Interview: ENIGMA (2001)

April 01, 2001

The following article by Yasmine Shihata appeared in an April 2001 issue of the Egyptian magazine Enigma ...

It's a hectic spring evening at the Four Seasons hotel in Cairo, and everyone seems to be buzzing around. Clearly something BIG is about to happen. As international and local journalists rush to get good seats, excitement fills the room. It seems hard to believe that in a few moments he will actually be sitting here amongst us, relaxed and ready to answer our questions.

The celebrity in question of course is Sting, the British singer who has managed to mesmerise the world for over 20 years with his powerful lyrics and unforgettable music. In fact there are few artists in the world who have had such a global impact and gained such an international following as Sting has; and even fewer who have made a real attempt to reach out to their fans around the world, and use their stardom to promote positive issues. Yet the minute Sting walks into the room, wearing a white galabiyya and a red and white kufiyya, even Sting's most die-hard fans are surprised. Without saying a word, he has conveyed his respect for the Arab world, further emphasised by a smile that radiates the room.

Just a few hours earlier, Sting, accompanied by his wife (movie producer Trudie Styler), arrived at Cairo airport, both wearing traditional Arab garments. Sting looking rather excited had his red kufiyya around his neck, while Trudie wore a traditional Bedouin galabiyya. After a warm welcome from the 'East of West' team (the organisers of the event), the couple was quickly whisked away to their hotel.

The Press Conference

At the start of the press conference Hany Soufrakis, the executive director of 'East of West', introduced the star and reiterated the fact that 10 per cent of the proceeds will go to the charity Medical Aid for Palestine. Next, a Mobinil spokesman proudly announced that they are the main sponsors of the event. Then the floor was opened to questions. With each question, Sting was unbelievably calm, collected and smooth; a true professional, even though he was sitting in the middle of Cairo, surrounded by strangers. Tough political questions were answered succinctly and politely, as the crowd looked at him with awe and respect. His star presence was immediately felt by all.

After the conference, Sting was ushered to a room close by, where I had been told that I would be granted a ten minute private interview. In the middle of the hustle and excitement I was sure it would not happen, and that our 21st century Lawrence of Arabia would be whisked away once again. Yet before I knew it I found myself being introduced to Sting, and about to proceed. At the same time Cheb Mami (who had missed the press conference) entered the room, greeting Sting warmly and sitting down next to him. Of course, I was totally star-struck, but the full meaning of the moment had not hit me yet. I began my interview nervously, when Sting smiled at me sympathetically, as if to tell me that he understood my predicament. With that vote of confidence I relaxed, and the conversation flowed.

The interview

Yasmine: I know that you write and compose the music for all of your songs, and on the 'Brand New Day' album at least two or three songs seemed to be inspired by the Middle East. Can you tell me how you got this inspiration?

Sting: Well, I did a lot of the record in Paris, and in every club I went to, in every restaurant, I would hear Rai music. And I heard this man's voice a lot (pointing to Cheb Mami) singing 'Meli Meli' (Cheb Mami's hit song), and I asked 'who's that?' and they told me 'Cheb Mami'. So we organised a meeting and had coffee together, and I played him 'Desert Rose'. At that time 'Desert Rose' wasn't really finished yet, it needed some authentic voice. And he said he liked it, as it sounded Arabic, so I asked him to put some Arab lyrics to this melody. And he did and it sounded beautiful. Today I think it's the first hit between a Western singer and an Arab singer. So maybe we'll start something with this song (he smiles, glancing at Cheb Mami, who is then pulled away for another interview).

Y: Yes, I think you're right. Also in the interview you did last month with my colleague in London, you explained how you believe that music is really global. Is that why you reach out to so many different countries? Because actually very few Western singers seem to have your vision.

S: It seems to work almost everywhere we go. In fact everywhere we go, we get a similar reaction. So I think people understand the emotion behind the music, even if they don't understand the words; they understand the intent, they understand the feeling. And it's a good feeling, I think it's a very positive feeling. We played in Amman last night, in Dubai two nights ago, and everybody seemed to know the music and know the words, and it's very positive. And I think especially when Cheb Mami joins me on stage, it's a fantastic feeling, its great.

Y: A lot of your songs seem to stem from hurtful experiences and pain, but at the same time you are known to have a very solid marriage. Are these songs about experiences from the distant past?

