From Vibe to Da House: Siko, an Egyptian music business entrepreneur who dreams big

May Selim, Thursday 21 Dec 2017

Ahmed Mohamed Sakran, known as Siko, is the founder of Cairo’s Vibe studio and Da House, a newer initiative embracing independent musicians

Ahmed Mohamed Sakran, known as Siko, sits in his office in Vibe studio (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

In a tall building on Dokki’s busy Mosaddek Street is Vibe for Developing Arts, a well-established music studio that opened its doors in 2011 and where, a few floors above, the younger initiative Da House was launched in 2016.

As I move between floors asking for the spaces’ founder and director Ahmed Mohamed Sakran, the receptionist asks with surprise: “Excuse-me, who exactly are you searching for?”

Curiously, hardly anyone knows the real name of this young entrepreneur who, with Vibe and then Da House, has made a strong imprint on Egypt’s music scene. He is known simply as Siko, the friend of all musicians.

The owner of two significant venues, which attract an increasing number of musicians and fans, at first sight Siko doesn’t give an impression of a man with huge responsibilities on his shoulders.

Wearing a black polo shirt and jeans, in Vibe studio he says he feels at home.

Sitting behind his desk he smiles while explaining: “Everyone knows Siko. In fact, it was the singer Sherine Amr from the independent band Mascara who gave me this pseudonym.”

“My ten-year-old daughter Leila was confused to see people in the office address me as Siko. ‘Dad, who is this Siko?’, she asked me one day.”

Siko, who is in his thirties, lives in the world of underground music and has become a friend of many stars in the Arab world. He also knows how to profit from his studio and, at the same time, support real talent.

Vibe for Developing Arts is equipped with five rehearsal rooms, a space for recording and a shop for the rental and purchase of equipment and musical instruments. The studio was founded at a critical moment in Egyptian history, in 2011.

“Prior to launching Vibe, I worked in another music studio, where I got closer to the world of musicians. I saw problems that face many young and still starting independent and/or underground musicians. I spent around six years studying a possibility of launching my own project, my studio. I looked into the ups and downs, the many challenges that this endeavour can bring,” he explains.

Three months after the January 2011 revolution, Siko partnered with a friend and rented a large apartment in Dokki, the current location of Vibe. They restored it, painted it, and covered the walls with soundproofing material.

The venue opened its doors in October of that year, and despite the political instability that followed the revolution and the many troubles taking over the streets, Siko believed that the studio would be a success.

“Those were very critical months, on the political level. But also it was the time for independent music to take the stage. In a way, the revolution has given legitimacy to many independent bands and has encouraged many young people to listen to them and pay more attention to all non-commercial and non traditional musicians.”

Siko believes that, as a result of the political changes, listeners became more interested in songs that carried social and political undertones.

“No wonder the underground and independent musicians began gaining more popularity. Of course, putting in mind the great success of some bands, today calling them underground is no longer valid. Some of them have become the sought-after stars here and their concerts attract thousands of fans,” Siko explains, adding that the term “underground” is used for self-financing performers who often have other jobs that bring in income.

“The underground movement still exists and gives birth to other lesser-known bands today. It's an ongoing process.”

Siko’s work aims at supporting the self-employed first. He wants to encourage their initiatives so they can create and express themselves freely. At the same time, the studio also attracts well-known stars such as Mohamed Mounir, Assala, Sherine Abdel Wahab and other musicians who represent popular and commercial music.

“Vibe is an English word that derives from vibration, and music is all about a game of vibrations. It's an art that touches the soul and the heart, never leaving you indifferent. I want to provide each and every musician with the necessary equipment for his rehearsal and for the recording of his album,” Siko explained.

Although Siko is a big fan of music and listens to many genres -- rock, metal, pop, underground experimentations and even mahraganat music – his heart leans the most towards jazz.

“I have to respect all kinds of music. While some people frown at mahraganat musicians, I embrace them: their songs and music are part of our daily lives. My six-year-old son Seif listens to mahraganat rhythmic music and begins to dance. He hears the songs in the media, in public transport, etc. It is by explaining to him the difference between different musical genres and by encouraging him to play the piano that he begins to understand that music is a diversified art,” says Siko, raising another important question, that of education and of the young audience.

“The audience who listens to the independent bands or attends their concerts consists mostly of a narrow segment of the society: they are often graduates of private schools; many of them are linked to music in a way or another; some have music as part of their school curriculum and activity,” he explains. 

“The situation is different with students of state schools; they are often disconnected completely from singing and music. No wonder they cannot tell the difference between guitar and percussion.”

A graduate of the Faculty of Computer Science at Ain Shams University, Siko instead entered the world of music production.

Initially, his work was rather administrative, but with time he got drawn to the work of sound engineers. He watched the musicians, as well as the technicians and engineers.

He recalls when a friend, Karim Rateb, who ran a music studio, offered him work. “I stayed in his studio for a decade, in management and occasionally in sound engineering.”

Fascinated by the music business, Siko dreamed of launching his own studio, since working as an employee was not his cup of tea. “I just wanted to do what I like, in my own way.”

He has learned a lot along the way. In terms of business and music, Siko says that while there is big competition between private studios and independent spaces, he keeps calculating each step he takes and how he should move forward. His main trick lies in serving the musicians and offering them the atmosphere that will allow them to create the best music they can.

It is through Vibe that he met Sherine Abdou, Dina El-Wedidi, Massar Egbari, among many other local musicians. He says he feels proud that with the studio he is able to encourage them and participate in the production of their albums.

Five years after establishing Vibe, he opened Da House, in the same building in Dokki. Da House is a meeting place for musicians and a place for concerts and various events.

It also includes small rooms where musicians can work quietly or hold workshops related to the acoustic system or singing techniques.

“Da House complements Vibe's activities. I also wanted to launch a production company through Da House, to organise events and play the role of an artistic manager for certain stars and bands,” Siko says.

Continuing to divide his time between the two spaces, Siko’s work day usually begins around 5pm and ends at 1am or later.

“My work schedule creates problems with my family and my children,” the young entrepreneur says. “The day is reversed, and because of the school hours, I can spend days without seeing my children.”

But despite the personal challenges, Siko's dreams do not end with Da House. He wants to create a whole city of music, where he can take care of bands and singers from A to Z.

“I always have plans. The long-term plans need time, say five or seven years to lay my first stone,” he concludes.

This article was first published in French in Al-Ahram Hebdo.

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