Here’s a tale filled with coincidences, discoveries and connections. A few months ago, The Wire magazine ran a cover story on the underground music scene in Cairo, focusing on artists such as Nadah El Shazly, Maurice Louca and Maryam Saleh. As I write this I’m in Cairo myself on a two-week business trip, my second visit in two years to this sprawling, chaotic city. Hoping to catch some of these folks in their home town, I trawled the listings for relevant gigs. I drew a blank, but discovered instead another enticing prospect: a concert by Sir Richard Bishop, acoustic guitarist extraordinaire, antiquarian bookseller specializing in the occult, and former member of the legendary Sun City Girls.
A few weeks ago, Bishop played a concert at my favourite venue in Geneva, Cave 12. I couldn’t make that evening, so it was a no-brainer to make the long and hazardous trip by taxi through the horrendous Cairo traffic to the Room Art Space, a lively and welcoming café-cum-performance space. And the connection with my adopted home town doesn’t end there, since it wasn’t until after the concert that I discovered that Bishop has associations with Geneva of his own.
The story goes that Bishop, wandering around the old town one day during a 2013 residency in the city, stumbled upon a musical instrument shop. In the market for a guitar small enough to take on tour with him, Bishop made enquiries of the proprietor and was shown a mysterious 19th century instrument with no marks of its provenance. Initially put off by the high price he had been quoted, Bishop reluctantly left the store empty-handed. But he couldn’t get the guitar out of his mind, and returned to the shop a few days later to seal the deal. The wisdom of this decision can be heard on Bishop’s most recent album, 2015’s haunted Tangier Sessions, which was recorded on this very instrument.
Bishop didn’t have the guitar in question with him on this occasion, but this was still a compelling performance. I’d seen Bishop live once before, on one of those rare evenings when I’ve bothered to pay attention to the usually hopeless support act. Opening for Earth in Vienna in 2008, the guitarist played what I described in my review as “clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations”. Which is all well and good, but doesn’t even begin to capture the rapturous pleasure that comes from listening to Bishop in full flight.
Bishop’s range is staggering, taking in dark vortices of flamenco, filigree classical, heady middle Eastern inflections, gorgeous major-key melodies and feverish rocked-out strumming, often within the same piece. There’s more than a hint here of the baleful eclecticism that powered Bishop’s former unit, Sun City Girls, whose music I’ve been belatedly discovering of late. And the influence of the Girls extends further into present-day Cairo, since Bishop’s brother Alan (who was at the gig, standing in the shadows at the back) now plays with other local musicians as The Invisible Hands, while also forming a third of the Dwarfs of East Agouza with the aforementioned Louca and another key Cairo figure, guitarist and oud player Sam Shalabi. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see any of these people play during my visit; maybe next time. I was indeed fortunate, though, to have my visit intersect with the mesmerising guitar magic of Richard Bishop.