Massar Egbari, formed in 2005, has carved a place for itself in the Egyptian music scene, with their signature style of oriental Arabic rock tunes fused with jazz and Western sounds, still rolling 10 years later.
Having an impressive luggage of successes in Egypt and many appearances outside the country, the band is ready for their next performance in The Mix, a concert held at the closing of London's Shubbak music programme marking Massar Egbari's second performance in London since their debut at Shubbak’s 2013 festival.
On Saturday, 25 July, The Mix will also include musicians from Palestine as well as oud player Soufian Saihi who will perform a set inspired by gnawa.
Massar Egbari's lineup includes Ayman Massoud on keyboards, Hani El-Dakkak on guitar and lead vocals, Ahmed Hafez playing bass, Tamer Attallah on the drums and guitarist Mahmoud Siam, who joined the band in 2008.
Almost autobiographical, the band’s name reflects their journey. The term Massar Egbari, translating to Compulsory Detour, carries in it the story of younger versions of the band members, who were all hoping to be musicians but were deterred by their families asking them to put their energies into something else.
“There is this compulsory detour dictated by society, the common idea that you must be a doctor in order to be perceived as a normal human being. We wanted to do what we love — namely music — while at the same time be able to afford a living,” Massoud tells Ahram Online during a warm evening before one of their concerts at Darb 1718 Art and Culture Centre in Cairo, an event that took place earlier this month.
Through the years, the band embodied a fight against social boxes and pre-laid paths. The compulsory detour eventually got them to their preferred destinations.
“El-Dakkak and I decided to quit our jobs and focus solely on music. This, I believe, was the most important challenge we managed to overcome, and now to a great extent the situation is stable financially,” Massoud says.
“We were able to overcome and break all these limiting social norms, and live in this country we love the way we’d like to. This in and of itself is an achievement we’re happy with,” Attallah adds.
If there is love for their country, Massar Egbari’s music is by no means romantic, but rather a looking glass, a sort of dialogue, sometimes frustrated, sometimes cheeky, always about society and its issues.
In 2011, the band was awarded by UNESCO, earning the title of Artist for Intercultural Dialogue, “for their outstanding contribution to foster exchange and dialogue between Arabs and Western culture through art.”
This social commentary is still present a decade after the band first formed, in their latest album Tou’aa w Te’oum (Fall and Get Back Up) with the idea of the rollercoaster-of-life running through it.
“Tou'aa w Te'oum conveys the current state of society and the country as a whole. It also communicates something more personal for us, because we were overcome by confusion while recording the songs,” Siam says swiftly, adding how the album is "very close to our hearts."
"We wanted to experiment. This time around we were bolder, trying new types of music, even if that involved taking the risk that people might find it weird,” he adds.
Yet the signature sound of Massar Egbari, fusing rock and oriental music, is soundly preserved and anything but lost amidst this musical experimentation.
“We’ve reached this stage where we feel like it’s not about doing rock or any other genre, we undertake any good music that has something unique or interesting about it. This is precisely why our scope became wider and now we are not only confined to rock or jazz music anymore; we're more open to other styles,” El-Dakkak says.
Regarding Tou’aa w Te’oum, El-Dakkak adds that the album “focused more on lyrics, especially those on the theme of opposites, which speak of life and its many possibilities.”
With their lyrics reflecting life and as such becoming a natural mirror of human, social and political issues, Siam explains that he does not think the band has any politically controversial songs or any song that tackles politics directly.
“Actually, in our musical approach, we don’t like any direct treatment of any topic in general, whether it’s politics or anything else. We sing about topics that speak back to society and the street, and you make what you want out of it," he adds.
With all band members growing up in Alexandria, they reflect on how this affected their journey.
“Alexandria made us feel special and was reflected in our style of music, lyrics, even our way of thinking and everything,” El-Dakkak says
“There are not many performance venues in Alexandria, so living there has always urged us to travel. We were also curious to meet musicians on the other side of the Mediterranean, so since our very beginnings in 2007 we got in touch with different festivals unfolding across the Mediterranean cities,” Massoud adds.
Yet the band is very attached to their Mediterranean hometown. “That it made us feel special is one of the main reasons why we don’t want to move.” El-Dakkak says.
“Besides all that, Alexandria was home to the very first Egyptian independent bands, like Les Petits Chats. The same was true of theatre and cinema. In fact, the second international cinema show screening by the Lumiere brothers was held there. In the beginning of the 20th century, Alexandria was New York of that age,” Hafez says.
This honouring of the past is reflected at their studio, Teatro Eskenderia, located in a historic building on Alexandria’s Fouad Street and decorated with portraits of stars from Egypt’s golden era.
Teatro Eskenderia is a jamming and recording studio on the second floor of a restaurant, also founded by the band.
“Our studio is open for many bands who would come and play their music. It was an independent venue, owned by our late Godfather Fady Iskandar, a musician and partner of producer Taymour Kouta, who gave us the space to host our rehearsals. Besides the rehearsals, we held workshops in order to help independent bands in Alexandria, like Karakeeb band,” Attallah says.
Their project has expanded to Cairo, with Teatro Maadi opening in 2014 as an arts space and social hub that also hosts bands and music performances.
This year the band has been actively performing locally, and they have a number of upcoming international tours, with London being their next stop.
“We're also heading for concerts in Paris, Amman and Tunisia,” adds Siam.
“Finally, as we return to Egypt we'll perform at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 16 August as part of the annual Summer Festival,” Massoud says, adding how this specific festival has witnessed the band's beginnings.
"A few years back, there was a competition element in the festival, and I remember we won this competition once. Hence naturally this festival is very dear to our hearts,” Hafez continues.
Massar Egbari has also made it into film and theatre, with their music featured in films including Qoblat Masrou’a (Stolen Kisses) in 2008 directed by Khaled El-Haggar, and El-Hawi in 2010 by director Ibrahim El-Batout, where the band members also acted.
In 2010, Ahmad Abdalla brought the band to the screen, with their music featured in Microphone, an award winning film about underground music in Alexandria.
No doubt the success of Microphone played an important role in the artistic meanders of the band that today continues their journey reaching beyond Alexandria and the country.
Additional reporting: Ibrahim Salem and Nourhan Tewfik