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Monday, 16 December 2019

Dokkan: Egypt's instrumental band on their creative process, challenges and the future

The band's opening performance for El Geneina's Hayy Ramadan Festival in Cairo was met with resounding applause

Amina Abdel-Halim, Monday 12 Jun 2017
Dokkan band
(photo: Ahmed Alsaaty)
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The innovative musical project, Cairo-based instrumental band Dokkan opened the first performance of El Geneina for Arts and Culture's Hayy Ramadan Festival on 4 June.

The band’s inventive blend of traditional Arab music with contemporary sounds was received with resounding applause from the audience.

Following the concert, the band members Omar Magdy (guitar) and Tarek Al-Azhary (oud) spoke to Ahram Online about their journey, creative process, the challenges they have faced and their plans for the future.

Genesis

The band was founded in the summer of 2015, when Magdy and Al-Azhary met at the Oshtoora Festival of Music and Arts in Ras Sedr. The pair were introduced by a common friend, Saz player Abdallah Abozekry, and upon returning to Cairo, agreed to meet and play together.

Meeting ever more frequently, the two musicians began to compose music together. Magdy, who already played alongside percussionist Nayer Ossama and bassist Mohammed El-Mallawany in another band, asked them to join the project.

“Tarek and I soon found ourselves creating music together, so I asked the rest of our bandmates to join. After much thought we decided to call our project Dokkan, a simple name that sticks with the audience; that is how the band came to be,” Magdy recalls.

Rising popularity of instrumental music

The band has since created and performed exclusively instrumental tracks, a choice which brings its own set of challenges. Bands fronted by lead singers, who write lyrics to go along with their tunes are typically more appealing to audiences; instrumental music is not as widespread an art form.

“The greatest challenge we face as an instrumental band is that people relate much more easily to a person’s voice; they like to put a face to the music they listen to,” explain the musicians. “This is, however, slowly changing. Bands like El Dor El Awal, for instance, are rapidly gaining popularity. It has been a pleasant surprise, witnessing this shift in people’s tastes.”

Dokkan do not only rely on mainstream audiences’ shifting preferences, striving to overcome the challenges they face through constant renovation and creativity.

“We always try to make our music as varied and interesting as possible, no one passage in our songs should ever be boring to the listeners.

"The absence of a singer is compensated for, in a sense, by the inclusion of instrumental solos,” says the guitarist. One example of such creative input is the use of an Ebow and a guitar slide on one passage in their song Dayra Zar’a; these metallic objects, when they glide along the strings, create a sharp sound similar to that of a violin.

What the band members believe to be their edge, or defining trait, is the atypical combination of oud and guitar.

“Combining these two instruments has, of course, been done by other artists. Yet the outcome is usually something similar to Flamenco. We try to stray from that, and take the sound in new directions, find a middle-ground between the two instruments and explore their relationship in creative ways,” explains the guitarist.

The pair believe that their personal chemistry is reflected in the music, and has a positive impact on the final outcome.

“Tarek and I have become very good friends over time, since we spent a lot of time together over the past two years. I believe that our connection as people is positively reflected in our sound,” says Magdy.

Despite their fondness for instrumental music, Dokkan do intend to eventually collaborate with a singer. “We have spoken of a collaboration with Egyptian singer Safy, who we think is very talented and has a beautiful voice, but there are no clear plans yet,” says Al-Azhary.

The musicians’ creative process usually flows one of two ways. “Sometimes, one of us will come up with a song idea and share it with the rest. We then collectively add to it and develop it into the final outcome,” Al-Azhary says. 

One example of inspiration came when Magdy and Al-Azhary travelled to the island of Haissa in Aswan, which inspired the track of the same name: Haissa.

“Other times, we will simply record an improv session, and one passage will spontaneously stand out and evolve into a song,” Magdy explains, citing Dayra Zar’a as an example.

The art of production and management

The ensemble usually rehearse in rented studios -- a practical choice, but one which, in Egypt, raises technical complications.

“Since we need amplifiers and drumsets, our rehearsals are very loud, which makes it impossible to rehearse at one of our houses," the guitarist explains.

"There are studios you can rent out by the hour, like Ganoub studio in Nasr City. Unfortunately, studios in Egypt are usually not very well equipped. The rooms are built in a way that doesn't help with the sound, and the people in charge of the studios are not always sound engineers, so they are not qualified to handle the available equipment. These challenges are common to most of the music scene in Egypt,” he adds.

The musicians personally fund their music and rehearsals, as they all have jobs outside the band.

As a young and still growing project, Dokkan do not yet feel the need to rely on any external management.

“We manage things from within, since it has not yet come to a point where management is too overwhelming for us to handle,” say the musicians, adding that, since their first performance at Beit El Oud El Araby in 2015, they have never actually applied for a festival or concert.

“What usually happens is that someone who heard us perform somewhere gives us a call and asks us to give another performance, so it either happens through one of our connections or through word-of-mouth,” Magdy says.

The band have not yet released their first album, but audiences can expect it to come out by October 2017. It is still uncertain whether the EP will feature any collaborations with singers, but according to the musicians, it is highly unlikely.

“We were offered a chance to record some songs at the American University in Cairo, which we recently finished doing. We will still work on mixing for approximately another three months, so hopefully there will be an EP out by October.

"However, it will most likely not feature any collaborations with Safy or other singers, but we can't yet say for sure,” Magdy concludes. 

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