Hubert von Goisern
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EGYPT 2002

GRENZENLOS >> Egypt: 1 2

Desert country dance

WOM 5/2002 | Text: Stefan Krulle

At the threshold from Middle Ages to Modern, the people of Egypt are grateful for each hint. Hubert von Goisern has now bravely carried alpine world music into the Islamic stronghold, far from Cairo.

Your tracks in sand ...

The political issue silences you the first time. Journeys to Arabia are currently as exciting as opportune. When you arrive, you force yourself into the role of the inconspicuous observer, with which you immediately make a fool of yourself because it works for two minutes at best. The pale blonde is never inconspicuous here, but he stands out again and again as something different. In Cairo as a tourist.

"Very good car, German good car" assures the taxi driver, his 66 Heckflosser has not 2 million kilometres on it. The car is almost new. Then he swaps the cassette of Arabian plastic pop for one of German plastic pop and turns it up dreadfully loud. Can Colonial times have been far worse, is it at an end or are the ways just different? In any case, the journey in the Mercedes is also a bit more expensive here, despite the music.

Through the Eastern Sahara at 70, the military does not like to drive any faster, and we are not allowed to travel without the military. Since the Islamic attacks on tourist groups in Luxor in 1997, one is officially advised in an organised panic, so a heavily armed quartet drive in the jeep in front, which changes to fresh personnel at every second road block. Not evaluating at all what makes sense here and what does not. And which perhaps in the end only provokes the Egyptians.

Tea break in the Al-Fayyum Oasis. Wherever we get off, we are stared at. Hubert von Goisern, whom we are accompanying to Arabia for his first concert, has become completely silent and shy. Still 40 hours until the concert. The Goethe Institute Cairo invited him, he is to play before Mohamed Mounir, Egypt's superstar.

On the Assiut campus, the Fundamentalist capital on the Nile, where one can no longer sail with cruisers on the Nile on grounds of security. Even Hercule Poirot has to take the train, which is also not safe any more.

Enzio Wetzel and Hubert von GoisernBut there is a reason that the Kulturtage 2002, organised by Germany, Austrian and Switzerland together, is taking place in the diaspora and not in Cairo. "The capital attracts all the money and people, there must be a counterbalance!" says Enzio Wetzel, who runs the Goethe Institute in Cairo. At the moment, mind you, he is handing out very tasty bananas among the passengers.

34 degrees in the shade, nevertheless, the air conditioning in the somehow gets in the way. For hours sand left and right, dusty air. It is annoying at first before calm sets in. The land swallows you like a mire until the minutes seem to be longer. Half an hour to the next checkpoint, twice the man on lookout stretches his legs. That is suddenly exciting. Where do all the tomatoes come from, which they drive to the North in ludicrously decomposing vehicles? And when is Assiut coming? The first trees, with dusty grey leaves. A gate, green and made of iron, heavily guarded.

The university, such a building as the Soviets earlier gave the Egyptians. Nobody else in Assiut lives in such high quality, but nobody else is also guarded so heavily. We are recommended with emphasis not to leave the university square kilometre on any account. There are lunch packets with lots of meat, which is in contrast to the good atmosphere of the guests. The meat is terribly dry, we may be impolite. That is only possible in the group, alone we would have had to have been brave and eat up. Outside, male students gaze at us - and female students. 7000 people indulge in the vocational training here, almost half of them are females. Headscarves are enough in "liberal" Egypt. Women without one belong to Copts. Christians, whose one "freedom" is the women's missing headscarf.

Now a cool beer! But there is not one. Somewhere here in Assiut there should be a hotel with a dark bar and real Pils, but funnily enough nobody knows any more. Where the city centre is, they also do not want to know. We find it nevertheless, right next door. It is not very nice, but wonderfully confused and stranger than anything I have ever seen. In these towns it still smells. Sometimes it stinks. Chickens are slaughtered in the street, clothes sewed, fruit weighed up, lambs legs hung up with damp cloths.

And Europeans are like Martians in the Cologne Carnival. "Welcome to Egypt" they call to us a thousand times, they want to shake our hands, call us a taxi, be photographed. That especially often.

"To be captured on film," it says in our guidebook, " robs the Mohammedan of his face". That is probably a bit right, "but after that you carry a piece of our soul in your hearts!" a brave young girl from Assiut tells us. Almost everyone is a poet here.

