Blog: Music in Egypt

Cathy Costain, Head of Arts for the British Council in Egypt, tells us about the last few years in Egypt and the wealth of contemporary classical music connections that have been made there in recent times ...

"One of the most satisfying parts of my job is seeing people’s passion, hard work and perseverance paying off, even if it takes several years.

"I became Head of Arts in Egypt in October 2010, delivered one UK theatre performance in Cairo in December and then spent the next few months – post 25th January 2011 – cancelling events one by one. These weren’t just our own events – UK-based artists and promoters were looking to us for advice not only on safety, but also on the relevance and appropriateness of the work they were planning to bring.

"It was under these circumstances that I met the wonderful Sherif El Razzaz, the founder of the European Egyptian Contemporary Music Society (EECMS). I inherited plans he’d made with my predecessor to bring the London Sinfonietta to Egypt in May 2011 for the Alexandrina Contemporary Music Biennale II and Cairo Contemporary Music Days. After many emails spread over several months we all accepted that the visit just wasn’t going to happen and Sherif immediately started laying plans for future activities that could take place in the new context we were all experiencing.

"Since then we have supported Sherif on several occasions: to attend the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; as a British Council MENA fellow at the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) congress; for a showcase of contemporary classical music from the UK performed by the Egyptian Contemporary Music Ensemble; and by bringing The Telegraph’s Ivan Hewitt to Egypt to lead a music criticism workshop.

"Mainstream classical music is a genre that is familiar to and loved by many educated Egyptians, but contemporary classical music is still relatively unknown and has proved quite challenging to audiences. But this hasn’t stopped Sherif from just plugging away to bring together musicians from both the Middle East and the rest of the world to find inspiration in each other’s music and instruments and to create platforms for new compositions and performances of the highest quality.

The audience has grown and is still growing ... a recent showcase of music from the Netherlands had an audience of around 200 people

"And, gradually, the audience has grown and is still growing. In a big change from the early days, when you might find only 20 people in the auditorium, a recent showcase of music from the Netherlands had an audience of around 200 people. Negmeyat, an evening filled with world premières by Egyptian composers celebrating the poetry of the late Ahmed Fouad Negm, played to a packed house. If you want to hear more you can see recordings of some of these performances on the EECMS YouTube channel.

"The EECMS is now supported by some of the major foundations and cultural organisations in the Middle East and internationally, making it much less challenging – but still not easy - for Sherif to deliver the activities he wants to. They are also the only Associate Member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) from an Arab country and only the second from Africa, after South Africa.

"In April 2016, as part of the Heritage and Modernity programme, Sherif brought together more than 30 established and young contemporary music composers from around the world to look at the relationship between different musical traditions and European Modernism, as well as taking part in a programme of workshops, lectures and concerts. The British Council supported the participation of young UK composers Tom Coult and Samantha Fernando, who were both very positive about their visit.


Tom Coult: "Being invited to Cairo for the Heritage and Modernity events was very stimulating creatively and culturally. It was a genuinely eye opening trip in a way few composer gatherings are, in that I learned much about a musical culture of which I previously had very little knowledge."

Samantha Fernando: "Coming to Cairo for Heritage and Modernity was a wonderful experience. Very often the work of a composer is a solitary activity so events like this are a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow composers from around the world and experience new music from a variety of traditions. It was fascinating to learn about Arab music and to hear some brilliant performers demonstrate what their instruments can do. I came away from the week feeling enriched both musically and on a personal level, with new sounds in my head and many new friends."

Sherif El Razzaz: "The British Council has been among the very few institutions that were ahead of happenings during the unsteady time between 2011 and 2014 when many other cultural institutions lost orientation and could not deal with the rapidly changing cultural scene and political development. We were lucky to be one of the organisations chosen to be supported by the British Council on the artistic and curatorial level by being a part of its delegation to the renowned festival in Huddersfield and our participation in the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) congress. Currently, the British Council is a strategic and constant partner in our work promoting contemporary music in Egypt and the Middle East, not only through financially supporting projects but also through logistical support as they keep up a friendly, patient dialogue through the different phases of the execution of projects. Recently we have been able to implement several complex projects in a row,  highlighted by the international composers platform Heritage and Modernity, which will have a lasting impact on musical achievement in the region and contribute to a long-lasting cultural and artistic exchange between Egypt, the UK and even the rest of the world."


"As well as working with Sherif and the EECMS, the British Council has provided support for several young Egyptian musicians from the Conservatoire in Cairo to engage with Aldeburgh Music, particularly the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. In 2012 we supported the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, where cellist Marcellino Safwat was the youngest member of the orchestra. Also in 2012, aged 20, Bahaa El Ansary received a British Council Egypt grant to develop his talent as a contemporary classical composer. He has since studied in France and Germany to further his musical education. And in 2015 one of the highlights of Alexandria’s Oufuqy Festival was a workshop and performance by young British cellist Olly Coates."

– Cathy Costain