Every night as the clock strikes eleven, the Egyptian Twittersphere is filled with music lovers gushing over the majesty of El Sett (The Lady): it's time for the daily Umm Kalthoum session on Gramafoon.com, the online radio taking the internet by storm.
Some nights the show features a rare Umm Kalthoum performance in Sudan; on other nights it features a special recording of "Enta Omry" (You Are My Life); and sometimes it just features one of the timeless, familiar classics that never grow old.
Gramafoon, which launched in May 2011, is rapidly gathering a substantial fan base and becoming a daily routine for many ardent listeners. The radio currently hosts a main station and four genre-specific stations: Rock, Jazz, Oldies, and Arabic Classics.
The Gramafoon team recently launched an Android application, making their enormous music selection accessible to users at all times. An iOS application is currently in the works as well.
The project's founder, Ahmed Kamal, says he began collecting music recordings seven years before Gramafoon came to life. "My grandfather used to record music and concerts from the radio back in the 1940s," says Kamal. "Those recordings, in addition to the large collection of CDs I accumulated over the years... became the nucleus of Gramafoon."
At first, Kamal – believing everyone should get the chance to listen to beautiful music, especially when so much of it is not available for purchase – wanted to make download links to songs available for users online. However, several artists complained on the grounds that this was an infringement of copyright laws, so Kamal had to remove the links. This is where the idea for the radio came from. In an online radio format, he could make the music available for listening at any time without allowing users to download the songs, thus avoiding violations of artists' intellectual property rights.
"The music collection started growing then," says Kamal. "Somebody would find us playing a rare recording of a Fayrouz concert in Algeria, for example; so they would offer us another rare recording by someone else in exchange for that concert... At first we exchanged songs, then full archives, then hard disks filled with endless gigabytes of music – we now have over 750,000 tracks."
Gramafoon's archives include tracks ranging from classic gems by Sayed Darwish, Sheikh Imam and Sayed Mekkawi, special concerts given by Warda, Sabah and Wadea El Safi, instrumental compositions by Ziad Rahbani, tracks by contemporary icons like Mohamed Mounir, and songs by fresh independent Arab artists like Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila and Tunisian Amal Methlouthi. The Gramafoon track list also features numbers by jazz legend Miles Davis, solos by Indian music pioneer Ravi Shankar, rock favourites by Sting, world-famous overtures by Tchaikovsky, and even movie soundtracks from pictures like Schindler’s List.
Gramafoon's radio playlist is always accompanied by live commentary on Facebook and Twitter, providing listeners with additional information about the track they are listening to. Kamal notes that the Gramafoon staff has compiled an archive that includes little-known information on almost 700 musicians from around the Arab world. "The team relies on it to provide our listeners with interesting pieces of information on social media. We plan to release the full archive soon, as soon as it's 100 percent complete. We don't want a single Arab artist to be missing from it," Kamal says.
Although the radio has become very popular, getting it up and running was no easy task. "There was a problem with funding of course," explains Kamal, "but we managed, thankfully. I am originally a system administrator and have a solid background in technology, so we handled a lot of the technical aspects of managing the Gramafoon site ourselves instead of hiring someone to take care of them."
"The real challenge, however, was how to keep the radio working 24 hours," he says. "The internet connection in Egypt, coupled with the recent deterioration in electricity, makes it very difficult to pull that off. That's why we decided to move our main transmitter to the United Kingdom, where we access it remotely from Egypt."
Kamal says that Gramafoon has also considered expanding to FM radio, acknowledging that it would bring a project like Gramafoon much more exposure and a broader audience than an online channel could. Internet users in Egypt may have increased exponentially over the past few years, but many Egyptians still rely on FM radios as a means of communication and entertainment.
"We met with the Minister of Information during the Muslim Brotherhood's tenure, Salah Abdel Maksoud, with a number of other established online radios, including Radio Tram and Mubasher Handaset Al-Qahira," he recounts; "after more than an hour of speaking about the importance of youth projects, he gave us a list of impossible conditions that we would need to meet in order to be able to transmit on the public FM radio waves.”
Kamal and his partners were told they would need to pay LE 500,000, in addition to acquiring permits from military intelligence, general intelligence, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Information. After all that "the government would also take 60% of any profit the station makes."
"I've given up," Kamal admits. "We will stay online until we create a stir that makes them decide that we need to be monitored and approach us themselves," Kamal declares.
"It's sad, though, because Egyptian broadcasting is in a sorry state right now," Kamal laments. "I've always loved the radio. I've listened to it religiously ever since I was seven years old… now I can't stand it."
However, Kamal still thinks online radios can get somewhere. Stemming from this belief, Gramafoon – in partnership with the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF) and an NGO called Mobaderoun (Initiators) – will hold a week-long workshop on the technical aspects of establishing and maintaining an online radio this month in Port Said. "We're planning to hold similar workshops soon in Cairo and Alexandria as well," Kamal says.
There are plans for expansion of the radio as well. Two more stations will be added to the existing five: Radio Om Kalthoum, dedicated solely to songs by the late Egyptian legend, and Nostalgia, a station featuring retro tunes from the 1980s and 90s.
The team behind Gramafoon is also compiling data for another ambitious project with support from the ADEF: an encyclopaedia on traditional Egyptian instruments, which will include comprehensive information about each instrument, such as how it's made, where it's used, how it's played. The project is currently in the data entry stage, and Kamal will be embarking on a trip from Fayoum to Aswan in mid-November to continue research on Upper Egyptian traditional instruments.
Kamal says his aim wasn't just to revive Egypt's musical heritage, but also to celebrate music globally, in all of its genres and variations.
"We want to expose people to music that is different from what is currently prevalent on the radio and TV. We don't just play old forgotten treasures, but also new tracks that we believe deserve more appreciation... We want to put it all out there, and give people the luxury of choice, the chance to discover new music, shape their own musical tastes and listen to whatever they choose to listen to."
You can listen to Gramafoon here.