Cairo, Egypt – LTW reports on the current music scene

Cairo’s music scene comes in small doses!

There’s never been any properly adjusted and focused musicians out there who take music for a life choice, and a career accordingly! I’m not sure who’s to blame here, if it’s the lethargy of Egyptians and their dependency on the standard and sanctioned way of life, or is it the government that has specifically categorized and settled certain paths to success by creating countless facilities for Business and Management, Mass Communication, Political Science, Law, Dentistry… etc. But for the music and arts enthusiast there are but a couple of limited possibilities, that aren’t taken so seriously! Yet some musicians, perhaps a little over a dozen, are relentless enough to make it happen! Some refuse to succumb to the 9-5 way of life and are struggling to survive financially, whether they persistently remain in Cairo or have moved to other countries to pursue their goals. They are constantly being ridiculed and discriminated against for having their minds, hearts and souls in the right places! This is how “queer” it seems at this day and age to pursue a career in music; especially one that initiates a foreign genre!

Egypt is enriched with an extensive musical history. The beginning of civilization was recorded on the walls of Pharaohs where evidence of music was found on several religious, communal and secular environments and temples, throughout the 17th, 18th,19th and 20th centuries the music in Egypt was grand, and included an all-encompassing list of genres that were thoroughly and equally constituted, practised and celebrated such as oriental and folk, classical and orchestral music; much inspired by the music introduced through the British and French occupations in Egypt. Notable Egyptian artists were recognized worldwide by other notable foreign musicians as well as fans. Up until pop music took its toll on the music industry around the mid 80s and music as an art or a career became a sinfully discredited ideology. Unless you’re a conservative Arabic singing pop star! Tragic isn’t it?

If the industry in Egypt has thus far been vigorous in the search for musical innovation or even in preserving cultural heritage, perhaps we wouldn’t be stuck with nothing but Amr Diab who is now 50 years old and looks like a plastic ‘Ken’ doll in denial. (He is the only internationally recognized Egyptian pop star who’s music is seldom played at horridly cliché European and American touristy “Disco Night Clubs”). Perhaps we wouldn’t get caught dead promoting for Egyptian chavs in fake designer outfits surrounded by prostitutes whilst singing about either true love, or true sexual oppression! The same goes to Egyptian female singers; who not only either flaunt their drama or flesh arbitrarily throughout their music videos, but are also blinded by the aspirations of a cosmetic surgeon who has projected the image of his dream girl over the females of the entire Arabic music industry! Perhaps we wouldn’t have dozens of dead-beat television channels that air the same genre of music that all sounds the same. The Arab music industry if anything is inspired by MTV’s retarded child who pukes Pop Hits all over the 21st century. That in itself affected the musical tastes of the ordinary Egyptians who enjoy music to whichever greater or lesser degree, and has caused the relevant typicality’s of music production to subconsciously emerge within the works of modern artists and music makers! Apart from the corporate junkies who sign contracts to obey the mass-oriented orders of their creative directors, managers, lyricists and composers! There exists the struggle of an indie culture that seeks to break-though the well-established tunnel vision of a brainwashed society.

The first foreign youth-culture-genre to successfully penetrate the music scene with a dedicated large number of audience would be metal. Heavy metal bands were forming and gaining much attention in the mid 90s and causing quite a grand commotion. The musicians as well as the fans were getting arrested at the gigs eventually; the best the government could arrive at was far from a possible musical innovation, but was that these guys were probably satanic cults. They made it to the newspapers under massive shocking headlines linked to all the devil-worshipping propaganda! Anyone who wore black in public was automatically assumed to be part of this “Horrid, ungodly movement”. It was one of the most hilarious reactions in the history of public or governmental reactions to whichever Rock genres! Metal had an intense and long run and still fares alright to this day!

