ALEXANDRIA — Misr Station in downtown Alexandria is not much to look at by the standards of the fading, crumbling glories that prevail in Egypt’s second-largest city. On any given weekday, thousands of commuters flock to the disheveled station, passing through on their way to and from work.
Much of the time, their faces are stiff; eyes focused straight ahead as their bodies move hurriedly through the crowds.
But, for the better part of a year now, commuters, pedestrians, conductors and drivers have something more to look forward to than the broken streets around them.
Since April last year, impromptu live music performances have been popping up in crowded squares and stations throughout the seaside town. Known as Mini Mobile Concerts, the initiative seeks to start and develop an “art in the street” movement.
“In our daily life, the time we spend together as a society in the streets and within transportation, unfortunately, lacks expressive art, beauty and music. Instead, we are bombarded by abrasive noise or poor music,” explains Ramez Ashraf, the initiative’s founder.
“Through our pop-up street performances, we aim to not only change that, but also to have artists become part of the daily routine for those interacting with the streets,” he adds.
Ashraf plays a multitude of instruments ranging from drums, bass guitar and piano. Since 2005, he has also been a leading member of the Alexandrian-based Station Band, known for its innovative music, which fuses local, Oriental sounds with various world music cultures.
“The idea of playing in the street was always there. But before the revolution, it was not very easy to do so, mostly because of fear of the police,” he explains.
After the Jan. 25 Egyptian revolution, however, it became clear that local artists and musicians had to reach out to their audiences, rather than wait for them at cultural spaces.
“While these new cultural spaces do an excellent job, they are still limited to an audience of a certain socioeconomic class,” says Ashraf. “We want to branch out and go to the people where they live or work. We need to break down the walls between socioeconomic classes, meet halfway and see from there what the reactions are.”
Taking back the streets
The project debuted a year ago, when Ashraf began the test phase at Raml Station in Alexandria. Using a small battery-operated speaker, he played the music of Iraqi musician Mounir Bashir from his mobile phone.
He realized that much of the public had formed an allergy to street politics; at first, many approached him to ask about his political affiliation, or find out what his agenda was. He explained that he had no other agenda than to bring music to the streets.
After the initial test phase, he received a grant from the British Council to further develop his project.
Having a background in both music and software development, Ashraf then built a mobile container that could contain all the equipment necessary for pop-up performances: a mixer, a battery, transformer and speakers.
He believes it is very important that the performances are executed self-sufficiently, relying on a battery-operated power source rather than stealing or borrowing electricity.
The Mini Mobile Concert kicked off its first official live show last spring in Mandara Square, about 25 kilometers away from the cultural buzz of downtown Alexandria.
“We wanted to reach an audience that typically does not have access to these types of live performance or art,” explains Ashraf. “The neighborhood we chose is considered to be rougher, more troubled. The residents rarely get exposed to culture like this. Needless to say, they were quite surprised by our show.”
The band included Wael al-Sayed on the accordion, Nader al-Shaer on the kawala and percussionist Mizo Eka3.
Ashraf says people gathered around them the moment they started playing. They played with no difficulties for nearly an hour, stopping only to respect the call to prayer.
Over the past year, the Mini Mobile Concert has successfully produced more than 15 live performances on the streets of Alexandria and one in Aswan.
Thus far, the project has worked with the help of close to 13 performers hailing from different musical backgrounds, including Hossam Ghaleb from Puzzle Band, which is known for its Sufi-inspired, reggae-infused experimental music; Yasmine El Baramawy on oud; Khaled Kaddal, who plays guitar and produces electronic music; and Ayman Asfour, who plays Oriental violin.
“I have several goals with this project: One is to test and prove that we can actually play music on the streets and remove this barrier of fear we have all been operating under. Because as soon as you see one musician playing on the street, others will follow suit,” says Ashraf.
The second goal is social, he says.
“I believe we lack music and beautiful aesthetics on our streets. This drives people to become more frustrated and intolerant,” he explains. “But if we have some music in our lives, and not just all these eyesores we see on every street corner, then we will be much calmer and more peaceful to one another.”
The Mini Mobile Concert pops up around town, featuring different performance combinations each time. It usually starts with nostalgic older music that the majority of passers-by can relate to, and, as the set continues, starts introducing original music to expand the audience’s frames of reference.
The performances are done guerilla-style: They avoid getting permits, use their own power sources and, most importantly, they clean up after themselves.
One surprising element Ashraf has encountered has been the positive feedback and interaction with the police.
“Once, I saw a policeman from a distance. Instead of waiting for him to approach us, I went to him to explain what we were doing,” he says. “Within moments, he gave us a big smile and offered to provide us with electricity or anything else we needed.”
Kaddal, who has performed twice with Mobile Mini Concerts, says the reactions have been “incredible.”
“At first people thought we were foreigners but when they found out we were Egyptian, you could see the pride in their faces.”
In one of the shows, Kaddal performed live electronic music from his laptop alongside Baramawy, who was playing oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument. He says many people gathered around and interacted positively with the performance.
In fact, one audience member even joined them and started singing poems over the music, adding a level of improvisation to the show.
For Baramawy, the success of the project is proof that the Egyptian people have begun taking back their streets.
“We are in a major battle over our streets these days in Egypt. There has been a great upsurge of violence on our streets, whether government organized or individually motivated, which means that we have to find a way to neutralize the negativity,” she says. “Music is such a positive thing — it helps to reduce the negativity.”
She says that before the revolution, people felt scared to interact with their streets like this.
“But the revolution gave us endless possibilities, particularly in the realms of expression,” Baramawy explains. “I believe it is our role as artists to help promote this type of expression, because, sometimes, all it takes is one song to change a person’s mind from doing something bad, to hopefully doing something good.”