Hot jazz as Fairuz's son hits town for the first time



The papers in Egypt couldn't stop talking about it - editorials, articles and advertisements. The son of Fairuz, the most famous living Arab singer in the world, and the famous composer Assi Rahbani was coming to play for the first time. Ziad Rahbani, at 54, had never before performed in Cairo. The choice of venue was bizarre - the small Sawy Cultural Centre on the island of Zamalek, a location that is usually reserved for local performers, small conferences or youth events. This time they were going all out, staging a concert for one of the biggest names in Arabic music - and it certainly showed in the ticket prices.

Normally, Sawy concert tickets range from free to 40 Egyptian pounds (roughly Dh26) maximum. These tickets were a whopping 120 pounds (Dh80), a price normally reserved for the Opera House or the grand Azhar park. There were also rumours that the Sawy centre had oversold its ticket allocation by five times, making us nervous that the concert might be more like a scrum. Rahbani is one of those eccentric yet brilliant characters. With a hawkish nose and steel-rimmed glasses, he usually appears in the press or on TV unshaven and with a stern look. He takes his work seriously, and is a rare treat to hear him sing at one of his concerts.

His performance was taking place in the middle of a heatwave, in Egypt's so-called spring. Dust and sand mixed with the infamous Cairo pollution in a muggy pall that hadn't lifted for days. We were suffocated during the day, unable to open windows at home or work and resorting to the air-conditioner to clear the air inside my flat. At night, the heat was relentless. The outdoor area in the middle of the Nile was packed at least two hours before the concert began. After an hour-and-a-half delay - and "a word from our sponsors" - Rahbani finally appeared on stage and sat down at the piano.

As well as composing classical Arabic songs for Fairuz and other artists, Rahbani's speciality is oriental and classical jazz. I'm not the greatest fan of the genre, but it was excellent live music and people were in a good mood, despite the beads of sweat trickling down their back. The real party kicked off when two singers - a young Egyptian from a local band called Wust el Balad, and a Syrian woman - came out to perform Rahbani's more famous songs, many written for Fairuz. Groups of young Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians screamed and whistled and sang along, quite often out of tune.

Before the concert a friend had been moaning there would no doubt be loads of people who had no idea who Ziad Rahbani was. But it was heartwarming to see the large number of youngsters mouthing the words and singing out loud with their eyes closed, really enjoying the classical music of their parents' generation. Rahbani started out in his early teens as a writer. In 1973, he composed his first piece of music for his mother and finally won critical acclaim when he took over composing the music for his mother's play when his father was taken ill.

He shot to fame with his song Saalouni el-Nass (The People Asked Me), and from then on his career flourished. The same friend who worried about being mobbed by a crowd of non-believers, described Rahbani as an artist with a mission, not necessarily out to give the audience what they wanted. Which might explain why he played a lot of jazz and sang only one song even though the crowd kept screaming: "Sing, Ziad, sing!" Even for the encore, he brought back the young Egyptian singer.

By the end of the night we were exhausted. Having stood for hours, our feet and backs were aching, our voices were almost gone with the singing and shouting, and the heat was making us delirious. Over the next few days local paper critics moaned about the disastrous location and asked why he hadn't sung more. Party poopers. They were just lucky to see a great star. Hopefully he'll grace us with his presence again.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo

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Director: Lee Sang-yong
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