Jazz started as the song of the slave: spelling freedom, rebellion, even mockery. Adapting itself to local flavors, it has since found many incarnations. The idea of breaking out of a rigid musical pattern, however, remains central to jazz.
No surprise then that Ziad Rahbani, for his Oriental take on jazz, and for his outspoken and sarcastic lyrics, opened the second Cairo Jazz Festival on Thursday. Seated on stage left with only his profile visible to most of the audience, he played the piano for the first time in Egypt. More than half the audience remained standing, jostled by people moving back and forth in the audience, despite paying the inflated LE 125 for tickets.
The concert began, a half hour past its appointed time, as sounds emerging from behind the closed curtain carried an air of mystery. After two instrumental numbers, Rahabni apologized to the audience in case notes were warbled in the light which blinded the players.
Rahbani is the son of Assi Rahbani, who along with his brother, Mansour Rahbani, introduced jazz to the Arab world. As early as age 17, he composed music for his mother, legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz.
Perhaps it should not surprise one that in a thankfully non-smoking zone like El-Sawy Culture Wheel – director Mohamed El-Sawy reminds the audience not to light up – a song like “Dawerha (Pass it Around) about smoking hash, does not make the rounds.
What does surprise is that one of the most important songs of Rahbani’s career, “Ana Mesh Kafer (I’m Not a Heathen) also was not featured. Produced in the context of escalating violence during Lebanon’s civil war, this number by the self-declared atheist and communist Rahbani attacks the leaders – especially religious – for deteriorating local circumstances.
Among the gone-missing numbers was also “Shou Hal Ayyam (What Are These Days?) a satirical play on Egypt s beloved Sayed Darwish’s composition “El-Helwa Di (The Sweet One). Rahbani’s song is a retort to Darwish’s vision of a poor man’s satisfaction. The scoffing lilt in Rahbani’s voice in recordings of the song belies a lot more sourness than the promise of better times when Darwish notes this “sweetness.
Despite the running chant of “Ghanni ya Ziad (Sing, Ziad!) throughout, he only lent vocal support to one song, “Beema Enno (Since It Is So), also sung by Syrian female vocalist Manal Samaan and Wust El-Balad frontman Hany Adel. The song is a sarcastic take on poverty, centered on a family having a picnic on a pavement. The contrast between the clean surroundings and destitution provides the biggest irony in Rahbani’s playful lyrics.
The only song that evening carrying charged political overtones was “Talfan Ayyash (The Breadmaker Called) about a lying breadmaker who says all is well. Yet, the clap-along accompaniment of the crowd could solely be accredited to entertainment rather than any co-conspiratorial sentiment, summing up the spirit of the night.
Misses aside, the night had its fair share of hit numbers. The instruments sometimes introduced songs with a confident boom, and at others – in particular, the instrumental version of “A a Hadeer El-Bosta (On the Roaring of the Bus) – with more timorous entry to the hushed sound of tambourines and piano. The qanun also accompanied a few numbers, its tunes closely followed by Rahbani who turned the piano into an oriental instrument.
Many of the songs performed that night were odes on all the various shades of love. “Rouh Khabbit (Go Tell) sung by Samaan and Adel is an assertive demand by a lover asking his beloved to sing his praises to all. Adel was no doubt confident, adding some improvisations to the song.
Samaan sang “Bektob Esmak (I Write Your Name), about the disparity between the singer’s permanent love and that of her partner, whose love is transient. The ditty “Ya Leili Ya Leili (O Night) sung by both Samaan and Adel was a definite crowd-pleaser despite the simple repetitive lyrics, owing simply to the energy of the musical arrangement and the singers’ vocal reverberations.
The night ended prematurely. Festival director Amro Salah and Sawy head Mohamed El-Sawy came onstage to present Rahbani with an honorary award from the Cairo Jazz Fest.
Rahbani returned to his seat to perform the final romantic act of the night.
Once again, the salient theme of poverty popped up in the love song “Bala Wala Shi (Without A Thing) – about a love unconstrained by the concerns of money or riches, and ungoverned by the authority of parents or social norms.
As lovely as the song was, melting couples into embraces and slow dancing, singles wondered amid a jostling crowd about the irony of coughing up inflated prices even at the Sawy venue renowned for its reasonable rates.
No doubt Ziad Rahbani has fostered the spirit of jazz and voice of freedom in Lebanon, infusing irony into folk songs and everyday concerns to love odes of the Arab world.
Witnessing his popularity, El-Sawy remarked that Rahbani should perhaps be made president. Yet the Rahbani brought to this year’s jazz fest presented the ammiya (colloquial) of sweetness and love, breathing no word about smoking hash or wayward politics.
No wonder then that at the press conference on Thursday, Rahbani remained tight-lipped at the offer of an Egyptian nationality. And when singer Hany Adel bent to kiss his hand at the aftermath of the concert on Friday, the Lebanese hastily retracted it.
Rahbani will quickly be taking his hand, his jazz, and himself back to Lebanon. Maybe next time, he will let us kiss his hands.