S: It's true, I have a very solid marriage, for 20 years now, but I've lived a long life (he laughs and raises his eyebrows). I may have lived many lives! But I have enough reservoir of memory of pain, and not such happy times.

Y: Is it more dramatic as an artist to write about those kind of experiences?

S: I think there's nothing more boring than a song that says 'I love you and you love me', that's boring. But if you write a song that says 'I love you and you love somebody else', that's interesting!

Y: That's true. I've also heard you're a devout Yoga fan; is that part of the connection you feel you have with the Eastern world?

S: Yes, it is one of my connections with the East. I spent a lot of time in India, and I've also come to realise the cultural connection between particularly the North of India and the Arab countries. And I wrote a lot of the lyrics to these songs in India, walking in the Himalyas and walking in Rajistan. So there's a connection, and then meeting Cheb Mami in Paris... there's a lot of connections.

Y: And what about your recent Oscar nomination for the song 'My Funny Friend And Me', from the animated movie 'The Emperor's New Groove', how was that?

S: Oh that was wonderful! It was my first Oscar nomination, and I had a wonderful time. I was deeply honoured to be there and to be singing. I lost to Bob Dylan, but that's no disgrace because he taught me how to write songs anyway. So it was fantastic. It was the first time I'd been, and it was a really good show. Did they show it here in Egypt?

Y: Yes, they did, on the cable channels. Something about you intrigues me. You're very in touch with people and human issues, and at the same time you're very much into the social celebrity scene.

S: Well they're people too!

Y: Is that more because of your wife (Trudie Styler the film producer) or do you enjoy these events?

S: My wife is very sociable, she's very gregarious. People prefer my wife to me basically, I just tag along!

Y: You're also know to be one of the best dressed singers, and that the deigner Helmut Lang is one of your favourites.

S: That's true.

Y: Is that another side of you?

S: Well, yeah, I like fashion. I like this outfit (he says pointing to his galabiyya), I found it yesterday, it's very comfortable, you know? Yes, it beats Zippers and buttons, good for the heat.

Y: My next questions is a bit of a cliché, but I have to ask you this: How does it feel to know that tomorrow you're going to be standing in front of thr last remaining wonder of the world, singing at the pyramids?

S: Oh it's very special. It's a very special idea, to be singing next to those monuments that have been there for 5,000 years, and they will be there for another 5,000 years when I'm long forgotten. It's going to be very interesting, I feel really privileged to do this.

Y: Have you ever done anything similar to this?

S: Not in front of the pyramids, but I've played in lots of ancient amphitheaters, such as the Parthenon in Athens, and the Ephisis in Turkey. So I have done this kind of thing before but the Pyramids are the primo monuments of the world. It was exciting to see them today as we flew in on the plane; I saw the Giza pyramids and the two further south.

Y: And how do you find Cairo now, since your last trip in 1980 with your former group, The Police?

S: It seems more prosperous, more cosmopolitan. It has a good vibe, good atmosphere. You know you can feel it when you enter a city, people are either unhappy or they're happy. Cairo has got some energy.

Y: Yes, Egyptians are happy, but unfortunately many are poor.

S: Well, you know being rich doesn't make you happy! I speak from a privileged place of course (he laughs), but that's not why I'm happy!

And on that note my moment with Sting ends. As we are leaving I ask about the possibility of a photo shoot the next day, and he answers, "You'd have to ask him (pointing to his tour manager William). I'm the wrong person to ask, I'm just the mascot! I just do what I'm told!"

As he went out of the room, all the people in the corridor hounded him, and I realised how difficult it must be when everyone you pass is trying to get your attention. I never did ask for that photo shoot, as I figured it would be the last thing he would want to do on his only day in Egypt. Instead I walked away with a tremendous energy, and unbelievable excitement for the concert on the following night.

The Concert

On the night of the concert there was a real buzz in the air. It seemed everyone in Cairo was planning for or talking about Sting's upcoming performance. By 6.20pm, everyone was on the road, eager to get a good place at the concert site.

