Imam Bocelli: the latest creation of Basem Darwisch

From mixing melodies, lyrics and folklore of different origins and styles to having a Christian Coptic hymn playing along with Muslim chants, including an Imam singing Opera, Cairo Steps celebrates the musical union of cultures.

Discovering Cairo Steps

Cairo Steps’ performance started with « Gnossienne no 1 » of the famous French composer Erik Satie.

First, you hear a piano. Then, oud is introduced, spicing it up. You listen and your interest grows. E-bass and Kanoun sounds kick in, sensationally. Feelings are intensifying, the mixture is unique. Sax hits in along with other strings and you start wondering whether it is the piece of Satie, or Ali Baba. It is a really striking and overwhelming composition that takes the audience in a sort of spiritual journey not knowing where you are heading. However, you are sure to feel the luxury of the symphonies, the breeze of the desert wind and you sink into another reality of Aladdin who might be in Chateau de Bolois. While you are carried into this original experience, you are wondering what is a blind imam doing in the middle of the stage.

Suddenly, a dim voice strikes you. It is not the usual opera shrilling voice. You start to realize it is Arabic, while the voice gets louder, yet soft. The magical voice suits well the music and the loud note the imam hits makes you wonder if he is Bocelli in disguise. You ask yourself, what is more interesting: the imam singing opera, the orientelized Gnosseinne piece or a blind man singing « Ya Rab » as he is reciting a religious islamic Sufi chanting?

Composed of 8 Egyptians and 6 German musicians, Cairo Steps is the latest project of Basem and is led by the German conductor, Sebastian Müller-Schrobsdorff. Basem expressed deep concerns prior to the concert. « What will be the reaction of the Egyptian audience? » he asked. This question comes from the knowledge of the recent tension in the Muslim-Christian community in Egypt. Basem was relieved when the first chant ended in huge applauds and cheers from the audience. « They understood my message and I reached their hearts » he said. « I was stressed out, but as Imam Ehab started to sing it all went away » he added.

Finding an Imam: Ehab Yonis

How to find a singer – whom comes usually from a religious school and background – to perform a Christian hymn in a jazz band? Imam Ehab Yonis didn’t mind the idea right from the beginning. Actually, it is a bit surprising that his first reaction was completely rational and open to the idea. Especially that Basem found an acceptable understanding that suited everyone: they would only sing about God and avoid controversial topics like crucifixion.

The only common concern was how to communicate with the other members, as concerts need a high level of coordination and practice. The secret solution was actually quite simple. Basem came with a brilliant code of communication, which is simply to use musical instruments to deliver messages. For example, certain Oud tunes mean Imam Ehab has to hit a high pitch. All of this happened over a night, as Imam Ehab only participated once in a rehearsal – one night before the concert due to some issues.

Cairo Step’s Opera struggle

As Basem’s ultimate goal is to promote coexistence in Egypt, he aimed to perform there. However, Egypt Opera House refused his first proposal, as they would not let « a man wearing a jellaba on the biggest Arab opera stage ». Still, Basem relentlessly tried to make it happen and he successfully convinced them of the importance of the concert message. The night of the concert finally arrived, bearing the concerns of the German band, the Opera issue, lack of time and practice, religious concerns, and finally whether the audience of high society would appreciate the unusual dress and theme. As soon as the band finished their first piece, the audience preceded it with a 10 minutes applauds. Basem’s eyes were filled with tears throughout the night as he saw « hijabs »  and « crosses » among the audience sitting next to each other and enjoying the music.

Finally, it is important to highlight that the concert in Egypt required a lot of preparations and set ups which costs a whole lot. However, the Egyptian audience can’t afford much, thus it minimizes the incomes. Basem emphasized that he pays from his own pocket each time he performs in Egypt, but it is all worth delivering the message. Elsewhere, the concert generates bigger revenue that helps keep running the band.

For more information on Cairo Steps, discover their Facebook page.