x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Cairo's artists make moaning an artform

If misery does indeed love company, then it surely must appreciate the melodious tones of a full choir.

The Complaints Choir perform to a full house at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.
The Complaints Choir perform to a full house at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

Cairo // If misery does indeed love company, then it surely must appreciate the melodious tones of a full choir. Or at least that is the assumption Cairenes tested on Sunday evening. That's when a group of about 30 artists went from wallowing in their complaints - which run the gamut from the banal to the unusual to the fiercely political - to singing them, accompanied by original music on traditional Egyptian instruments, in front of an audience of hundreds.

"It is very tongue in cheek," said Sarah Rifky, the curator of the Invisible Publics exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo, of which the Complaints Choir is one installation. "The idea is not to create a radical demonstration, but to take on this idea of complaints being an everyday thing ... and trying to manifest that in a form that everybody relates to and brings them all together."

Like some of the other displays in Invisible Publics, which occupies an artistic space between performance and visual installations, the Complaints Choir comes to Cairo after separate, unique performances throughout the world. But unlike previous choirs in such cities as Helsinki, Hamburg, Germany and Birmingham, England, the Cairo Complaints Choir runs in a city where day-to-day gripes and grievances collide inevitably with a political system that has belted out the same refrain for more than a generation.

"The most interest was from western countries, from consumer societies. You had complaints that were wide ranging and universal, but then there were complaints of dissatisfied consumers," said Oliver Kochta-Kallleinen, the Finnish artist and self-described "professional complainer" who first staged his choir in Helsinki in 2005 and has organised eight of the estimated 65 choirs throughout the world. "Complaints choir," said Mr Kochta-Kallleinen, is a common Finnish idiom for a group of bitter people.

"This is the first time we've seen the choir in a country where there are quite challenging life circumstances," he said. And in Egypt, complaining itself is part of the challenge. A few blocks from the Townhouse Gallery, demonstrations have blossomed over the past several months, giving voice mostly to the country's underpaid labourers and pro-democracy activists who objected to the renewal of Egypt's nearly 30-year-old emergency law. Police violently dispersed two demonstrations in April and May and detained dozens of protesters.

While such displays of dissidence have been short on lively jazz and tap numbers, they have experimented with artistic innovations. Some created pavement displays of cemeteries to signify the woes of the underpaid who are demanding an increase to Egypt's minimum wage. But few offered the choir's variety of laments. "The workers aren't heard/ Even the factory has been sold/ The wheat is American/ Our gas is being exported," went the lyrics to one number, which the choir sang to the pounding of a tabla, the traditional Egyptian drum, and the oud. The song referred, not so subtly, to the Egyptian economy's continued reliance on imported essentials while Egyptian natural gas is sold to Israel at prices many believe to be below market rates.

The lyrics may be tongue-in-cheek, but their substance could be ripped from the headlines of Egypt's increasingly bold independent newspapers. Contrast that with another Complaints Choir diddy: "Hey, you, if you want to walk/ Just walk, without disrupting others/ Cars lead wedding parades/ Street congestion, what a mess!/ Under the bridge became a urinal/ Just go home when in time of need!" In Birmingham, as in some other cities, the complaints were of a more innocuous sort, the kind that reflect an embarrassment of riches that could spark a Cairene's envy.

"Birmingham has changed so much/ I liked it more before/ Recycling is token here/ They do the very least/ And if I keep on cycling here/ I'm gonna be deceased," sang more than a dozen British artists before breaking into a proud and loud chorus, seemingly apropos of nothing: "I want my money back!/ My job's like a cul-de-sac/ And the bus is too infrequent at 6.30." While few nationalities complain quite as well as the English, some of the mostly young Egyptians who formed Birmingham's Townhouse Gallery choir said they felt their music voiced an abiding love for a country that many here still consider the Umm al Dunya, or mother of the world.

"I've seen [video of] the choir in Helsinki. They were complaining about, like, 200 euros cut from their salaries because they live in Helsinki and these 200 euros would mean something to them. Here, we are weak. One of the complaints was that we wish to reach the poverty line," said Danny Ramadan, 26, a journalist and amateur singer/complainer. "Egyptians, at the end of the day, they complain with passion and they love the country at the same time with the same passion."

The lyrical gripes were gathered from choir participants, who noted their own grievances and pulled some from passers-by. Audience members were asked to submit their own complaints before the show, said Salam Yousry, who organised the choir portion of the Invisible Publics exhibition. "We are all Egyptians committed to this society. That's why we can complain about Egypt," Mr Yousry said. "Lately, you find everyone complaining, the taxi driver in the street - everyone has the same complaints."