The concert moves closer. By European standards, in the afternoon the sound system is ready so that one could play two days later. But five thousand visitors are expected for this evening, approximately. Ones does not know, there are no tickets, everything is free of charge. In the city again, one could withstand it. Children gather around us, one increases the physical closeness here. We take a female colleague with us into the tea house, we are allowed to, but lots of guests prefer to go. The city is excited, the first ever concert here. We barely manage to make our way back to the Uni, the 5000 has doubled. Right at the front there are places for the guests of honour, behind us they press against barriers. In Europe one would flee now, but here is does not reach difficulties, even though nobody knows why.

Hubert stands in the footlights and has swotted two Arabic sentences. "I had never had such weak knees," he says the next day. They get a bit weaker when nobody claps after the first song and nevertheless everyone is in a good mood. Someone tells Hubert that in Egypt people do not applaud between songs, Hubert looks happier. They like their music, they dance, smile, climb up on the balconies and in the facades of the five storey university. In Europe there would have been deaths, but there is no beer here. After a good hour comes Mohamed Mounir. We are told that he is a star here. That was understating it. He is rather the Messiah. Drank beer in his room, saw more than a woman without a head scarf, smelled freedom and could go if he wanted to. But they all know that, even in Assiut, where barely one in ten had seen a concert before.

Therefore we are more interesting and we barely get to the steps to the hotel, right next to the stage. Thirty new friends in five minutes, no problem. "Which football club do you like?", "Please, take a photo", "Are you Christian?" - "No, I have no God". Short silence, "No God?" - "No, definitely not." - "We love you. No God is freedom!" One often seems so terribly naïve here. But quite possible that they mean such things honestly. The young girls in the city also asked "our" woman what life without great hurdles meant.

It is deep in the night, I am still thinking about what Hubert's cheerful yodel could have meant to an Egyptian in Assiut. The idea of a vague possibility perhaps. Naturally they do not seldom hate their life here. Without friends and family and with some money, many would have been away a long time ago. And denominations like the Muslims and Copts become more and more of a scourge. With cultural missions like these, not only Enzio Wetzel is convinced about that, can "become a mediator". And a preventative measure.

When people know each other, hate is no longer so easy. A rush, but one of significance. "If the situation in Israel does not change," says Wetzel still very diplomatically, "painstakingly won terrain will be thoughtlessly easily gambled away again. And if the USA possibly attacks Iraq, a volcano will go off here." That sounds dramatic, and it is dramatic. As Hubert von Goisern and Mohamed Mounir sang together for the clueless souls of Assiut, the world was in order for an evening on the forgotten Nile. The next day however, the news does not bode well once again. It seems to matter to the retaliation preachers Sharon and Arafat to bring the aforementioned volcano to an explosion alone. No song will hinder them, and the political situation silences us.

Hubert von Goisern & Band in Egypt

2002 | Photos: © Alex Schütz

Hubert von Goisern and Mohamed Mounir

WOM April 2002

A yodel is a friendly sound and seems like a "come in". Perhaps therefore the expression rises dangerously over the barrier after Hubert von Goisern's first verses, as each of his Egyptian spectators wants to personally shake the hand of the unknown man.

In Assiut, far from Cairo and disreputable as the Islamic stronghold one would have thought that the alpine world musician would have met his Waterloo, not triumphed. Ten thousand young Egyptians turned up for the concert, they were all starved, most had never been to a concert before. Nevertheless: the star of the evening was their compatriot Mohamed Mounir whose glory and significance in these parts can be compared to a Westernhagen. But because the Egyptian men (the Egyptian women also only came here in passing) honour curiosity and hospitality exactly the same, they celebrated with Hubert to the best of their abilities. And really the foreign melodies, the elementary percussive direction of the band lies closer to the Nile than the Elbe or Spree. But what if the star steps into the turbulent circle? Keep calm, celebrating like the Pharaoh's sons, who also without each drop of ungodly alcohol drunkenly provide the star with a choir. We did not understand Mounir, but he must have had something important to say. They hope with him, they do not like their strictly gazed upon youth, they would rather talk about football than surahs and bow to nonreligious people.

Mohamed had beer in the room, Hubert had the idea of the wide, bright world in his voice, Assiut had the evening of the year and we believe again in the wonder weapon of music.

"We have sown a seed"

2002

Egyptian Mohamed Mounir and Austrian Hubert von Goisern in joint concert

GrenzenlosYodelling among pyramids, holleraähdullioöh in the land of the pharaohs, alpine rock in the orient?

