Russell Higham checks out the music on offer at the first night of Masafat, the Middle Eastern music, film and arts festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London
While the Middle East can unfortunately sometimes seem condemned to an endless downward spiral of violence and political instability, the depressing cycle of chaos and suffering hasn’t shut off the pipeline of new and innovative talent that continues to enthusiastically emerge from this troubled region.
Thursday night saw the opening of the festival Masafat at the ICA in The Mall, central London. Running for four nights there before moving on to Cairo, this two-part international festival of live music, films and discussions features a diverse range of acts from across the Middle East and North Africa. Palestinian hip-hop and Arab electronica are in the line-up of this celebration of the region’s underground and avant-garde music and arts scene, which is designed to cultivate and promote artistic and cultural exchange between the Arab world and the UK.
Nadah El Shazly, an enigmatic 26-year-old singer, songwriter and producer from Cairo kicked off the London leg with her haunting vocals combined with moody, oriental electronica. She used distorted loops of her sensual yet powerful voice to create an ambient sound, which is reminiscent of the classic singers of late 19th and early 20th century Egypt like Oum Kalthoum that she draws inspiration from. She has previously fronted a punk band and also served time performing jazz standards in the lounges of Cairo’s five-star tourist hotels but it seems that she has found her niche with an atmospheric mix of edgy keyboard work and her plaintiff singing that carries an almost other-worldly charm to it. At times throughout her performance she seemed icily aloof, detached almost from the audience who did not even seem to register with her as being present, and then, without warning, she completely bore her soul to them with gut-wrenching wails of innermost emotion. It was not always what could be called melodic in a Western sense, but it is electrifying and it touched raw nerves.
After the interval came Oren Ambarchi, Will Guthrie and Sam Shalabi (whom El Shazly has collaborated with in the past). What followed was an almost psychedelic fusion of Australian-born drummer Guthrie’s frantic percussion overlayed with Eno-esque electronic effects and minimalist guitar from fellow-Ozzie Ambarchi. Their set had a slight touch of the prog rock about it and, with the exception of Shalabi’s mellow oud playing and Ambarchi’s Iraqi-Jewish parentage, it was at times difficult to identify the connection with the Middle Eastern theme of the festival. That said, nothing detracted from the audience’s enjoyment of the performance, which rounded off day one of the London leg of the festival.
Anybody planning a holiday in Egypt later this month who wants to experience what is new and vibrant in the cultural environment of the wider region, or who simply wants to get a heads-up on what is bubbling under the surface in world music, would be well advised to check out the rest of Masafat when it moves to Cairo on September 20.
For more information, visit masafat.thirtythreethirtythree.com