A darkly dressed, long haired guitarist rips violent blasts from his blazing instrument as hundreds of manic fans rollick in the mosh pit. Their fists shoot up with index and pinky fingers splayed in the international symbol to rock on, head-banging as fast double-bass drums seem to shake the smoky air.
This was the scene at Metal Blast, the first metal concert to be held in Egypt after the revolution (March 2011 at in El Sawy Culturewheel).
A brief look at that ecstatic crowd, bustling with energy, roiling with joy, the undeniable roar of freedom; even the most modest spectator would want to join in the glad smashing of that pit.
A few years ago, an event like this one was unlikely to be seen in the public.
The Egyptian metal scene, once cornered by the now-dismantled State Security Investigations Service is back and thriving with numerous ongoing gigs and concerts featuring dozens of Egyptian bands.
Against all odds
In the early 1990s, the Egyptian publications Rose al-Yousefpublished a study on the youth interests that placed exaggerated emphasis on groups of youth, dressed in black and sporting piercings, who were interested in metal music. The research identified these young people as satanic followers who, as the story grew, began getting arrested by State Security, accused of being part of a growing “satanic trend.” The incident would stigmatize the Egyptian metal scene for years.
Metal fans argue the moral panic was part of State Security’s strategy of public distraction. At the time it gained huge media attention and raised the concerns of a largely conservative Egyptian society.
The bad press caused a sudden collapse of Cairo’s growing metal scene at the time, with many bands and fans permanently losing interest in remaining part of a music scene that carried with it serious stigmas and legal consequences.
The infamous satanic worship cases could have escalated to prosecution on the basis of blasphemy laws that outlaw the ridicule of religions.
After a few years of hiatus, the Egyptian metal scene slowly and cautiously resurfaced in mostly remote areas around Cairo and on Nile boats away from the scrutiny of the public and State Security.
The organisers of these events relied on word of mouth advertising within a constricted circle of metal fans and the Egyptian metal scene regained a following both from a new generation who had never experienced the crackdown in the 1990s as well as persistent and defiant metal fans from that years before.
However, it wasn’t until El Sawy Culturewheel (Zamalek) had encouraged rock and metal bands to perform in the mid 2000s that the Egyptian metal scene acquired a sense of a much needed legitimacy and protection that further encouraged bands and fans to become part of it.
As a result of this significant push, two international bands performed in 2007 in front hundreds of metal fans.
Also in 2007, Wyvern, one of the leading metal groups in Egypt, also performed in the heart of Cairo along other metal bands in the SOS music festival in front of thousands of music fans which attracted significant media coverage.
This freedom and success to break away from the fears of the glooming fate of state control, however, was cut short when once again in 2008 several gigs were shut down and their organisers were detained by State Security.
While metal bands continued to perform at El Sawy Culturewheel, few have taken the initiative to organize or perform outside the safety of the cultural centre.
New era for Metal Music in Egypt
After the revolution and its success in dismantling state security, the Egyptian metal scene is growing within El Sawy Culturewheel as well as outside it.
In March this year the first volume of Metal Blast attracted almost 1,000 fans in El Sawy Culturewheel. A month later, the same venue in collaboration with Metal Blast organisers held the first Metal festival, which lasted for three days and was covered by the government owned Egypt satellite channel.
Karim El Sharkawy, organiser of Metal Blast, felt rejuvenated by the success of these events is considering once again organising open air festivals outside the Wheel.
“State Security has continuously intimidated venue owners and forced them to cancel our contracts, some of them refused to even refund our deposits. We are now hoping that State Security is dismantled we can expand our activity to venues outside El Sakkiah,” says Sharkawy.
Sharkawy is encouraged by the recent success of the second installment of “Heavy Tunes,” the first open air metal festival to be held this year.
“We hope that sponsors would feel more secure about their investment and become interested in the potentials of the metal scene,” Sharkawy elaborated.
Ali Mostafa of Rock Nation, another event label, while optimistic about the future is concerned about problems plaguing the metal scene other than state security.
“There are still three main problems with the Egyptian metal scene that we must face. Firstly, the attitude and behaviour of some fans of the genre that emphasize the stigma that has accompanied us for years. Secondly, the conflicts between the organisers themselves and, finally, the weak financial gains of the gigs despite their potential.”
“I am also concerned that sponsors would be reluctant to invest or support these kinds of gigs amidst the instability that the country is currently experiencing,” Mostafa added.
Metal veteran Ahmed Ekramy, owner of Music Gates label has a more critical view of the current situation of the metal scene.
“The regime has fallen, but the mindset is still the same,” says Ekramy.
“The difference between metal musicians and any other musician is the color of their shirts. However, investors and sponsors still hold the same negative view of the genre and don’t want to be involved with it just yet.”
Ekramy who booked the British death metal band Napalm Death for a show in September is hopeful that this will be “the first actual step to support tourism in Egypt by the metal scene.”
He believes that the general sentiment against metal is groundless.
“In metal concerts, the law is largely maintained and respected compared to other events such as trance concerts that are based on selling alcohol sometimes to minors.”
Ahmed Abdul Moneim, guitarist of metal core band Destiny in Chains, is frustrated by the persistence of the media and the public to view metal musicians negatively. “I am a Muslim. I know the five pillars of Islam. I pray and I fast just like anybody else.
“We don’t attack religions in our songs and the topics of our songs are mainly primal human emotions,” Moneim explains.
Metal musicians in Egypt take pride in their musical taste, saying they enjoy being set apart from the mainstream.
“Egyptian pop music only deals with one topic: romance. We on the other hand deal with social, individual and political issues but it seems that it’s not what most people want,” Muhammed Hisham, drummer of local band Egypticus, complains.
Despite the difficulties and the challenges that face them, metal fans in Egypt say they feel that the revolution has granted them a space of freedom that never existed before. While many are cautiously optimistic, some are still worried about a restoration of dangers from the past.
Nevertheless, the scene is trying to recreate and represent itself as a legitimate subculture that has the right to exist within Egypt’s diverse culture.
On Sunday, 17 July, El Sawy Culturweheel will hold a metal music night, featuring two metal bands performing original music: Enraged and Simplexity
El Sawy Culturewheel, Zamalek, 17 July at 8pm