What's Driving Egypt's Music Scene To The Edges
A look at the rapidly evolving experimental electronic music scene in Cairo.
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.
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.
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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.
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.”