Stara highlights tense gap between state, commercial and alternative arts
Naguib al-Rihany Theater - Courtesy: Mostafa Abdel-Aty

When Stara was set to launch at Emad Eddin Street’s Naguib al-Rihany Theater, it caught newspaper headlines and excited many who follow Egypt’s “alternative” art scene.

With so few spaces to perform and rehearse, the non-state-affiliated art scene is always jubilant to see new venues sprouting — especially when a proper theater, with a rich history, promises to host alternative musicians and arts workshops.

Naguib al-Rihany Theater was converted from a cinema and run by film and theater star Youssef Wahbi between 1922 and 1934. As “The Ritz,” it was later taken over by Naguib al-Rihany, another acting icon, and after his death in 1949 the state renamed it after him.

The Ebiary family currently rent it from Rihany’s heirs. It’s a family affiliated with the commercial and state side of art-making — playwright Ahmed al-Ebiary, and his sons, TV actor Tarek al-Ebiary and Sherif al-Ebiary of DJ Academy. Abo al-Soud al-Ebiary, Ahmed’s late father, was one of the most respected comedy writers of his time, known for his collaborations with comedian Ismail Yassin in the 1940s and 1950s.

The theater was renovated in 2000 and shut down in the wake of the revolution.

“Downtown was a no-go zone, but now it’s back,” Sherif al-Ebiary tells me when I visit the theater, explaining that it re-opened in December 2014 with Baba Gab Moz (Daddy Brought Bananas) a play written by his father and starring Talaat Zakaria, an actor best known for his public denouncement of the protesters during the January 25 revolution.

Its facade now boasts a large well-lit banner promoting that production, and while its entrance is modest, the main hall itself is grand, with a large wooden stage fit for a wide range of performances.

A split of interests

The Stara project was meant to open on February 9 with performances by Aya Metwalli, Abdalla al-Miniawy and Ahmed Salah, all progressive, respected musicians in the “independent” scene. The event was then postponed until February 22, with organizational issues cited. A week prior to the newly scheduled event, it was canceled altogether.

On February 15, visual artist, designer and events organizer Mostafa Sabri, known as Tefa, who, as Ebiary’s partner in Stara, was managing its concerts, made a statement on Facebook.

Apologizing for the cancelation, the statement declared that Sabri and his team are no longer affiliated with Stara. It said that his former partner, the Ebiary family’s Co-Media House, was requesting that each song be submitted to the state’s censorship authorities for approval, and that each musician have a permit to perform. It also mentioned that they demanded 20 percent taxes to be paid on concerts and that the bands also be taxed.

“We cannot become a tool for the state to control the underground music scene,” the statement read. “We are presenting art, not business, and art does not await anyone’s permission.”

Ebiary explains to Mada Masr that the requests were completely legal, and that they have to work within the established legal framework to ensure the theater stays out of trouble. He notes that it is a large establishment employing 300 people, and therefore has a responsibility to the project and employees to work within the law.

Artists are legally required to have commercial registration and tax cards, Ebiary says, and music must be sent to the authorities not only for approval but to protect the artists’ intellectual property from copyright infringement.

“We wanted to have a space for young artists who want to rise from being underground to being professional artists,” he explains, saying that working within the state’s legal framework allows for more fame and money, and the state provides security for shows.

“I think they want to institutionalize the underground,” remarks Sabri, pointing out that almost none of the bands he works with have membership in the Musicians Syndicate or get state approval for their music.

Stara will continue its work on the Naguib al-Rihany stage, and is open to independent artists performing as long as they agree to work within the state’s legal frameworks. It will mainly focus on workshops culminating in free-entry student performances, including salsa, hip hop, mambo, capoeira, acting, percussion, painting and sculpture. It hosted a stand-up comedy competition this week, the five winners of which will be contracted for shows in the theater.

Sabri tells Mada Masr that he is also continuing his project – establishing a new space for underground concerts – at the Greek Campus, but under a different name. He already organized a concert there at the end of 2014, dubbed Artivism and featuring Maryam Saleh, El-Manzouma and Darwasha. The new project will launch by the end of February.

