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Veteran musicians in Egypt revive past classics

“Modern songs are a hit for a day or two, a month, or maybe a year, but then we do not hear about them any more.”

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Tamer Attallah (L), drummer, Hani El Dakkak (C), lead singer and guitarist, and Mahmoud Siam (R), guitarist for Egyptian rock band Massar Egbari, warming up -AFP

Standing before a rapt crowd, Ahmed Adel oozes charm with his passionate performance of an Egyptian classic, evoking a romantic nostalgia for Arabic songs of the past.

After a melodious introduction on the Oud, the famed oriental lute, Adel croons his way through a “Mawal”, a traditional melody boasting long vowels.

“Ya leil” (“O night”), he sings, with the dreamy languor of the original performer, Egyptian legend Mohamed Abdel Wahab. 

With cheers of “Allah!”, the mesmerised audience shows its appreciation.

“Modern songs are a hit for a day or two, a month, or maybe a year, but then we do not hear about them any more. 

“But Abdel Wahab and (Egyptian diva) Umm Kulthum have lasted until today,” said Adel, before his performance in the tiny Mamluk-era hall at the Arab Music Institute.

Egypt, a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, has long enjoyed a booming music industry.

In the past, the rise of revered singers, such as Umm Kulthum, Abdel Wahab and another Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafiz among others, saw Cairo billed as the Hollywood of Arab song, attracting talent from across the region.

But in the 1990s, Gulf countries vying for cultural dominance emerged as rivals to Egypt’s music industry, and Rotana, the Arab world’s largest record label, was formed in 1987.

The company is currently owned by businessman and Saudi prince, Al Walid bin Talal.

The 2011 uprising in Egypt that plunged the country into political and economic chaos also saw a downturn in the domestic music industry.

Yet the Egyptian metropolis remains alive with the sound of music.

Every day, in local cafes and homes the melancholic songs of Syrian-born star Asmahan and the tender rhythmic melodies of Egyptian singer Najat al-Saghira mix with animated conversations, modern pop music and Islamic chants.

Torn between stage fright and joy, Adel performs regularly at the Arab Music Institute paying tribute to his music idols.

During events such as the “Khulthumiat” (the music of Umm Kulthum) or “Wahabiyat” (the music of Abdel Wahab), organised by the 100-year old institute, Adel is often the lead singer with an entire troupe from the Cairo Opera House accompanying his powerful vocals.

“These events are very successful,” said Jihan Morsi, the seminal director of the opera’s Oriental Music department.

And to soar above Cairo’s 24-hour cacophony, she doesn’t just look to golden oldies.

“I bring (pop stars like) Angham, Saber El-Robai, Wael Jassar. They are beautiful voices that have an audience among the youth,” said Morsi.

Music production companies are also seeking to preserve the country’s music heritage through younger generations.

Sawt al-Qahira, or Sono Cairo, a historic record company, is betting on the internet despite financial setbacks and ongoing legal battles over the copyright to Umm Kulthum songs.

Known as the “Star of the Orient,” Umm Kulthum’s voice is still considered the Arab world’s finest, more than four decades after her death.

And with its wide variety of classics, the record label has struck deals with YouTube and other mobile application companies to keep this heritage alive.

Younger generations have also shown a renewed interest in the classics thanks to popular televised talent shows.

“Arab Idol, The Voice and others show people singing old songs,” said Doaa Mamdouh, the company’s internet services head, adding this has prompted many fans to dig out the original versions.

Classic black and white music video clips struggle, however, to compete against today’s torrent of slick, ultra-modern videos.

Rising artists from such places as Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates harness millions of views on YouTube, usually singing in their own dialects.

Egypt’s music scene remains vibrant, including electro Shaabi music, an exuberant popular blend seen by purists as too raucous.

And there is a new genre known as alternative, or “underground”, which has emerged in recent years.

The band Massar Egbari, which roughly translates as Compulsory Detour, rose to fame with a relaxed style of rock and a distinctive performance of classics, such as by Sayed Darwish often called “the father of modern Arab music”.

Although the rock stars say they are influenced by classics, they don’t want to live in the past. 

“Nowadays you can record something at home at a low cost,” said bassist Ahmed Hafiz. “After every era, something new appears, these are phases.”

The band, whose style its guitarist and vocalist Hani el-Dakkak describes as a blend of Sayed Darwish and rock band Pink Floyd, is also trying to distinguish itself through its message.

“We try in our lyrics to talk about social problems or things that nobody else will speak about,” said el-Dakkak.

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Culture & Tourism

Old Moroccan City of Fez, lures tourists from across the globe

The imperial city, Morocco’s “spiritual” capital has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh.

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A view of the tannery in the 9th century walled Medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez

In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of  Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s “spiritual” capital is bustling with visitors due to major renovations and low-cost flights. “It is an open-air museum, with the largest pedestrian zone in the world and its 10,000 alleyways,” said Yassir Jawra, vice president of the Fez tourism commission.

