Over the past two decades Electronica has slowly, but surely made its way into the Egyptian music scene. Today some of the home-grown talents make it to the international arena and release their LP albums. The Egyptian Electronic Music Festival organised annually is one of the local supporters of the development of this music genre.
The beginnings of the electronic music popularity in Egypt take us back to the 1990s when in selected spots on the outskirts of Cairo the grounds shook with the sounds of fast-paced electronic music and the dancing of enthusiastic youth of Cairo’s privileged to the thumping kick drums and bass lines until the early hours of dawn.
The rave scene had reached Egypt.
The underground culture of electronic dance music, neon colours and waving glowsticks had spread from Europe to the US to South America, and had finally made an appearance, albeit a timid “Egyptianised” one, in Cairo. DJs played different genres of fast-paced electronic dance music including House, Trance, Hardstyle, Drum and Bass (DnB), Hardcore techno and Breakbeat.
This was one of Egypt’s earlier introductions to Electronica; music that employs electronic technology to create or manipulate sound.
Trance and Techno
Fast-forward to today — it is not uncommon to hear the sounds of electronic trance tunes pulsing through the stereo of the car stuck next to you in traffic. It is more common still to happen upon weekly parties at high-end venues pumping electro house beats played by top international DJs — not that local DJs are lacking. In fact, it is quite the contrary; there are a multitude of skilled Egyptian DJs.
The trance duo Aly & Fila (Aly Amr Fathalah and Fadi Wassef Naguib) are a shining example of Egyptian, home-grown talent that has crossed over to international stardom. The 30-year-olds have been making electronic music and DJ’ing since the age of 18. It was not long before they established a large fan base in Egypt and decided to go international.
Aly & Fila have taken their euphoric, uplifting trance sounds all over the world, playing massive venues in party capitals like Ibiza, Vegas and London, alongside A-listers such as Armin Van Buuren and Tall Paul. The duo have been critically acclaimed by international press, fellow artists and devoted electro fans. They have been voted among the top 100 DJs in DJ Mag, peaking at number 20 in 2010.
Cairo society, though, still has a love-hate relationship with electronic music.
Among partygoers, electro dance music is widely popular. Local and international DJs spin their beats to patrons who certainly enjoy themselves, but do not necessarily take the music seriously. The party ambience overshadows the music; the music helps set the ambiance, but the ambiance is not necessarily the music.
On the other hand, Cairo’s largely rock-oriented crowds have developed a disdain for house, trance and techno. The general public often confuses electronic music with commercial club hits that may include many genres in one song — one track encompasses a combination of techno, trance, dance and pop. This has resulted in a misconception that electronic music is rather monotonous, though it is, in fact, very diverse. Only a true electronic music fan will be able to identify each different sub-genre of electronic music.
In the late 1990s, a different type of electronic music started to slowly emerge in Egypt. It was less drum-infused and more experimental. This type of Electronica was different in that it was not specifically made for dancing. It was more artistic, deep, intelligent and progressive. Still, it was not intended as stand-alone songs. “Electronic music was mostly produced for film scores back then,” Mahmoud Refat, a sound artist, musician, and producer told Ahram Online. Refat is also the founder of 100Copies, an independent record label that aims to be a platform for experimental musicians.
According to Refat, it was not until around 2005 that a small Electronica scene had fragmented. In 2007, he decided to provide an outlet for this little crowd by founding the Egyptian Electronic Music Festival, the first of its kind. “The goal was to provide a platform for musicians to showcase their work — to bring together the local audience and the local talents,” he said. International musicians have also flown in to attend the now annual event.
Drawing a bigger crowd each year —from 300 attendees the first year to 1,300 this year— the five-year-old festival reflects the gradual growth of the Electronica scene in Egypt. Refat is glad the fans are increasing, but generally does not expect massive attention. “This is not music for the millions. Even worldwide, it still has a limited audience,” he remarks.
Among the participants of the first Egyptian Electronic Music Festival was Omar Kamel, a musician, writer, producer and director. In 2001, Kamel co-produced Egypt’s first ever electronic music album, Shabaka. The inventive record fused elements from Egyptian media with live and electronic instrumentation.
Kamel admits that the album came about as a result of experimentation with his friend Yanni Giovanos. “We were exploring and trying out different sequences on the computer, then we started taking samples from the radio and media,” Kamel explains. The result was 16 vibrant, instrumental, original tracks. “It didn’t fit into any particular genre,” says Kamel.
As genres intensify, they split apart and breed new sub-forms — this is true of all art, and especially evident in the experimental album Shabaka, In fact, it is apparent in all of Kamel’s music. He later released two more albums and two online collections, incorporating Electronica with Oriental, Asian, and Latin flavours, as well as the pop/rock type of music he naturally gravitates towards.
Kamel is currently preparing to release an Arabic album, entitled Mamnou’ El Intizar. He hopes this album will serve as an catalyst for the somewhat stagnant Arabic music scene — an observation he made during his six-month stint as a music reviewer, during which the similarity of all the Arabic albums he had to listen to resulted in unintentionally similar reviews. The new album is a mix of modern rock and Arabic instrumentals with electronic hints. Perhaps it will also serve as slight introduction to a different kind of Electronic music to the Egyptian audience.
The New Entrant
The latest artist to hit the Electronica scene is Wael Alaa, who performs under the stage name NeoByrd. The 24-year-old has just released his debut CD, Transbyrd at the end of June. Judging by the positive feedback from the substantial crowd that packed his launch party, moving to the fresh, disco-influenced beats, NeoByrd is not just bound to establish a huge fan base, but also introduce them to a new genre that is yet to be explored in Cairo.
NeoByrd produces a richly textured type of music that could soundtrack a dance party as well as a chill-out room. Alaa smartly decided to present his innovative sound gradually rather than hit the traditional listener with something completely new and unfamiliar. His album, Transbyrd, consists of a large variety of easy-listening tracks. “It is an introduction to my sound,” he says. His sound is normally of the heavy electro-disco type, as opposed to the lighter disco tracks on his album.
Egypt’s music scene is thankfully getting more diverse lately, and when it comes to Electronica, the scene is growing slowly, but surely. Alaa believes the reason behind Egyptian society’s widely similar tastes in music is the limited availability of different sounds and genres.
“For the music to reach people, it has to be available,” says Alaa. He explains that unless people actively explore new realms of music, which requires effort on their part, they are likely to keep listening to the same old same old.