What's Driving Egypt's Music Scene To The Edges

A look at the rapidly evolving experimental electronic music scene in Cairo.

Mahmoud Refat, an Egyptian musician and the founder of 100Copies, in October 2009.
Mahmoud Refat, an Egyptian musician and the founder of 100Copies, in October 2009.
Habiba Effat

CAIRO — "Everybody’s a producer,” a line from electro-pop duo Wetrobots" hit track “Disco Me,” rings true in Cairo today. It feels like every time you turn your head, somebody’s cut up some samples and released an experimental electronic music EP, and someone else is asking you to follow them on SoundCloud.

It wasn’t always this way: 15 years ago, the alternative music scene was dominated by guitar-based bands playing progressive rock and heavy metal.

“When I first started out, I didn’t know anyone making this kind of music,” says producer Wael Alaa, 26, known as NEOBYRD to his legion of fans. “You only had DJs.”

Electronic music producers, few and far between, were confined to their bedrooms, learning the ropes of audio editing through hours upon hours of experimentation. The luxury of teaching yourself to create loops via YouTube wasn’t an option, and experimental genres were largely shunned by a conservative audience and the handful of music venues available.

After the wane of rock music and a general stagnation in the scene, around a decade ago trance-obsessed DJs began clamoring to fill the void with up-tempo rhythms and feathery vocals, playing at Egypt’s four or five clubs. Audiences slowly began accepting the replacement of distorted solos with kicks and snares, even if tastes were largely confined to mainstream EDM trends.

Starting out

Now, with the advent of alternative music spaces in the last few years, such as 100Copies and, more recently, Vent, and new record labels like Electrum Records and Subspace popping up, the opportunity for electronic producers to make their mark cracked wide open. Yet some think the industry’s development may be slowing down.

Most electronic musicians working in Egypt now seem to have started out experimenting on an early version of the digital audio workstation FruityLoops, or a similar basic software, and sought assistance from wherever they could find it.

“You only had reading material, articles, tutorials,” says Mahmoud Shiha, 27, a prominent DJ and producer. “We experimented and we taught ourselves.”

Ismail Hosny, also 27, who makes up half of Wetrobots recalls going on chat rooms like Soulseek. "We’d ask questions about production, and people would help,” he says.

The producer Wael Alaa, known as NEOBYRD, performing live in Cairo, Egypt, in 2013 — Photo: NEOBYRD.

Producers of mahraganat (literally “festivals,” a grassroots genre that fuses shaabi with hip hop, electro and dance — used interchangeably with the Western-friendly term “electro-shaabi”) had just as much difficulty creating tracks back in the day.

“I don’t understand English, and nobody was there to teach me how to use these programs. I learned from trial and error, from experience,” says Dezel, 23, of mahragan pioneers Madfaageya.

Epic productions

But now, independent studios and labels are slowly starting to fill the void, allowing for more collaboration, education and opportunity. Recently, for instance, 100Copies and UK broadcaster RinseFM collaborated to form “Cairo Calling,” a program designed to bridge mahragan and London’s electronic music scene.

In 2011, Shiha, Hosny and Hussein Sherbini (the other half of Wetrobots and a producer in his own right) came together to create EPIC 101, a media production studio, and launched a one-of-a-kind course aimed at teaching people how to produce, mix and master their own tracks.

Mahmoud Refat, a renowned musician and founder of 100Copies, often referred to as the “godfather” of the experimental music scene, believes there is definite room for improvement.

“We need structure: More labels, venues, managers, press, radio. Dynamics need to develop, and more exit channels need to be created,” he says. “The industry needs an audience.”

For mahragan producers, unlike their experimental electronic counterparts, garnering a widespread audience came naturally.

“Mahragan speaks the language of the street, and so people can relate,” says KANKA, 21, also of Madfaageya. “The media also made a huge difference. Mahraganat really started spreading when there was publicity through television and movies.”

Refat says Egypt's musicians are "hitting a wall,” with too little return on the investment of time and money. "Electronic musicians have much better chances abroad.”

But despite lacking exit routes and mainstream success, all players agree that the experimental music scene has developed rapidly in the last few years, and some see it as starting to open up.

“We can’t tell how fast or slow it’s going, but it’s in a good place. I feel lucky we’re doing this now,” Sherbini says. “This is just the starting point.”

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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