When you are a cultural player, it is a real responsibility to address the citizens, and you have to respect them. — Talaat El Singaby
Talaat El Singaby is the founding director of the International Guitar Festival (Les Internationales de la Guitare), one of the world’s top annual guitar events for those who appreciate flamenco, classical guitar, the oud, bouzouki and other lutes used in world music. The festival takes place in September and October in Montpellier and other cities in the south of France.
El Singaby’s office is a sort of Ali Baba’s cave, brightly decorated with numerous framed paintings and photographs, posters and portraits, accented by an impressively large bookcase overloaded with books, and many objects that clutter the room. It’s clear that El Singaby has kept a record of the many meetings and trips he’s taken over the past 27 years since he founded the guitar festival.
El Singaby comes from a cultured, secular family of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. After studying political science, he settled in Montpellier in 1975, where he launched his career in research and higher education as a professor of economics and political science. “At that time, in the 1970s, Egypt had become stifling,” he says. “Sadat was arresting opponents, and this culminated in 1981 when 25,000 people were imprisoned in one week. I was drafted into the army and fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I was a finance inspector, and I took advantage of an assignment in the United States to sneak off to the airport in Rome. From there, I went to Bergamo in northern Italy and then to Montpellier, where I had friends who taught at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute. I got a scholarship to continue my studies and learn French.”
Sadat, of course, was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak took over the reins of power in Egypt, and El Singaby was ultimately able to return to visit his native country, having acquired French nationality after four years. “I have kept strong links with Egypt, where a large part of my family, including my brothers and sisters, live,” he says. “One of my brothers is in Montpellier, he is an associate professor of philosophy. The Egypt I left in 1975 no longer exists, neither socially nor intellectually, the atmosphere is totally different. The population has tripled. I go there from time to time for sentimental reasons.”
A universal citizen
With the International Guitar Festival in its 27th season, Talaat El Singaby reaffirms the values he holds in a country like France, which is, in his words, “a true democracy, a true republic,” and “one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” He defines himself as “a universal citizen who lives in the time of the information revolution, of communication, of ease of travel. But this also leads to a surge in identity-based demands and actions, because the identity-based boat is sinking. I am rather optimistic because the culture and the conscience are open to the greatest number of people…
“Among the values I hold dear are freedom, which I believe is the recognition and respect of differences, and secularism. Fraternity means building an ecosystem of the republic by circulating the word, to block the new fascism of which the philosopher Gilles Deleuze spoke, which makes each of us a micro-fascist who silences his neighbor, censors the others and censors himself. I also believe that we must provide all the conditions for equal access. Finally, we need courage, both moral and physical.”
El Singaby asserts himself as a man of the left. “I am an optimist, I believe in life,” he explains. “I am a vitalist like Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze or Bergson. In literature, I like Anton Chekhov, Gabriel García Márquez, or the masterpiece of optimism that is Don Quixote by Cervantes. To fight against windmills, what courage!”
The battle of ideas
According to El Singaby, it’s all a matter of being “conscious, educated and active. To be a citizen is to be a member of the city, to participate in the construction and safeguarding of the city and its values. To be of the left is to be alert all the time, to be a force for action, for proposals, for criticism.”
He recalls that following Emmanuel Macron’s re-election this year, “89 deputies with fascist tendencies” were elected to the National Assembly in France. “Their ideas are becoming commonplace. This is catastrophic, because it will be the end of the republic. The welfare state, the social model stemming from the program of the National Council of the Résistance, which is the pride of France, has been emptied of its content, notably under the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. Losing the battle of ideas was inevitable. This battle has been won by the extreme right. It is a shame for the left, and we must now go back up the slope,” he says, evoking Sisyphus.
Immigrant culture does not exist, because culture is universal. Programming rap, hip-hop and slam in a neighborhood with a North African majority is easy and stupid.
Bringing culture to the foot of the building
Talaat El Singaby sees the creation of the International Guitar Festival as “an act of participation to build the republic,” around three poles: artistic, economic and social. It’s important for him not only that people show up to concerts, but that the festival also bring concerts to them, wherever they are. As a result, the festival uses Montpellier as a hub and fans out across the region.
“I am a music lover and it is not a business for me. We choose for instance to work with the craft sector of guitar makers. The social pole is important because the culture of living room for privileged people, it is finished. We bring culture to the foot of the building, so to speak, into the neighborhoods. When you are a cultural player, it is a real responsibility to address the citizens, and you have to respect them. The more meaning and quality we give to what we do, the more intelligent and receptive the citizen becomes. People constantly need to be educated in taste. We must elevate the soul. We have therefore chosen to program concerts outside of Montpellier as well: Loco Cello, a first-rate quartet, in Saint-Bauzille de Montmel, Axel Bauer in Lunel, the great flamenco dancer Patricia Guerrero, who won the Seville Biennial, in La Grande-Motte. The talented Italians of the Francesco Piu Quartet are performing in Assas. We have to go where people need us.”
El Singaby militates for a culture open to the outside world, and he refuses to put immigrants in boxes. “Immigrant culture does not exist, because culture is universal. Programming rap, hip-hop and slam in a neighborhood with a North African majority is easy and stupid. The action of our social pole is called the Relais de la République: we propose conferences and workshops, where we encourage people to learn to play or make instruments or costumes, to write, for citizens from six months to 25 years old.”
The International Guitar Festival has always programmed Arab music, including Egyptian music, he says. “I take every opportunity to welcome real players of the oud or the qanun, the Arab zither that is played flat,” he explains. “I am thinking, for example, of the lute player Ihab Radwan, who teaches at the Montpellier Conservatory. My approach is universal, and Arab music has a universal vocation.”
(Oudist Ihab Radwan performs in a recording made earlier this year in Belgium, prior to this year’s guitar festival.)
Why the guitar?
El Singaby explains his choice. “The guitar is an instrument of emancipation, and we are in the region with the largest gypsy community in France, the largest Spanish and Blackfoot diaspora. Oud, mandolin, bouzouki…These are string cultures. So, I wanted to create an event here around the guitar. We are in a country of troubadours. I created an independent festival that has always sold out — I was pushed by the public. The communities have supported us.”
The man has a generous vision for the ways in which France can embrace and share world cultures. “We talk about culture as the French exception,” he says. “General De Gaulle created the first ministry of culture; his minister André Malraux created the Maisons de la Culture. There was also Mitterrand and Jack Lang. Then, the culture sector was broken with huge budget cuts. There was not enough will to give culture its true value. This failure of public power towards culture plays a role in the loss of the battle of ideas to the extreme right. There must be a quality culture available to citizens, a true public service of culture and education. We cannot treat them with an accounting logic, as has been done.”
According to Talaat El Singaby, “when culture is absent, you can say anything and everything, and people believe it. We must stop the fake news and demagoguery. Culture is absent from the priorities of the State. The politicians are afraid of culture. They are afraid that people are more intelligent, that they are conscious and can choose with their free will. And I remain optimistic because I will fight for culture, so that it is of quality, and accessible to the greatest number of people.”
The 27th edition of the Internationales de la Guitare runs through October 19, 2022.