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The Aicha Makeba Project: Otherworldly World Music

Having lived all around the world and absorbed folkloric music and many cultures, Aicha Makeba has assembled a World Music collective that will bring out the Shaman in you. Omar Elkoussy sits down with them after experiencing their transcendental performance at Darb 1718.

Egypt has always been a hub for arts and culture, with all sorts of music from around the world weaving into its cultural backdrop. Strategically located between Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia, it became the central point for many civilizations to amplify their folkloric sounds, with one of the most impressive contemporary collaborations being The Aicha Makeba Project. Led by the awe-inspiring Aicha Makeba, this project brings together talented people from around the region to play World Music. Inviting diversity and embracing all kinds of music, this compelling fusion took center-stage recently in Cairo at Darb 1718, where I got to delve into an Africa-inspired spiritual journey of all kinds of mystical music mixtures.

What is World Music, you may be asking? It is the genre of genres, embracing and relishing folkloric and traditional music forms all around the world, usually brought together by a musical collective. In Aicha's case, the project intertwines Reggae, Oriental, Gnawa, and Afrobeats, simultaneously using elements and native instruments exclusive to each. The Aicha Makeba Project is the embodiment of a melting pot collective, comprised of a fluctuating roster of talented members that work on a project basis.

Aicha Makeba, the half-Portuguese half-Mauritanian singer/songwriter, tells us, "This project revolves around my poetry work, and it's basically an experimental World Music project, in which we mostly jam. We don't rehearse that much as most of the musicians have their own projects. We try to experiment with World Music genres, like Reggae, Afrobeat, Gnawa - anything that we feel like playing. We improvise most of our songs, or at least we have basic arrangements, then we try to build on them. A lot of different musicians pass by this project and we all come from different musical backgrounds."

Coming from a family of musicians, Aicha spent many years listening and going to concerts as a child because of her father, who, since the tender age of 12, would take her to Reggae concerts. Though he didn't play an instrument, he had a an excellent grasp of musical culture. "You tell him a song from a little village in Algeria and he'll tell you whose it is," Aicha explains.

She's lived in Portugal, Spain, France and Egypt. With a thesis in magic and talismans in Western Africa, Aicha has always had a knack for engaging with her fellow human beings, all the while continuously evolving herself. As I sit on down on the floor at Darb 1718 with the ever-so-down-to-earth audience, I cosy up to the gypsy-hippie vagabond vibes. Soulful and versatile, The Aicha Makeba Project's music engulfs us in its charming energy, with each improv's aura more amusing than the one before. This is all well paced, elevating the crowd's spirit. 

Aicha's love for music and different cultures prompts her to spontaneously visit and discover musicians in the most unexpected of places and situations. The bassist for the project, Wetey Rasta - who is originally from Aswan but resides in Cairo - can certainly attest to that. "I opened a cafe in Downtown where Aicha would come with her band to play and jam, and I would just sit there and love listening to them. Gradually I starting playing with them, so she invited me to play with her," he says. "I play Reggae music; I feel close to Africa and its sounds. People in Egypt don't know much about bass and I want them to get better acquainted with it. I'm currently working on a project with some friends where we turn any track from any genre into a Reggae song. We could cover The Beatles, play the same exact music, but with the addition of a Reggae sound."

Aicha is clearly a very astute scout for her ongoing project. Her keen eyes have spotted countless talents, whether undiscovered or already established. Egyptian guitarist and gambri player Mohamed Kamal also had a unique encounter with her. "Aicha saw me before in several concerts - I play with a band called Luperia, and we play African and Gnawa. Then she offered to have me join the band." A pivotal player in the Nile Project - a project comprised of musicians from all the countries of the Nile - Kamal's main interests and talents lie in Afro-beats, African music, Blues, Reggae, Gnawa and North African music. "I bring the African flavours; I use the Moroccan instrument gambri sometimes and I play Gnawa, which sort of has similar elements to Sufi music."

Among the impressive talents who join Aicha on stage is Omar El-Ayat, an Egyptian cajón player as well as the Oud player in his own band, Baheyya. "I was a corporate slave. I quit and then I started to focus on the music. Aicha used to have another percussionist and he played Oriental instruments, whereas the cajón is Spanish; it's a cool addition to the project." Another key player in the collective is Essam Abdou from Imbaba, the Oud and guitar artist. "We met in Mawred el Thaqafi and arranged to collaborate about five months ago, and we've had many concerts since then. Before me there was another Oud player. I play Oriental music, I sing, and I'm interested in Sufi music. I love Afro-beat, Gnawa, Reggae; I can adapt because I love all of them and I feel free and open to any kind of music. I love it although I didn't study it - it comes from the soul. My future plan is just to focus on the music. Even if I'm broke, it comes... you have to be patient, I can wait no problem."

For her future plans, Aicha wants to continue gigging, with a tour to Portuguese festivals in the works for this summer. This collective has been going from strength to strength and plan to solidify their progression further by arranging some songs for a demo recording. The nature of her project invites all sorts of talents from different backgrounds to collaborate, some coming in briefly, while others are more fixed over longer periods. The last woman standing will always be Aicha Makeba.

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