El Mastaba pioneers social change through the arts
The students also gain experience as performers: they have performed in more than 15 concerts in the Canal Zone and in Cairo. These performances have attracted diverse audiences which includes a number of street children. El Mastaba has brought these students together in three bands (see LINK to Bands), produced a CD of their work and found them opportunities to perform for audiences.
Why El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music?
Prominent folklorist, Dr. Abdel Hamid Awwas, cannot value the role of traditional music too highly: according to him, it has been the cement which holds communities together. Egypt is a diverse and rich country in every sense and its traditional musical heritage is no exception. Each of the regions, and ethnic groups that comprise the geographic areas and people of Egypt have their distinct musics. Today, traditional Egyptian music has several faces: an annual Ramadan nostalgia for roots, an interlude to amuse tourists after a day of sightseeing (in a country where all but Western-style songs are excluded from the educational curriculum).
However, Egypt’s rich heritage of traditional music is at risk as a creative force. Illiteracy, poverty and low social status have led to the marginalization of traditional arts performers in Egypt despite their popularity among the poor and despite the prestige that some have acquired abroad. A variety of pressures linked to tourism and state cultural institutions eager to present popular Egyptian culture contribute to performers’ isolation and de-contextualization. Although tourist shows provide a source of income for these musicians and choreographed folklore shows are well-received by local and international audiences, the producers tend to dictate specific aspects of their art and, in extreme cases, treat the musicians not as artists, but as one more product to sell to consumers. The result has been to negate their creative voice and potential, eroding artists’ self-respect and self-confidence, seducing them away from their true voices and undermining the spontaneity and creativity of popular artistic expression. Understandably, traditional performers, even financially-successful ones, have been increasingly reluctant to pass on their skills and knowledge to a younger generation.
Educational policies put the arts on the bottom of the totem pole: most school arts programs consist of memorizing songs for an end-of-year concert or musical. Our focus is on the next generation, teaching them the music and dance of their cultures. This effort also encourages young people to value and maintain their rich cultural legacy and offers them alternatives to counter frustration, hopelessness, lack of self-esteem and the violence that stems from these.
For society as a whole to value the role of traditional musicians in the wider community, an expanded field of play and larger, more diverse audiences are required. There is a critical need to mentor and prepare traditional musicians for live performance in diverse contexts that demonstrate their importance to the larger cultural arena. We aim to expand the performance program in our new space, El Tanbura Hall with an educational program of lecture/demonstrations and documentary films to educate the public and to overcome local perception of traditional musicians as irrelevant to the ambitions of a modern nation-state, as well as to demonstrate their value as an artistic resource to contemporary artists.
We promote artistic creativity as a key player in educational and social change.
Current policies bring musicians out of their communities to perform for audiences unfamiliar with the cultural contexts of the art. By reintroducing the music to its original contexts, we can counter the trend to isolate folk music from its original communities, re- awakening the multi-layered complexity of Egyptian culture of music and arts and revitalizing the critical role it has played in the daily life and imagination of the Egyptian people.
As stated on the UNESCO website, “To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to its community.”
Before we can change policies, we need to change attitudes. We expect that the following strategies will impact on attitudes, especially as we focus on creating the critical mass that is needed for significant change:
For more information about the bands El Mastaba is currently supporting, click here.