Adrift on electric currents: Machine Eat Man experiments with analog synths in Cairo

Maria K., Monday 5 Sep 2016

Analog synthesisers are all the rage in music around the world, and Egypt has its own players in the field, such as Mohamed Ragab, known as Machine Eat Man

Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man at ROOM art space and cafe on Friday 2 September (Photo: Andrew Absoud)

Distorted voices and creepy cosmic whistles, distant sounds of beating drums, pieces of melodies coming up to the surface and blending back into the mix.

One man on stage, surrounded by devices and wires, is pressing keys and turning knobs. Accompanying the sound, behind his back a salad of visuals is projected, running from footage of street protests to vintage black and white animation, from working mechanisms to quivering biological objects -- on the edge of disturbing, but not crossing the line. Some people are dancing, but most are contemplating the act seated, showing their appreciation by applause. 

On Friday, ROOM Art space and cafe, the cozy hub for the art crowd in Downtown Cairo, hosted a one-man-show of experimental electronic music by Mohamed Ragab, also known as Machine Eat Man. He stands out as the only Egyptian artist who builds his experimental electronic performances solely on the use of analog synthesisers, and has been doing so for a decade now.

"This time I am playing only Arturia MiniBrute, Dave Smith Instruments Mopho, Korg EMX-1 and Eventide Space, with backing tracks run by Ableton software," says Ragab, introducing his pet robots to Ahram Online. "This is the least I perform with."

There are shows which need more than one car to transport the required equipment to the venue, but Friday saw a smaller scale event featuring compositions from his ambient album Solitude as well as a small preview from the upcoming album Kon Rasoul in collaboration with the famous Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, reworked into a dance remix.

Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man at ROOM art space and cafe on Friday 2 September (Photo: Andrew Absoud)

The world of analogue synthesisers in Egypt

For people new to the genre, all electronic music basically falls into the category of "computer sounds." But analog synthesisers are a separate reality which have recently been attracting more and more listeners around the world. Once you've tuned your ear to recognise and appreciate their distinctive electric sound, you are hooked.

These instruments have come a long way from the first models of the 1920s; they were almost forgotten in the 1980s, sold for nothing it the early 1990s and then reached fetish status around the millenium, becoming sought-after collectors' items with unique voices and sound characteristics.

"A new turn in the process started after 2012, when more affordable models of analog synths hit the market," says Amir Farag, who is part of Focus Media Group, one of the major distributors of professional musical equipment in Egypt. 

"Analog gear is making a comeback, in Egypt and around the world. It caught on again in about 2012 with the release of the Arturia MiniBrute and Novation Bass Station 2. They were affordable mono synths for a great price. The older more established brands like Moog were expensive and out of the reach of most artists," Farag explains.

The cheapest analog synth now sold in Egypt is the Microbrute, a simple small synth that has the basic controls to start getting a sound. It is a budget or entry level synth to get one into the world of the instrument.

According to Farag, the sales of analogue synthesisers in Egypt are showing a steady growth of 25-30 percent every year, which means that a new generation of musicians is soon to show up with their analogue experiments.

Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man at ROOM art space and cafe on Friday 2 September (Photo: Andrew Absoud)

The sound of Mohamed Ragab

Adrift on the sound waves, Mohamed Ragab has been there since the late 1990s, when his electronic career started by chance.

"I used to have a band, and suddenly everybody left. I wanted to play music, so I brought a drum machine just to replace people. In the beginning I was really sad when people said that I am playing electronic music. Inside, I was a rock band. I would usually go on stage with synthesisers and people would ask me what it is. I really hated that period," Ragab recalls.

As of now, Ragab posesses about 11 analog electronic items, including vintage collectibles.

"I recently acquired a couple of old items from 1978 and 1979. They are even better than the new ones that I have. It is an organ/synthesiser called Farfiza, the kind that Pink Floyd used. And also a string section with a synthesiser part called Solina," he adds.

Egyptronica is a term he coined for his music, denoting the heavy use of Egyptian percussion as a basic building block for his compositions. The drum sounds are provided by Darbukator, an Egyptian-made software embracing all the traditional percussion instruments. 

"I don't only use the beats as they are, I process them with filters and effects, just to make the sound weird. Sometimes the baseline would be tabla, but I use so many effects to destroy the original sound that you will never know it is there. I think it is all about the beat. If you have a very good rhythm section, then anything else on top of it can be listenable," he explains.

Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man
Machine Eat Man at ROOM art space and cafe on Friday 2 September (Photo: Andrew Absoud)

Ragab is convinced it was the Egyptian rhythms gave him an edge over many other colleagues within the far more developed electronic music milieu in the West, where he has been touring since 2006, eventually getting to spend a whole year in the United States in 2013.

"This is when I knew that I was a good musician. In order to believe that you are good, you have to have artists around you that are better than you. They have a solid scene, it's been there for years. We have no scene, it only started in the last couple of years. We cannot compare, it would just be unfair," he said.

According to Ragab, Egypt has yet to develop the niche where he stands alone for now. 

When asked who his audience is, Ragad says that "Machine Eat Man is for artists. In my crowd I have mainly painters, filmmakers, musicians, photographers, dancers, actors. It is not commercial music, I don't make my music for the listener to make him happy. I make music for myself. And I know there are people like me out there. I am looking for those people, even if it is five or 20, I don't care."

Indeed, as independent as one can get, an alternative musician has the luxury of catering to his own taste without the pressure of being trendy or popular, and then the world moves itself towards him. "A kid came all the way from Assiut for this concert. I  was so amused I just gave him all my CDs for free! I myself barely go from Heliopolis to Zamalek to see something. This is the type of people I care about," he comments.

After all, music is not about the technical gimmicks you use, but the mood you create by the means you have. One of the people attractedvby the mood and sound of Machine Eat Man was Ghalia Benali, who already had experience collaborating with big electronic names such as Mad Professor and The Spy From Cairo.

The anticipated album Kon Rasoul, a taster of which was presented at the concert on 2 September at ROOM, is now in progress and is expected to be released in 2017.

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