A broader context

Taking a step back to look at this incident, it seems strange that these two entities were looking to partner in the first place. Each operates in an entirely different way and represents a very different faction of the country’s artistic culture.

In Egypt, the laws governing arts involve strict licensing and monitoring, though incidents that involve halting a concert, play or exhibition are relatively few. For cinema and literary publishing the laws are more strict, with licenses required for distribution in cinemas and bookshops.

This is one of the factors allowing for what we refer to as an “independent” or “underground” scene to emerge as an alternative to the mainstream — commercial and state-run — arts.

On the one side there is commercial music — mainly pop, with lyrics largely revolving around romance, and an industry dominated by large companies, such as Saudi-owned Rotana, and creating stars fitting within a specific framework and image. Examples include Amr Diab and Hakeem, who work within the state’s legal frameworks.

Alternative musicians produce their albums themselves or opt for the few smaller record labels such as 100Copies, Eka3’s Mostakell and Nawa Recordings. These musicians span a variety of genres from light pop, to electronic, rock, heavy metal and shaabi mahraganat, and have a variety of lyrical content or focus on instrumental music. They usually perform in clubs such as Cairo Jazz Club, VENT and After 8 or in non-state theaters such as Rawabet, El Sawy Culturewheel and the now closed Genaina Theater.

Some alternative artists have recently started to appear in commercial concerts organized by corporations in Gezira Youth Center’s large open-air space or in advertising for brands, but overall the gap between commercial and alternative music remains wide, with very few overlaps.

Alternative musicians also tend to steer clear of state cultural entities — whether the Culture Ministry or the syndicate. Sometimes the Cairo Opera House opens up its Open Air Theater for certain acts — such as Dina El-Wedidi and Eftakasat — but overall alternative artists rarely perform at state-run institutions such as the opera or the ministry’s various cultural palaces or theaters.

To join the syndicate, musicians pay LE500 to be tested by a syndicate jury to decide if they are eligible. Upon joining as a full or associate member they are required to pay regular contributions.

In November 2012, Musicians Syndicate members were able to halt a concert by Mohamed El-Nahas and his band at the El Sawy Culturewheel because, legally, band members need to be syndicated to perform in ticketed events. The fine for non-syndicate musicians performing is between LE500-20,000, and artists can be handed a jail sentence of between one and three months.

There was an uproar by musicians, who staged a protest at El Sawy Culturewheel. A discussion was moderated by Culturewheel founder Mohamed El Sawy following the protest, but little progress was reached. The syndicate insisted that the musicians must be syndicated, and the musicians were split between those agreeing and those who refused to be incorporated into the state structure, insisting that underground music has to remain free.

There were discussions around the idea that the independent musicians — and artists in general — need a syndicate of their own, since their needs and incomes are different from their commercial and state-affiliated counterparts. Having emerged during a time when alternative syndicates in general were under discussion, not much has come out of that idea. Egyptian law does not allow for independent syndicates to be formed: Legally, there can only be one syndicate for each profession.

However, while some musicians avoid governmental structures governing music, some toy with the idea of joining. Aya Metwalli tells Mada Masr that she would consider joining if the payments she has to make are inline with her income as a musician. Others echoed her statement at the protest in 2012, but added that they would not adhere to submitting their lyrics to the censorship authority, which is another state body.

Thus most musicians perform without the necessary permits or paperwork, and get by either because the venue, such as El Sawy Culturewheel, has a deal with the syndicate whereby they pay a certain fee per month for all acts performing there, or because the musicians or concert organizers bribe the officials who sometimes come to concerts requesting to see permits. This is referred to as “inviting them to dinner.”

Sabri says that these laws relating to the syndicate and artistic content need to be changed to reflect musicians’ needs.

For these laws to change, and for hybrid initiatives like Stara to work, there needs to be a broader change in how the arts are managed in Egypt. But given last week’s comments from the head of the Censorship Authority on continuing film censorship, change does not seem to be coming any time soon.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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