The interminable chaos of the region has not thwarted, and may have even helped inspire, the rise of a number of new and unique performers who are making music in a way that challenges the commonly held Western perception of Arab entertainment being all about old men in dishdashas crooning “ya habibi” at gyrating belly-dancers.
Nadah El Shazly, a twenty-six year-old singer, composer and producer from Heliopolis in Cairo whose set opened the festival on Thursday, is a case in point. She combines ambient, moody electronica with distorted loops of her plaintiff vocals which are sensually reminiscent of the classic Egyptian singers of the late 19th century that she draws inspiration from. Nadah has served a musical apprenticeship ranging from fronting a punk band playing Misfits covers to performing jazz and blues standards to cocktail-sipping tourists in five-star hotels. The breadth of her experience shows in the haunting, well-crafted tracks which sound both entrancing yet edgy and she sings with a beguiling mix of heartfelt passion and icy detachment. Whilst the themes in her lyrics may be lost on those members of the audience who don’t speak Arabic (on questioning her, it’s revealed that they deal with her feelings of confusion, both in her personal life and in her country, and interpretations of her bad dreams), the power of her emotions are plainly apparent in her versatile and captivating voice.
The line-up of events scheduled for the rest of the festival over the next three days promises an eclectic mix of live musical performances, films with Q+A sessions, and discussions on a range of artistic and social issues facing the Middle East. Anybody with an interest in the culture of the region, or who is just inquisitive about new and developing strands of world music, could do a lot worse than to head down to The Mall this weekend and check out Masafat at the ICA before it moves to Cairo on 20 September.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1, until 4 September.