Scarab

The crowds may be less intrigued than they were in its blossoming! but some bands stuck together to this very day and a one specific band that goes by the name Scarab (formerly Hate Suffocation when established in 2001) They released 2 EPs and 2 full length albums and have played the With Full Force XVI Festival in Germany alongside bands such as Carcass and My Dying Bride as well as the Dubai Rock Festival in 2009 opening for Motörhead, Opeth and Arch Enemy. But they’re still committed to greater hopes for Cairo.
“The scene in Cairo is better than before, especially with the major leap that’s happening in the country with the revolution” Says Sammy Sayed, Scarab’s vocalist, “There’s no more “Demonizing” towards that kind of music by the government or the media as when they used to in order to delude the masses from the reality of things, but that luckily wasn’t in our time as Scarab (when reformed in 2006). We had no problem creating our music, recording it, and performing live in Egypt as long as the place is secure for that genre. The problem we faced though is the cheap equipment being used at concerts” Sammy admits (Possibly on behalf of all the musicians in Cairo) “Of course because metal has no market in Egypt at all, and the metal scene is very small still so no event organizer would invest money in it! We can see things evolving though, as there are a lot of metal bands showing up today, playing their own original music, and recording it. Hopefully the metal scene in Egypt will positively flourish one step at a time”. What I personally respect about this band is the pride they take in their historical background, as well as their openness to other cultures in terms of their musical influences and general demeanour; both aspects merge together and are very evident in their musical production as well as the messages they are sending out. “What we speak about is either universal or about Egypt and its ancient or present time and what we think may come in the future! Of course we are planning to take this band elsewhere, we’re planning to take it wherever our music and message is appreciated, heard and enjoyed, let that be the moon if possible! In Scarab, our roots and background will always be Egypt and ancient Egypt. The inspiration and the subjects to talk about in that matter are almost infinite to us!”

Another genre that quickly followed through after metal music, but on the other hand DID attract event organizers and whomever had the money to fund and start organizing these events; is Dance music, which forged Cairo’s infamous “Rave” scene to come into picture and in no time Cairo as well as other cities in the north coast were hosting international DJs to play at large venues for hundreds and thousands of “Ravers”. Local acts emerged as well and it became a very popular and accepted idea. But Commercialism, even in such a famous genre, is quite a turn off for any musical individualist, although for Ahmed Samy, a 27 year old Egyptian DJ who now lives the U.S, it’s not that bad!

Ahmed Samy

For that sort of problem exists everywhere else in the world and in all the other genres. “The music scene in most countries sucks for a person like me, because people will always be more into the generic stuff, it’s the way world is…” He states. “Parties with DJs like Tiesto, Deadmau5, or Skrillex will always have the bigger fan base, and a higher turn out. I feel like it’s a good thing, it works as a filter system to separate the idiots from the people who know and appreciate music”. Ahmed Samy is still more inclined to pursue his career abroad. The opportunities exceed light-years ahead of those within the Egyptian environment. He started DJ’ing at 16 years old and was the only strictly Vinyl-using DJ in Egypt up until he moved to the states in 2011. “I started playing out regularly around 2002, and I was very involved with the music scene in Cairo since it’s very beginning in the late 90’s, it was mostly Trance underground events but it was great for like 5 minutes! Every weekend there was a superstar act booked, people went and felt comfortable being freaks and I fit right in… I could be myself and made connections that weren’t interest based at all. At the time I remember thinking I want this for the rest of my life! But the scene in Cairo seems to be going back and forth… The venues that are opening at the Four Seasons hotel and other prime locations cater to a crowd that wants to get drunk and sing along to Top 40 remixes… They’re not open minded enough to accept something new, they just want 5 different remixes to ‘Moves Like Jagger’”. Ahmed Samy plays Minimal Dance music, “That doesn’t necessarily mean Minimal Techno; It could be any Electronic genre that’s not too theatrical with the elements” He adds. But what really interests me in Samy is that he gets his inspiration from various other genres, specifically Indie Folk and Indie Rock, Jazz and Classical Music; such as the works of Beethoven and Mozart. Ahmed’s musical opinions can be applied to any music genre and scene. Although the scene in Egypt left him “Very hateful and bitter” he admits, but he also admits that it taught him everything he knows. “I can’t look back at it with resentment, I am obviously continuing to make and play music, and I came to the decision of picking this career in the midst of my days in Cairo, there were great events where I did so well and connected with the crowd… I wish the scene was better though, I would have never left. But it is the way it is, and it’s the same here in Western Massachusetts and I bet in a lot of other cities I never lived in”. Yet there’s good potential in Egypt’s music scene, disregarding the lack of public support, and when I asked him of what he could pin down to fit in that area he says “The most powerful point in Egypt is that there is this whole breed of underground artists that I personally know, that have been pushed way beneath the underground; they exist in the land of nothingness, none the less they’re putting out great stuff, and because there isn’t that much (if any) focus on them at all, they are just doing what they love, and are not trying to be suitable for a certain record label, or the completely ignorant crowds”. Most Egyptian musicians are disheartened by the lack of reinforcement by the crowds, the record labels, and the entire music business in the country that it has created a sense of discomfort and a certain hesitation to show what we have to offer. Someone like Ahmed Samy has played hundreds of gigs in Cairo and played alongside DFA’s Justin Miller, and opened for Michal Menhert and Gramatik at gigs in the U.S, yet he believes he’s not ready to get signed. Although several Dance-Music record labels have been established in Cairo such as Quanza, Future Sound of Egypt, Armada and Hybrid Records. “I never signed with any label because I never produced anything that’s worth sending out to labels, it’s not like I would have gotten signed if I had something to offer, but I did and still do have nothing that I feel pleased with in terms of production.” Quite the humble man and he admits he’s not the celebrity type and takes no interest in such an ideology. We wrap our interview with his modest opinion on all things commercial! “I am not an elitist, I understand why David Ghettos’ stuff works, (David Greta is the Britney Spears of Dance music to cut a long story short) and I see how it can appeal to many people, I don’t look down on it, it’s just not something that appeals to me, it’s like a Mc Donald’s burger… People need it, they want to eat it and enjoy it. I am sure there are people who are more “underground” than me, who might look at my stuff and feel the same way I feel about Ghettos’ stuff… you know”. That’s highly unlikely though. Anyone who is against commercialism and music-by-popular-demand could never possibly produce anything that can be sardonically condemned, perhaps discerned in the manner one musician scrutinizes another musician’s work, and such judgements are only natural. Someone may be lacking in one element or another, and no one’s music is overall perfect. I believe one must have the “Punk” principle in any genre; that it is not about the general public’s manipulated tastes, but the castaway spirit of persistence and resistance in musical communication!

