The Bir Youssef (Youssef’s Well) Theatre at the 12th century Saladin Citadel hosted the official opening of the 9th edition of the International Samaa Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting on 20 September. The festival is an annual event; which runs from 20 to 27 September. It is held under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, and is organised by the Ministry’s Cultural Development Fund headed by Nevine al-Kilany, and the Foreign Cultural Relations Sector headed by Ayman Abdel-Hady. The Samaa Festival is the brainchild of Intessar Abdel-Fattah who founded it in 2008, and to date continues to direct it. According to Kilany, the idea was to launch a festival that would act as a meeting point for cultural dialogue through spiritual music and chanting, a festival that would advocate tolerance and peace through the art of listening. ‘Samaa’ is literal for Aural.
World Day for Peace
This round of the festival featured 23 participant countries, and celebrated Indonesia as guest of honour. Ensembles from Algeria, China, Ethiopia, France, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Nigeria, Romania, Senegal, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, and USA all took part. Concerts were held in a number of Greater Cairo’s cultural and historic venues, including Saladin Citadel, al-Ghouri Dome, al-Hanager Theatre, al-Muizz Street, Talaat Harb Cultural Centre, Banha Cultural Palace, al-Qanater Cultural Palace, and the Coptic Cultural Centre which hosted three of the festival’s concerts.
This year the festival honoured the names of the late Qur’anic chanter Sheikh Mustafa Ismail, and the late Archdeacon Fahim Girgis Rizq who was senior cantor of the Coptic Orthodox Church. It also honoured former Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Coptic Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa, Secretary-General of Beit al-A’ila Mahmoud Hamdy Zaqzouq,President of the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education for Europe and Egypt Ali al-Samman and the Islamic chanter, founder and head of Radwan al-Maraashli Band, the Syrian Abdel-Qader al-Maraashli.
The opening of the festival coincided with the World Day for Peace. All participating groups joined in a universal recital in which the cultures of various peoples fused through the skill of the performers, highlighting the beauty of the art of chanting around the world.
Al-Muizz Street, the main street in Fatimid Cairo which was built by the Fatimids back in the 10th century, is today home to an amalgam of buildings that extend in history from Fatimid to modern times. It is home to grand Islamic-era homes, mosques, sabils (water fountains), and other establishments; and is a trade and cultural hub. Al-Muizz Street was on the evening of 21 September the scene of the biggest festival event, a street parade of a joint performance in which all the participating groups took part.
For two full hours the religious music ensembles marched through the street, starting at al-Fotouh Gate in the 10th century Cairo Wall, and on to al-Ghouriya off al-Azhar Street. Thrilled, enchanted crowds of locals and spectators who had come from various parts of Cairo merged with the performers and joined in the shows that came from places as far apart as Indonesia and France.
School for spiritual music
Mr Abdel-Fattah not only spearheaded the Festival of Spiritual Music and Chanting, but also founded a school for spiritual music in 2007. The school was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture which hosted it at the al-Ghouri complex in Cairo’s Islamic medieval quarter. The complex was built by the Mamluk Sultan al-Ghouri in 1505, and consists of al-Ghouri Dome, mosque, madrassa (school), and palace.
Throughout the nine years since its foundation, Samaa school has taught scores of munshideen (chanters) the true art of religious chanting. In 2013, the school launched its Samaa junior programme which focuses on the fusion of Coptic and Islamic chanting. Since Islamic chanting is historically an extension of the Coptic music which in itself is an extension of ancient Egyptian music, it is no surprise that Coptic and Islamic chanting have much in common. The school actively cooperates with the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Centre headed by Bishop Ermiya.
Speaking of the school and festival for spiritual music and chanting, Mr Abdel-Fattah enthused: “The dream has come true…The inspiration has turned into reality. Here we are now taking a mythical trip that resembles a ‘Sufi Mass’ where myth combines with reality…where voices harmonise and unite asserting the uniqueness of this moment of human connection and the deep conception of global religions.”
28 September 2016