Last night I went to see a concert at the El Sawy Culture Wheel with some friends of friends. Hamid, his cousin, his brother and some friends agreed to meet me around nine and take me to see Black Theama. The band is Nubian and they have a large Nubian following, including Hamid and the crowd we met. There’s a great NPR article about Black Theama, and they’ve got some video on YouTube so you can hear the music.
At the gate we met Hamid’s cousin Ojala. She told me her name means wish or dream (and it was really hard finding a pseudonym that means the same thing! I’ve used a Spanish word that comes from Arabic.) Ojala asked me about what my name means, then about my research. She told me about her work at a new NGO teaching professional skills for free to people who can’t afford classes at AUC and the like. She spent a lot of time smiling at me, touching my arm, trying to put me at ease in such a large crowd. El Sawy appears to be one of the places that young people go to hang out together; there was a huge pack of young men and women milling about outside the gates.
Ojala wasn’t coming to the concert, she was there with her team to leaflet the crowd, but Hamid and I went in after a while and went over to stand with his friends who were drinking pepsi and smoking. There were about six or eight of them, all young men. In my head: “AAAAH! BOYS!!”
I get very nervous in groups of all men even when I’m not in Egypt, so I very shyly stood a little apart from the rest. They beckoned me in with them and after an awkward few minutes (entirely on my side, they were just chilling with each other and couldn’t care less for my self-consciousness) we went down to the concert hall.
El Sawy is built under the end of a bridge, so on one side it buts the Nile. There’s a small cafe and a sort of concrete area with tables and chairs and some lights set up for a dance floor around one of the concrete pillars, then adjacent to this is a concrete hall enclosed on three sides with a stage at the front. Next to this, away from the Nile, is a road with a pedestrian bridge over it, and on the other side of that is a garden area. The gate is on the garden side so when we came in we walked over the bridge to the concert hall side. I think there are some other halls in El Sawy, but that’s what I saw last night. I was too busy trying to keep up with the one person I sort of knew to really look around.
By the time we got down to the hall the house lights were going down and the boys wanted to rush up to the front to stand in the aisle on the side and be part of the dancing near the stage. “Maybe I’ll sit back here,” I said, chosing a chair in the very back row where I could still see everything but wouldn’t feel all crushed by the crowd.
A song or two went by. I was enjoying it but feeling pretty alone in a crowded room. Suddenly Hamid appeared and said, “there’s a chair in the front if you want to come sit with us.” I thanked him for coming to get me and he herded me through the thick crowd in the side aisle up towards the front.
The small space was packed full of revelling men, an intimidating sight to my eyes. There were some women there too, squished in like sardines but clearly enjoying it. We bullied our way through and at one point I looked back over my shoulder to see Hamid holding his arms out to either side of me like a human snowplow and I realized why I wasn’t getting as crushed as I’d expected.
When we got to the front the crowd control guy ushered me into a seat on the end of the first row next to a woman and her young daughter. It transpired that the woman works for Al-Ahram weekly, one of the English-language newspapers here in Cairo. In the intermission she did a very short interview with me, mostly of me saying “WHAT??” because my hearing was temporarily destroyed after sitting next to the speakers.
The security guard, Hamid and his friends were all extremely concerned with my personal space – they kept glancing over to make sure nobody was crowding me. At one point somebody we didn’t know tried to get in the space to my left by nudging at my chair and the security guard bullied him back against the wall.
The crowd did get rowdier as the night went on, but it was an extremely different experience from concerts in America and Britain. It was a family-friendly crowd and children were visibly present throughout the evening. Because there are no alcoholic beverages at El Sawy, people weren’t drinking and getting inappropriately emotional or violently ill as the evening progressed, they were just getting more and more excited and merry because of the music.
At one point someone did fall on me – a mistimed dance move I’m pretty sure, but I was looking the other way to film the crowd with my little camera, so I didn’t see. The security guard made me move to a recently vacated seat in the middle of the front row, abandoning the end seat to the revelries of the dancers. Oh, and at one point somebody almost set my hair on fire doing some enthusiastic swaying with a lighter during a slow song. But I escaped unscathed.
Hamid kept taking breaks from dancing with his friends to come over and ask if I was having a good time, if I liked the music, etc. I was having a GREAT time! The music was excellent and the crowd adored the band. I got a lot of footage of dancing as well – grainy, shaky, amateur digital camera footage, but it will do for my research. (I’ll try to post some video soon, scout’s honor!)
One thing that struck me was how the men belted out the words of every slow song as well as the fast ones, some of them practically acting the song out in a spontaneous group effort, getting their friends to act as both backup singers and a mock personal audience (though they were similtaneously part of the real audience) while using an imaginary mimed microphone to facilitate the whole effort. There is no way – NO WAY – a group of American men would ever get caught doing this in public, especially to a SLOW SONG. I loved seeing how the guys were allowed to show their enjoyment of the music, even very enthusiastically so, without it somehow being a threat to their masculinity.
The whole concert was great. It just had a really good vibe, the entire crowd was having a really good time. There was none of that weird tension that happens when you go to something that you think is going to be fun and then the crowd is all tense and something strange happens, ruining the whole night.
I ran out of pages in my journal while writing about this. I feel so lucky not only that I got to go to the concert but also that I got to end that particular set of pages on such a high note. More Black Theama…