Live music is exceedingly rare in Cairo, except for the Opera House and couple of clubs hosting mostly local talent. So when I heard that Gilberto Gil was coming to town as part of the fledgling Cairo Jazz Festival, I made sure to get a ticket. The event was planned for Al-Azhar Park, a gem-like green space developed on a slight elevation in the city’s medieval quarter by the Agha Khan Foundation a few years back. Aside from stunning views of historic central Cairo, the park has palm lined passages and grassy knolls, elegant restaurant and cafeteria buildings and a small artificial lake, beside which the stage for Gilberto Gil had been erected.
The price of a seat was around $18, high by local standards, but for $10 you could sit on the grass, and the stage was thoughtfully situated so that people who could only afford the park entry ticket ($1) could also enjoy the Brazilian sounds. Gilberto Gil is a charismatic performer but he was accompanied by only a second guitarist and a drummer, so things started out a bit slow. Those of us hoping for the big band and backup singers were a tad disappointed, but the setting was so peaceful and civilised, we contentedly settled down to an hour or so with a masterful artist.
Cairo has been frankly miserable lately, between ongoing street fights and a floundering government, the city has never felt so harried or looked so rundown. The tension in the capital is palpable, with the value of local currency plummeting, prices soaring and a few million tourism-sector jobs now obsolete.
Unseasonably hot weather contributes to the malaise as do gas shortages, resulting in daily lines in front of service stations, often several kilometres long. Microbus drivers, who offer the main transport option for the general public, have repeatedly formed convoys blocking major arteries in protest of the shortages, to no avail. The shortages have lasted months, trying people’s sorely strained patience and making moving around Cairo, never an easy prospect, an epic struggle.
No one in government has offered either a sensible explanation or solution. For a country right next to the world’s biggest gas station, Saudi Arabia, the irony is almost too much to bear.
One of his opening songs suggested Gilberto knew something about his audience. It was a bossa nova-fied version of a Bob Marley tune everyone knows: ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’.
Gil’s uncustomary rendition made it unrecognisable at first, but when he reached the refrain the audience emitted a collective, audible sigh.
To worry or not to worry: that is the question that plagues us all.
For a moment, that we should be listening to music in the midst of the maelstrom seemed incongruous.
Egypt is nowhere near as fraught as some of its neighbours, but the situation is nonetheless grim, especially considering the joyless religious types who dominate government and public discourse and who would prevent such gatherings if they could.
Responding to Gilberto’s bittersweet cue, people started singing those simplistic yet comforting lyrics, first softly then raucously. ‘Don’t worry, about a thing/’cause every little thing/ gonna be all right’!
Gilberto cranked up the rhythm and people left their seats to dance at the foot of the stage.
After the show we filed out, smiling and chatting, our worries temporarily forgotten. And with a nearly full moon illuminating the 1400 years of history spread out around us, we could almost believe that everything would indeed be all right.
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