Cairo has even witnessed the rise and fall of Punk music that has, (from its very birth to its very death) barely came forth and lasted for almost a decade! Circa 2002-2010. BARELY came forth I say, because its culture was far from apprehended-at-all by the Egyptian society; Punk originated from the ideas born from social distress, angst and political subjugation and fascism, and having much to say about one or more of these concepts, but lacking the right portion of “talent” it requires to come forth, or the cash to support yourself and your project! But you did it anyway! And people followed! But Egypt doesn’t get it, and Egyptians rather gets accustomed to what Egypt has to offer, and thanks to the ignorance of record labels that fail to recognize the diverse foreign musical tastes and accordingly it creates a lack of support from the music venues, and the rules and boundaries set upon these venues inhibit all unfamiliar behaviour. We tried though, but “Scalped by pop” as the American hardcore punk band Global Threat once presumed, there was no chance for Punk to survive. The audience (if not the musicians themselves) had to “Grow up” or simply quit to adapt to a culture that requires a certain submission to the norms set across society, EVEN in rebellion, else a definite failure in all purpose is inevitable. (of course these notions have been somewhat torn down post the Egyptian revolution that’s been going on for a year) but those left of us at the time to grieve over the idea of giving up and getting a 9 to 5 job just had to exit the country!

Ex member of Cairo’s first punk band Brain Candy; front man Karim Kandil aka ‘Andy’ now resides in London and is on the Guitar/Vox with Psychobilly punk band The Moonshine Stalkers, they are definitely on the rise and will eventually be gaining much attention from worldwide fans for their immense and diverse musical backgrounds. Their live gigs are wicked and I’d definitely recommend you check them out! A couple of other musicians who played Punk in Cairo with the short lived bands Sick Gdrsh, The Stinkin’ Skunx and Spit Diet are also working on their own formations in London. Faking It, a once Pop Punk band has changed their direction to play Alternative Rock music instead and are still playing Cairo. Also The Cadillac’s are a new Rockabilly band that are from the ashes of Cairo’s Punk and Rock n’ Roll.

It would be inadequate from my part, to not admit the fact that independent artists and record labels have been on the rise! The first independent record label that offers and tailors professional services for underground bands and artists is UMF Records (Underground Music Federation). They handle “Professional Video/Audio production, Music Distribution, Advertising and Marketing and Events Planning and Organizing”. Setting aside my former identity as a disgruntled musician with a passion for Punk. There’s a significant potential for true talent to change state. Perhaps Punk Rock will emerge once again with a more genuine lot of audience and musicians who won’t take it for a “Fad”, none the less true talent is evident in Cairo and has long included solo musicians who never truly formed or joined a stable band for whatever reasons. But rather appear from time to time at open mic nights and local pubs or public and private events to play a few songs and make a long lasting impression. Such artists belong to the Rock n’ Roll and Indie Rock cultures and have a few home recordings and DIY studio EPs but that’s as far is it goes for the reclusive lot. Another similar but newer phenomenon that is coming about is Arabic Hip Hop music; the kind that discusses all the social, political and cultural oppression enforced upon the country, the kind that is just as sarcastic as it is grave in its nature! Very open minded music made by open minded Egyptians who are raw in their musical productions and real savage in their lyrics! They are more inclined to singing in Egyptian Arabic to exactly address Egyptian issues that are their most concern. Youssef Altay, lyricist and former drummer of Idle Mind, a local Heavy Metal band in Cairo, (also engaged with other local Metal bands: Viper, Mascara, Overlords of The Brewing Women, and Dragons of Destruction) became a rapper by accident. “My main bread and butter is writing scripts in English and Arabic. Advertising scripts and personal movie projects of my own. One day.” This is more or less how he got sucked into the Hip Hop thing, when at his friend’s house one day who was making Arabic pop music “Like Amr Diab’s stuff or whatever” and as a joke Altay wrote some lyrics that he ended up rapping himself and eventually him and a few of his friends, by the mere act of goofing around, had 7 self-released albums out Anonymously as one of the band members was signed with Rotana Music (An Arab-run, corporate record label) And Altay wrote lyrics that could get them “Arrested/sued/maimed/crucified… etc”. Altay decided to go solo and take Hip Hop music seriously when he discovered that a member of their band has given away Altay’s lyrics to another rapper who released their song with Altay’s name in the writing credits and no actual permission from him. “I realised if my shit is good enough to be stolen then it must be worth it. I ditched the metal/rock scene and I started working on rap music, learned to produce, got together with a friend called BamBam, did our own Hip Hop group called Extra Cheese”.

