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Backstage at the premiere of the AfriCairo Music Festival

The politics were somber, the mood was buoyant. The audience was small, about half the capacity of the El Sawy Culture Wheel’s River Hall.

Word hardly got around about the first AfriCairo music festival, which opened on 5 May. Five bands, one night, some dancing, some curios, some goat stew. The concept was simple, but the idea, from the brain of Wust al-Balad bassist Ahmed Omar, could be the start of something new.

Billed as “An African Day of Music and Dance,” the festival’s stated aim is to introduce African music to a broader audience and ultimately further integration of the immigrant African communities into Egyptian society. Although it was not a festival of refugee culture, the connection was there to be made. The five bands were of Sudanese and Eritrean heritage — two countries that happen to have large numbers of UNHCR-registered refugees living in Cairo.

Most of the audience appeared to be volunteering, selling curios or performing, or they were related to the performers.

The festival happened near-spontaneously, according to Omar. The famous musician, whose father is Eritrean, had been building a network of African musicians in Cairo. Just like that, the network grew into a festival.

“A lot [of African immigrants] stop playing when they leave their countries,” he said. “For instance, I met a friend in a café. He picked up a tambour and began playing. I had known him for three months and didn’t even know he played. We formed a band.”

“Then we asked some bands, ‘Can you join us?’ Some other bands asked, ‘Can we join you?’” he explained.

The five acts for the opening night were Bohain, Senodes, and Abazar, all from Sudan; Senet from Eritrea; and Rango which is Egyptian-Sudanese.

Between songs we heard the bridge traffic.

Backstage, pandemonium reigned. From the first act, there was no room in the narrow corridor; the younger performers wanted to go on stage where there was space. Between acts two Nubian dancing girls descended the stairs into a sea of backstage admirers, only to emerge and sashay into the limelight.

Then Senodes began arriving — all 18 of them, all about 15 years old. While the veteran headline act, Rango, who have toured the world, hung out on the river balcony, the youngsters strutted and swaggered like pop stars.

They had only ever performed in a church, Omar informed, gently.

“We thought we’d give them a chance,” he said.

The relatives of the performers were dancing, but not the rest of the crowd, which was largely young foreigners and hipster-students. Perhaps they wanted to boogie, or perhaps they wanted to draft a formal statement of solidarity. At the end of the night, the lights came on and the audience mobbed the performers for photos. They seemed relieved to have found an unambiguous way to show their admiration.

Outside, ambiguity reigned. As we alternated between interviewing performers and visitors and sitting in the audience, the gap between the politics and the mood widened.

By the river, where it was quieter, two ladies were capitalizing on the evening by selling stew and bread at a stunning LE60 a plate. They wore traditional Eritrean dress and also served traditional Eritrean coffee.

One of their husbands, drinking coffee, said that although there were no Eritrean restaurants in Cairo, “you phone and we deliver.”

The festival’s Facebook page said it was “opening enriching communication channels between African people,” but from Omar’s telling, this rhetoric about integration had followed later, as a kind of public relations cement. The musicians wanted to just play music, while “enriching communication” oozed with ambiguous meaning.

It meant different things to different people.

Refugee services’ NGO workers hung about the margins of the music. They had nothing to do with organizing, they were just eager to see the festival worked. They drank tea outside and referred to the evening as an “integration activity.”

“Egyptian people ask me, ‘Why are you working with refugees?’” one of the Egyptian NGO workers said. “‘There are a hell of a lot of Egyptians that need assessment. Why do you work with them? Who are they?’ Also, they think any black person is Sudanese.”

Abazar Hamid sang the song “Hello Juba,” which was kind of catchy. It was about terror victims in South Sudan, he told me afterward. “I am censored back home,” he said. “I support the victims of the genocide in Darfur. I send messages about the victims in South Sudan. I spread awareness of what is happening. I highlight issues.”

Sitting in the front row, on the corner seat by the central aisle, was a survivor of the 2004 Darfur genocide. I was introduced. We went outside and talked about the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is the key international legal instrument for refugee rights.

Although Egypt signed the treaty, Elham Zaki said, it joined on the condition that it would not have to provide services such as health and education.

“Life in Cairo is very, very bad,” Zaki said. “Refugees have many rights, but these have been lost because of the 1951 treaty. The rent is high. There is no work. Every apartment has two families. Most work in the home, as bodyguards, as cooks, as bawabs.”

“There is discrimination in the street. Egyptians don’t know about international law. They don’t know these refugees have rights.”

For UNHCR-registered refugees in Egypt, the only guarantee is a residence permit. Education and other essential services have been delegated to the UNHCR, which has delegated them to NGOs.

According to the UNHCR website, there were 44,600 refugees in Egypt in January 2012. It estimates there will be 54,000 by December 2013. Since the revolution began in Libya in February 2011, close to 475,000 people have entered Egypt through Salloum, according to the agency.

Zaki said she wanted to move to Australia. Then she went back inside to the music, but by that stage the music seemed far away.

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