The highlight of the show, Sting's live performance, started exactly as planned at 10pm and lasted until midnight. In a dynamic and emotional performance, Sting wowed the crowds with some of the biggest hits of his career as well as older favourites from his Police days. In his light brown army pants and dark blue tank shirt, Sting looked as young and striking as ever, making it hard to believe that he is actually 49. With an introduction by singer Hesham Abbas, Sting appeared on stage and kicked off with his hit song 'Set Them Free'. Throughout the show, he kept the crowd going with other hits like 'Englishman In New York', 'After The Rain', 'Fields Of Gold', 'Brand New Day', and older classics like 'Every Breath You Take', 'Magic' and 'Roxanne'. Yet the piece de résistance was when Cheb Mami joined Sting on stage to sing Sting's most recent international hit, 'Desert Rose'. At that moment, as the Arab melodies fused with the English lyrics, and the Pyramids glistened behind them, it was a truly phenomenal sight. It was that particular song that also stirred the audience the most, as they sang along almost word for word, cheering and shouting. The Desert Rose without a doubt, had a huge impact on Egypt.

The Controversy

For those who could see and hear the concert clearly, it was definitely a great show, but after the event many other stories emerged.

Several reports of disorganisation and a lack of shuttle buses to and from the concert area have made it unclear who exactly was responsible for these hiccups. The press blamed Hany Soufrakis, but according to him, "The disturbances were out of any event promoter's reasonable control, and occurred in areas which made out company's mission to organise the event extraordinarily difficult". In a press release 'East of West' explained that the rerouting of the concert's buses by the Giza Traffic Authority on the day of the event caused most of the problems. They claim that the new route made the journey much longer, and instead of the concert's 47 buses to make the four trips per hour as planned, the new route cut bus frequency down to less than one trip per hour. Thus the carrying capacity was cut from the planned 5,000 spectators per to less than 1,200. Unfortunately as a result many guests (in the 65 L.E. and the 120 L.E. sections) were forced to walk up to six kilometers to reach the concert site, and another seven kilometers to return after the concert. For many this unexpected hassle put a damper on their experience and made them less able to enjoy the concert.

Some people also reported that the concert tickets were oversold, and that they could not enter even with a pre-purchased ticket in hand. Those that did enter (in the 65 L.E. and the 120 L.E. sections) found the areas crowded to the point of discomfort. Viewers in the sections further back also complained that they could not hear Sting, even though they were trying to catch a glimpse of him on the concert's screens. And both of the aforementioned problems are definitely crucial flaws for any big concert event.

Yet the most controversial and talked-about surprise of the night was the Egyptian singer Hakim, who was scheduled to perform before Sting at 9pm. After arriving late at around 9.40pm, he was told that he would not be able to perform, as Sting was scheduled to begin his two-hour show at 10pm (and the venue was only booked until midnight). Hakim's late performance would have cut into Sting's allotted timeslot, which was the main feature of the show. Instead of accepting his mistake, Hakim felt insulted and went on stage to inform the crowd that he was not performing, and that as Egyptians they should show solidarity and leave the show. Fortunately the crowd did not react to his behaviour, so his conduct only made him look unprofessional. Yet unfortunately, the arguments continued backstage between Sting's crew and Hakim's people, despite the fact that Sting's crew had arrived early, and had made all their preparations as scheduled. Worst of all, this incident caused unnecessary aggravation before Sting's performance, making Sting's crew feel agitated instead of appreciated.

Yet once Sting got on stage, all was forgotten. The energy of both Sting and his band got the crowd roaring and totally caught up in the moment. Sting also appeared to be enjoying the crowd, and gave a performance that his fans will never forget.

And despite all the unfortunately occurrences, the significance of the concert should not be overlooked; as it was a momentous event for Egypt. After all, it was the first time a major Western superstar has come with his entire crew to perform a two hour concert live in front of the Pyramids.

And despite all the attacks on 'East of West', they are the first event organisers in Egypt to have managed to attain approval from Sting's management (MPI) and 15 local companies in Egypt to handle the organisation of this concert. Even Sting's crew, who went through several hassles in Egypt, agreed after the concert that performing in front of the pyramids was indeed an unforgettable event. It was very unfortunate, though, that when Egypt receives such an international star, who is actively trying to bridge the gap between East and West, that he is met with such controversy and disorganisation.

Hopefully this event will provide an example, so that our country avoids such occurrences in the future. In the meantime Enigma salutes Sting and his crew for reaching out to our region, and being brave enough to see beyond cultural and regional barriers. And we hope Sting's vision will start a trend that Egypt will be able to benefit from in the years to come.

© Enigma


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