Eight years ago the masters of writing would have been only too glad to use this cliché and celebrated the leap of the first representative of "new alpine rock" over the Mediterranean Sea into the Near East. The times of such superficiality and such simpler ways of looking at musician Hubert von Goisern are past. The Austrian developed from folk to world musician a long time ago. Evidence of this was shortly to happen at Assiut in Upper Egypt at a concert with Hubert von Goisern and Egyptian idol Mohamed Mounir.

Hubert von Goisern took this opportunity to present his new programme Grenzenlos 2002. Until the last moment though it was not clear that organisers' concept would work, of musically joining the East and the West and so there was a joint performance by Mounir and Goisern.

Yes it is successful: 15,000 euphoric visitors cheered the performance. "A seed has been sown" says Goisern, or as is evident from the point of view of Mounir "that making music together is stronger than blood and war".

However until the last moment the effort was felt behind the stage, until the last moment neither Mounir or Goisern were convinced that "it" could work.

This spectacular joint meeting was organised by the Goethe Institute in Cairo (footnote: already the old privy councillor was an admirer of oriental art of poetry and also considerably influenced by it). The programme department manager, Enzio Wetzel, intentionally chose Assiut as the scene. The German Days took place there until 1996, before the terror attacks on German tourists brought an end to this joint initiative of the German-speaking countries.

Admittedly the 11th September did not make the situation any easier. And this city beside Cairo with its 60,000 student most important university town, nevertheless offered the right platform for this bold experiment.

Whoever asks an Egyptian (and it is an Egyptian newspaper seller in the Salzkammergut) about this city, will get a negative response, for a long time Assiut was considered to be the centre of the fundamentalists and is still identified with the origin of the assassins of President Anwar el Sadat. The university was an Islamic stronghold. Accordingly radically the state power also proceeded with the fight.

Hubert von Goisern and his band experienced how strained the atmosphere still is (state of emergency) through the fact that they could only go on journeys protected by a military escort. Even the visit to the rest of the peaceful and pleasant-looking city without armed personal security was only possible for the guests from Austria and Germany after repeated and substantial references to the requirement of hospitality!

Nevertheless, good conditions for a "cultural clash" in this way: the people are starved and long for a cultural meeting. Hubert von Goisern is convinced that "they did not noticed any tensions on or behind the stage." In the end the perspective "being defeated victoriously" was nearer to him.

The audience itself pressed on the barriers and finally stormed the back and side stage in excitement, some hundred curious onlookers made themselves comfortable in the windows and on the roof of the half-finished hotel behind the stage. Hubert von Goisern assessed that "the danger that something happens, that is comes to riots against he police or that someone falls from the roof which was being danced on 30 - 40 metres up was greater than the chance that everything works out well." And a single incident would have had only one consequence in the face of the contingent of security forces: "That something like this concert ought not to take place any more in the foreseeable future."

Hubert von GoisernThe fact that it did not come to the possible incidents is above all because of "Magician Mounir" (Goisern) who succeeded in "making the people friendly". Hubert von Goisern quickly recognised a congeniality of spirit in Mounir: "he does indeed come from another culture, but he stands for the same things as I do: he admits his regional roots, but translates to the international world."

Therefore it was easier for the Austrian to explain with Mounir's music as for example with the Tibetans' music: both cultures has fascinated me since childhood. Mind you, I have found it easier with his music than with the Tibetan music, which stands as protection of old traditions. He stands in the here and now with his music."

Mounir draws from the Nubian traditions, which above all the rhythm through his four member percussion group (here above all the Nubian Duff and Egyptian Darabuka come into action) and the melodies clarify. The modern view of his music playing certainly explains the reggae guitar and the jazz trumpet in his band. And also the form and length of the numbers points to pollination from outside.

The Nubian minor key pentatonic, which Mounir falls back on in almost all his numbers makes it easy for Hubert von Goisern in the end "to 'take them away' with the accordion and in a major key and to unfold an individual story."

Mounir and Goisern are agreed "that it was somewhat unusual and must be done again." Goisern: "It is not permissible to judge from it any other situation from another place, but to hope for a better intercultural understanding, and thus mistrust and be afraid of fewer people receiving nourishment through this action" and called the evening 'legendary'. The daily TV pictures from the neighbouring countries of this region let us assume that this style of meeting is supposedly unthinkable.

The experience addict Goisern is travelling again with his band. Cape Verde, Senegal and Burkina Faso will be travelled for three weeks, some concerts and meetings with musicians will take place.

Afterwards he will go into the studio with this experience input in order to record the new programme and to appear in the German-speaking countries from May. It is astonishing that Hubert von Goisern has obviously already renewed his concept: lots of rhythm and 'party' characterise the concerts of 2002.