Extra Cheese; L- BamBam, R- Youssef Altay

They stormed into quiet open mic nights and acoustic indie music festivals with an all-new and exhilarated genre! Now Altay works on his own with Ahmed Ghazouli aka ZULI handling production, and got around 35 tracks. “We released 11 songs online, got offers from basically all the independent Egyptian record labels but to maintain my flexibility to work with whomever, and say whatever I want I decided to start a label and sign myself to it. It’s called 3ndk 7ga 2olha (Arabic for “Got Something, Say It”) 372 records so far and the rest will be released later.” Youssef Altay is probably one of the very few talented musicians who’s aspirations confidently remain within the Egyptian sphere with all its goods and evils. “I don’t want to go international or barely regional. My music is for people who understand what I’m saying. My personal M.O behind everything is to completely destroy the word ‘Balady/Bee2a’ (two Arabic terms for “Low Standard”) and bring down classism! I don’t use art to convey any messages either as I’m personally against that! I used to be a real hater and I’d have tonnes of bands to condemn but honestly what I’ve come to realise is that we’re all part of the scene. Whether it’s an Emo kid who likes to wear leggings on his forearms or a Sudanese trumpet player or even the sleazy acoustic guitar toting, philosopher types. All these people are a part of it and I’m proud to be a part of it too. Youtube is the television and iPods are the radio now. Which means people will only listen to what they want to. The days of bands using their social network to seem successful are thankfully over. Big record labels can pack up and go home at this point I think we got everything covered. Artists even shoot their own videos now, so yeah…” Youssef Altay I had to include in this article, discarding the fact that he would like to remain local, but to portray him as an example of the kind of determination some Egyptians have that may not include international self-actualization but the mere spirit of rebellion against the local social and political nuisances, much like what any distressed, raging, talented musicians aim for in any country in the world, musicians that are willing to do whatever it takes to send their specific relevant messages across, effectively and efficiently towards the right targets! Altay’s only targets are obviously the malfunctioning in Egypt; of people and notions.

So it comes in small doses, the music scene in Egypt, yes! It has a long list of foreign genres that are practised in the tiniest corners of our society, some that I haven’t even mentioned enough if at all, and also, surprisingly to some folk, Egypt, like any other country, has a severe amount of drug users and junkies; Musicians included consequently. The relevance’s found between Cairo and any other city in the world in relation to the drugs that go with whichever music genre are seriously apparent! But one thing that is completely dissimilar compared to other countries, is the on-going and uninterrupted double life a musician must lead in order to pursue their passion in life AND remain financially secure. Even if they do become successful musicians, it is never taken seriously enough that it just has to come in second, and they simply cannot abandon their severely time-consuming 9 to 5 job, if not entirely get sucked into it and eventually having to abandon music, unless they’re well off in the first place, and by well off I mean probably so well off they needn’t work anyway and are simply lucky to enjoy some talent they can pursue without having to worry about money at all. Other than that, Egyptian society is not in favour for Rock n’ Roll or any non-consumerist genres. It is the sad truth, but perhaps some day in the future someone with the proper tools will invest in a project that supports whichever inspirational, musical innovations that may shift the notions towards limitless possibilities for music in Egypt. It’s all a matter of chance really…

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2 comments on “Cairo, Egypt – LTW reports on the current music scene”

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  1. Wow, very insightful! Really enjoyed reading this.

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