians, who are as eclectic as the audience, prepare to perform. The first singer wearing a black dress augmented with white flowers and gold petals takes center stage, the years etched into her face. Clenching a tissue in each hand, she opens her mouth and begins to tell her story. Every performer at Makan, either male or female, embodies the music whether it is a story of sorrow, joy, weakness or power.
The music fills the room, as the audience is lulled into a trance. The musicians constantly interact with the crowd – sometimes subtly, other times more overtly. The concertgoer is also encouraged to interact with the musicians by either dancing or singing along.
While Makan believes it is important to share traditional music that hails from the Nile delta all the way to Sudan, it also believes it should be preserved. Makan’s website acknowledges this music is under threat, stating, “whether this suppression is a response to local religious sentiment or to favor and imitate global media culture as an expression of progress, the result is that Egypt’s rich and diverse cultural heritage is at risk.
Makan offers an oasis in the midst of commercialized music. The lyrics are full of meaning and life, unlike the dribble that inundates us from the radio. In addition, each story-telling movement has a meaning as well, which is a sharp contrast to modern day pop. The audience responds positively to this contrast, as each nuance energizes the crowd.
In this concrete building no performance is ever the same, even though they have regular acts. The musicians improvise each performance. It is not unusual for a singer to stop in mid-note, look at the audience and musically asks if they’ve ever had a certain type of food he or she was previously singing about in a previous song. After a flavorful description the performer transitions back into the melody. In addition it isn’t unusual for the entertainers to randomly sprinkle in a joke, which amuses both them and the crowd.
After an hour of playful storytelling the musicians take a break but the concertgoers senses are still entertained with glasses of hot tea and hibiscus.
After the breaks the musicians return for another hour-long set of the same rich depictions before they release the patrons into the night.
For only LE 20, Makan offers a memorable night of colorful and unique traditional music that is sure not to disappoint.