Fez “is the spiritual capital of Morocco, famed for its culture and its (age-old) handicraft work,” he added. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros, $103 million) of investment have been poured into the city of Fez to restore the 9th-century walled medina and develop tourism.

A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez
A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The medina, home to the world’s oldest working library, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its “outstanding universal value”. Guardian of priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine, the library is nestled in the maze of narrow and dark alleyways which tourists and donkey-drawn carts can struggle to navigate.

Like many monuments it has been renovated after the authorities in the late 1980s sounded the alarm in a report saying that more than half of the buildings in the medina were crumbling and 10 percent were threatened with ruin following years of neglect and a lack of public funds.

Behind the high crenellated walls that surround the medina lie 9,000 historical houses, 11 madrassas, 83 mausoleums, 176 mosques and 1,200 handicraft workshops. Patrician palaces with their secret gardens and terraces, elegant fountains and ancient caravansary, or inns, are among the jewels lying there to be discovered.

Respect ‘authenticity’

According to Fouad Serrhini, head of the Agency of Development and Restoration tasked with rehabilitating the medina, “thousands” of buildings and monuments have been saved from ruin since 2013. “They were chosen according to their state of degradation and how urgently the work was needed,” he said.

In all, 4,000 buildings were saved between 2013 and 2018, while 27 monuments were restored. In mid-April, King Mohammed VI visited Fez to inaugurate some buildings that had been renovated and launch the second phase of the rehabilitation programme.

A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez
A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Following his visit, authorities issued a report insisting that the rehabilitation work respect the medina’s “authenticity” and “original architecture”.

“The ancient medina is a live treasure, hidden and secret, which cannot be taken lightly,” said Salim Belghazi, a 33-year-old who has transformed his 14th-century riad, or traditional family home, into a private museum. Belghazi, who hails from a wealthy background, said he hopes that despite the transformation, Fez will maintain its soul.

Ancient tanneries in Fez

Meanwhile, tourists are flocking to Fez, where the regional Fes-Saiss airport has undergone an expansion to accommodate the growing number of visitors and low-cost flights mainly from across Europe.

The number of passengers has jumped from 108,000 in 2004 to more than a million in 2018, according to official figures. But Marrakesh remains the country’s top tourist destination, with more than two million arrivals in 2017.

Tourism is a major source of revenue for Morocco, which received more than 12 million visitors in 2018, according to official figures. Abderahim Belkhayat, head of a regional body of artisans, said the influx of visitors to City of Fez “benefits” craftsmen, noting that three-quarters of the medina’s residents earn a living directly or indirectly from the sector.

Local authorities have mapped out a “vision” to revamp the sector by giving it a “new look” in order to produce “high quality” crafts, he said.

A 2005 official report indicated that in the long term, authorities hope to transform the medina into a “showcase” of handicrafts while the workshops themselves would be relocated outside the walls. So far, 6,000 potters and brass and copper workers have been moved into zones with modern infrastructure and tanners are expected to follow suit in a separate location.

The idea is to rid the medina of the cacophony of noise emanating from brassware and potter workshops as well as the pungent odours that rise from the ancient tanneries – the later a “must” stop on the tourist circuit.

Tourists, their noses covered with mint leaves to ward off the stench, congregate on terraces overlooking the tanneries to snap pictures of the men working below, using the same methods as their ancestors did.

The tanners stand almost knee-deep in large vats containing quicklime, cow urine, salt and water to clean the hides, which they will later soak in pigeon poop and water before the dying process can begin.

But the sight seems to delight the visitors and the end result, such as leather belts and bags sold in the boutiques, proves popular with buyers.

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Culture & Tourism

Nigerian musician, Alex Boyé drops two new singles

Alex Boye is fast becoming a popular figure for his uplifting and elevating musical sound

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Alex Boyé is a Nigerian musician who has been in the music industry for 25 years. He became popular for his uplifting and elevating musical sound. Since then, Boyé has gone on to become an important voice in the Nigerian music scene.

And now, his support for mental health campaigns -by adding his voice to suicide prevention efforts -has earned him due commendations and honour.

Alex Boyé appeared on one of America’s best-known talent shows, America’s Got Talent. With his signature white mark under his right eye, a boisterous spirit and great charisma, he took to the stage and impressed the judges with his energy and music.

In 2017, he was named the “2017 Rising Artist of the Year” in a contest sponsored by Pepsi and Hard Rock Cafe.

His rendition of the “Lord’s Prayer” in Kiswahili three years ago has over 11 million views on YouTube, while his Africanized cover version of “Let It Go” has more than 102 million views.

In all, Boyé, an independent artist, has 1 billion YouTube views.

Keeping to his promise, Boye released two songs, “Still Breathing” and “Bend, Not Break”.

