Egypt sees resurgence in independent music scene

Sunday 27/11/2016
Egyptian musicians perform at a studio in Cairo, on October 24th, 2016. (AFP)

Cairo - At a club in downtown Cai­ro, Ahmed Saleh pumps electronic beats from his laptop as Abdullah Mini­awy chants to a cheer­ing crowd, the duo part of a wave of new talent on Egypt’s underground music scene.

Emerging artists are creating an eclectic selection of hip-hop, dub­step, electronic and rock music, with some influenced by traditional Egyptian sounds.

The movement began in the mid- 2000s as musicians by-passed re­cord labels to reach their listeners directly via the internet.

It was boosted by Egypt’s 2011 uprising that toppled long-time au­thoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

“This movement began finding an audience because it has become accessible on the internet, instead of the market being dominated by those who release CDs,” says Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, a Cairo-born Pales­tinian musician who co-founded Ma3azef, an online Arab music mag­azine.

From the second half of the 2000s, musicians have used websites such as SoundCloud, YouTube and Face­book to publish and promote their music.

That has challenged record labels’ traditional gatekeeper role between artists and audiences.

“This is the first time in Egypt, at least since the 1920s, where music really represents the people in a di­rect way, without any intermediary,” says Mahmoud Refat, founder of re­cord label 100Copies Music.

The birth of Mahraganat music around the same period also reflect­ed this shift in the industry.

Emerging from working-class neighbourhoods, it became Egypt’s most listened-to genre — with little involvement from record compa­nies.

Using cheap or free software, young men began mixing tradition­al Egyptian music with electronic sounds, creating loud, eclectic beats.

Meanwhile, artists began net­working online, says musician Rami Abadir, who released his first official album with Canadian record label D.M.T. Records in May.

“This didn’t exist until 2009 or 2010, or it existed but on a very small scale,” he says.

The genre found a small but grow­ing audience in a country where, ac­cording to the United Nations, 40% of the population is between 10 and 20 years old.

The 2011 revolution boosted the movement.

“A lot of things took a push with what happened in 2011 and 2012 and the revolution,” says Maurice Louca, composer of the acclaimed 2014 electronic album Benhayyi Al- Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot).

While most of the music was non-political, a security void made it easier to open spaces and organise festivals.

“There was a very nice atmos­phere where anyone who wanted to do anything could just do it,” says Abadir.

Egypt’s first free presidential elec­tion in 2012 brought to power Is­lamist Muhammad Morsi, who was ousted by the army amid a popular uprising a year later.

Human rights groups have ac­cused then-army chief General Ab­del Fattah al-Sisi, who went on to become president, of limiting free­dom of expression.

Venues such as Vent, which opened in 2013, promoted new, ex­perimental music.

Many have since closed, but sev­eral still hold regular live sessions.

While many musicians have sec­ond jobs to make a living, some have been able to go full time and performed at home and abroad.

Saleh has performed up to five times a month this year, including gigs with Alexandria-based psyche­delic and electronic rock band Tel­epoetic.

Louca has given 50 concerts over­seas this year alone.

As the artists diversified, so did listeners’ tastes.

Now, the audience “is receptive to this and waiting for new things… especially in Egypt,” says Abu Ghaz­aleh.

Some tracks by Egyptian hip-hop artists Abyusif and Ahmed Kamel have been played more than a quar­ter of a million times on Sound­Cloud.

“Hip-hop in Egypt is like that. Its first and last place is the internet,” says Refat, whose label caters to independent and Mahraganat musi­cians.

That contrasts with the 1990s, when authorities cracked down on concerts and accused attendees of practising Satanism, according to Louca.

“We felt like we were in an abso­lute desert,” he says.

While the scene centres around Cairo, other musicians in the region have flourished online.

“We kind of found it staggering the amount of talent around, and a lot of people doing what we con­sider to be very high-quality mu­sic,” says Abdel-Rahman Hussein, co-founder of Dandin, a Middle East music platform.

Hip-hop artists from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan have collaborated, while cross-genre projects have mushroomed in Beirut, says Ziad Nawfal, co-founder of the inde­pendent Lebanese label Ruptured.

The wave of new music “express­es real things for the people”, says Abu Ghazaleh. “This is what this music is doing, so it has no place to go but grow further.”

Agence France-Presse