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Thursday, 7 January 2010

Makan Center - Saad Zaghloul St, Downtown, Cairo

Imagine a multi-layered music – a Miles Davis base, with a large quantity of traditional Egyptian flute music, Sudanese drumming, a cup of Osibisa, just a pinch of Jan Garbarek and the tiniest hint of Led Zeppelin and you will have some idea of the wonderful music produced by Nass Makan.

On Tuesday night I went to a concert at the Makan Center with friends. It was my 5th or 6th visit to this amazing little venue in DownTown Cairo, right by the Saad Zaghloul memorial and bang opposite the property tax office. When I say ‘little’ it is TINY. I estimate maximum capacity around 120 people and that would be cramped! The atmosphere is intimate and embracing – you feel very much part of the performance there.

The Makan Center is run by the Egyptian Center for Culture & Art whose stated aims are:

“... to record and present traditional music and musicians in Egypt as vibrant and renewable cultural resources that bridge Mediterranean and sub-Saharan African cultures. ECCA further encourages efforts to re-awaken the multi-layered complexity of Egyptian culture of music and arts, to return the music to the critical role it has played in the daily life and imagination of the Egyptian people, to counter the trend to isolate it from its original communities, to share this rich resource with the world community and, by presenting it in new contexts to encourage perception of this music as a resource for creativity.”
It is very much aimed at keeping the traditions alive and evolving without relegating them to touristic curiosities.There are usually two performance residencies a week on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings - Nass Makan and Mazher respectively, at 9pm and it costs 30LE on the door to get in, 20LE if you reserve in advance. On Tuesday next, though, there is a Sudanese evening.

Nass Makan brings together Egyptian and Sudanese musicians and adds a new twist. This was the group performing on Tuesday:

From right to left: the 'double-flute' player (sorry I don't know the correct names of the instruments) and next to him the 'single-flute' player. Then we have the saxophonist and the trumpeter. The guitarist is sitting in the front there.

The rhythm guitarist is not very clear in this picture, but he is in the corner between the trumpeter and the drummer.

Moving round and down you see the women drummers (traditional style drums) in the left hand corner and a male drummer sitting next to them. He also took a solo turn singing and drumming later. At the front you can see the guy who played the traditional stringed instrument - reminiscent of a harp.

There were 3 main singers taking solo turns. Unfortunately, the photo of one of them did not come out, but here are two of them:

This guy was the main singer. I have seen him perform several times now.

This woman also appears regularly and she took the floor twice as a singer and traditional drummer.

The evening kicked off with a piece very strongly reminiscent of Miles Davies. I didn’t make notes because I thought I would remember – but I should have if I’m going to play ‘reviewers’ any time soon as I can't recall the exact order of events now.Over the course of the evening, various blends of music came with echoes and hints of different jazz and blues performers from my past as I mentioned above. It really was the most fantastic time and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another great time is to be had at the Mazher evenings where women performers very much take the lead with a blend of Egyptian, Sudanese and African music. Even though I don't understand the words, it is obvious that some of their songs are very witty and maybe a bit cheeky.

There are also occasional guest musician evenings, I went to one starring a Sudanese female drummer (and rhythm maker - she used a giant pestle and mortar to make the sounds for part of her set) and people were all up and dancing. Actually, I think she is the one performing next Tuesday evening!

The venue

As I said above, it is tiny. There is a downstairs performance area where most of the audience sit, mainly on wooden chairs or on floor cushions. There is also a very small upstairs balcony area.

In the interval, there is chai (no milk) and kirkadee (hot) to be had. There are no canned drinks of any sort.

There is a toilet in the entrance lobby - with the name The Control Room on the door. It is unisex and there always seem to be small boxes of laundry detergent in there - I have been several times over the past 4 years and it is always there! I think there is another toilet towards the rear where the artists' dressing room was, though I think that this may now have moved part way up the staircase.

The venue itself is very easy to find. Come to Saad Zaghloul Metro station which is one stop from Sadat metro station - Tahrir Square - on the Helwan branch. Come out of the metro, take the Mansur Street exit. Look across the road and you will see the huge SZ memorial. If by chance you come out of a different exit, find the SZ memorial along Mansur Street, turn so that it is on your left, and walk up the street not very far at all, and you will see the Makan Center immediately on the first corner after the memorial. Prior to the performance you will often see a crowd of people outside so this should be a strong hint! I timed the metro journey on Tuesday, and from descending the steps in Tahrir to Sadat Station, to actually arriving at the front door of the venue took exactly 10 minutes. Really, there is no need to drive there at all.

It is actually walkable from Tahrir in about 20-30 minutes if you check out a map first.

Many people are not aware of the Center's existence, including taxi drivers, and the name Saad Zaghloul is very difficult for foreigners to pronounce so if you are planning to use a taxi - or even may need to ask for directions - it is as well to have it on you written in Arabic:

سعد زغلول

If the worst comes to the worst, it is almost directly opposite the Property Tax Office at 15 Mansur Street so you may have more luck asking for that!

Here's a link to the street map

Note that the black Ms are Saad Zaghloul Metro station. There is actually another entrance in a straight line with those towards the bottom of that map and you may well come up that one (it's the one I almost always come up so it's as well to know it's there!)

Note also that there are no cafes or eating houses to be found near there (well not that I have managed to encounter yet) so eat before you go there.

And most importantly, have a GREAT time!!!

Here's a link to the Makan Center Facebook group: ECCA

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