In a press release, Boyé says, “‘Bend Not Break’ is a song that encourages people considering suicide to look beyond their current circumstances and make a different choice; to bend and not break, while “Still Breathing” shares the thoughts of someone who attempted suicide but survived.

After some time, they recognize the gift of life again and are grateful that they’re still breathing.”

Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, requested permission to use Boyé’s song as their main theme song for Suicide Prevention Week and its message during Mental Health Awareness Month.

On 25th April 2019, Boyé will be honored with the 2019 Erase The Stigma Leadership Award presented by the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services Agency.

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Central Africa News

Equatorial Guinea struggles to diversify economy with tourism

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea

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equatorial guinea
A person sits on a chair on the artificial beach of the Sofitel Hotel, in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

Gleaming but eerily empty, the luxurious Sipopo resort with its five-star hotel and exclusive facilities rises from a tropical beach, symbolising the dilemma of Equatorial Guinea — a notoriously closed country that has turned to tourism to help fill its coffers.

The purpose-built town was carved out of an ancient forest in 2011 at a cost of 600 million euros, initially to host a week-long African Union summit and showcase the rise of the oil-rich state.

A 16-kilometre drive from Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, the resort boasts a vast conference centre, the Sofitel Malabo Sipopo Le Golf hotel, as well as 52 luxury villas — one for every head of state to attend the summit — each with its own swimming pool.

There is also an 18-hole golf course, several restaurants and exclusive beaches guarded by police.

The swimming pool and the garden of the Sofitel Hotel in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. – In Sipopo, a seaside resort built, on the outskirts of Malabo, to host an African Union summit in 2011, there is an absolute calm. With few cars and even fewer pedestrians, the place struggles to attract businessmen and tourists. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea to diversify an economy badly hit by a slump in oil revenue.

But the town, seemed quite empty — an impression strengthened by conversations with people who live or who work there.

“It’s depressing, there’s no-one,” said a visiting Gabonese consultant.

A worker, who asked not to be named, said the complex was quiet year-round: “You can hear the sound of your own footsteps.”

The occasional visitors tend to be well connected, rich and in search of privacy, the sources said.

Many are guests of a government described by Human Rights Watch as corrupt and repressive.

One of the villas, according to the sources, was occupied by former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh after he fled his country in 2017.

Empty lobby

At Easter, the 200-room hotel’s guests included a Spanish couple on honeymoon, a few families and some businessmen, who were all foreigners.

In the echoing lobby, a huge black and white portrait of the country’s 76-year-old authoritarian president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema — Africa’s longest-serving ruler — hung on the wall, watching over the vacant reception area.

A 1.5-kilometre beach — an artificial shore secluded from curious eyes — was virtually deserted, in contrast to a public beach near the capital. The three-lane highway leading from Malabo to Sipopo was mostly empty of traffic.

The inside of the conference centre in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

A hospital was added after the villas were built, but is unused, the sources said.

In 2014, a mall was built at the resort to house 50 shops, a bowling alley, two cinemas and a children’s play area.

But a hotel receptionist said the complex was not open yet, adding: “If you want to buy a souvenir, you will have to go to Malabo.” At night-time, shiny limousines arrived at a luxury restaurant to drop off diners.

Tourism hopes

Located on the mid-Atlantic coast of central Africa, Equatorial Guinea has flooded social media with messages of its allure as a holiday destination.

Plans to build a new passenger terminal at the airport in Bata city have also just received a 120-million-euro injection from the Development Bank of Central African States.

Figures for visitors are unavailable, and the tourism ministry in Malabo did not respond to requests for information. In the latest global compilation of figures posted by the World Bank, the number of tourists for Equatorial Guinea has been left blank.

But much of the tourism in evidence are business people, such as oil company workers, relaxing for a few days, or attending energy or economic conferences.

A few travel firms offer trips tailor-made for both luxury and adventure, but they also allude to the difficulties, notably of being allowed to enter the country.

Two people walk on the green of the Sofitel Hotel to play golf, in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

“The country has been a mystery to outsiders, who were discouraged from entering by a difficult visa process and a lack of tourism infrastructure,” says the website of British tour operator Undiscovered Destinations.

The firm claimed, however, that “things are changing fast… with an excellent road network and numerous hotels springing up seemingly overnight.”

Few Equatoguineans have the chance of staying in such places. At Sipopo’s hotel, a basic room costs the equivalent of more than 200 euros ($224) a night, while exclusive accommodation tops 850 euros.

The discovery of vast oil reserves off the coast in the mid-1990s has boosted the country’s gross national income to a theoretical annual $19,500 per person per year, according to the UN Development Programme.

But that wealth benefits a small elite among the country’s 1.2 million inhabitants. More than two-thirds of Equatoguineans live below the poverty line, and 55 percent of the population aged over 15 are unemployed.

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