Stepping into Startup Haus on 20 April to attend Oksoundsgood was like crossing through a portal to another world. The coworking space overlooks an open-air courtyard belonging to a building in one of Downtown Cairo’s busiest streets, and that sense of space in a dense neighbourhood makes it feel like an air bubble.
It’s also what organisers of the pop-up event hoped to achieve: to give diverse artists and musicians an open space for expression, and to show audiences something refreshing.
Musician and business graduate Eslam Salem, director and co-founder of Oksoundsgood, along with Moamen Sahmoud, sought to fill a gap by creating something between DJ events, regular music concerts, and beach/desert festivals like Cloud 9 or the now-discontinued Oshtoora.
“There was nothing exactly like what we wanted to do, so we didn’t have a clear point of reference, but we knew there was a demand for it and it certainly had its audience. When we spoke to other people and collaborators it all started to shape itself more clearly,” Salem told Ahram Online.
Armed with their imagination and a clear vision, they set off to create something they themselves would be excited to attend: a mix of ingredients from local events, ones abroad, and something they hadn’t yet experienced.
“Our own experiences as concert- and festival-goers became our reference,” he added. “We borrowed the festival vibe, but our main focus was to create something that blended music with visual art, and to highlight unique artists that we saw doing something no one else was.”
The Chicken Came First performing at Oksoundsgood. (Photo: Mohamed Samir Saad)
Weaving sound and light
An essential thread in the multidisciplinary fabric of Oksoundsgood was the video art of Mohamed Nour, an experience designer whose contribution linked the musical and visual elements together.
Throughout the event’s three music performances, Nour was orchestrating live animations and graphics that were projected in two different places: one behind the music stage, and another, higher one above the main courtyard on the side of a neighbouring building.
From the top floor of Startup Haus, or on the staircase, we were treated to a vertical panorama of all these visual elements at play.
Nour’s work was a wild visual treat, taking us through surreal urban narratives, dynamic waves of colour and shifting geometric shapes, to different styles of animation featuring people, animals, floating eyes and lips, and much more.
“My material is a mixture of found footage and scenes I’ve shot, all prepared before the show. But for the most part I’m improvising live and responding to the music as it happens,” Nour said.
Having a double major in music and art, Nour’s academic background helps him translate the musical essence of each performer into mesmerising visuals.
For part of Ali Baghdady’s set, he used footage of Egyptian street scenes mixed with abstract neon shapes, colour leaks and glitch effects.
It was an effortless capture of Baghdady’s layered music that weaved his heritage into contemporary and Western tunes, by mixing his oud and Arabic poetry with electronic music and hip hop.
He then gave Omar Abdelhady’s solo set a new dimension, matching the electronica and lush guitar ambience with some clips of a mysterious desert odyssey that melted in and out of other narratives.
The Chicken Came First’s closing set was at one point paired with a post-apocalyptic animation of rabbits at war, and journeys into alternative universes or futures, sometimes played in reverse.
It made the grand sounds of the post-rock band all the more powerful, and highlighted the narrative aspect of their tracks.
Ali Baghdady performs at Oksoundsgood. (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
The space to experiment
Aside from offering novelty, Oksoundsgood's core mission is to support underground artists of different mediums. It was designed around a respect for artists, providing space for them to express themselves unbounded.
“I think it’s rare to see an underground band with a projected screen of visuals for example. I also believe that when people find a platform to present themselves they will be encouraged to work and create more,” Salem added.
In the words of Baghdady, the event succeeded in making the artists feel “part of something bigger.”
“The surrounding artworks, the lights, and the location, while being among other artists doing their thing, it all makes you feel like you’re a piece in the puzzle, not just the centre of attention,” he said.
He started focusing full-time on his project a year ago, training with oud player Hazem Shahine, as well as Rashad Fahim, the renowned jazz theory instructor.
“Both interactions were pivotal for me in merging the different [musical] worlds. I still feel I didn’t do all the knowledge I acquired justice,” he said.
Oksoundsgood became a step in that direction, spurring him to write new music and poetry in preparation for the concert.
“About 80 percent of what I played were new tracks. I also got the chance to experiment with my workflow and changed how I perform on stage,” he explained.
He had previously been using playback of his compositions with his live performance of oud and vocals.
“This time I wasn’t in control of the music, but it was a more integrated experience,” he says about his shift from playback to a live set, and embracing the challenges of real time production.
For artist Nada Mergawi, the event’s support gave her a chance to work on a mural she was saving for the right time.
The mural depicts a young girl walking among planets and twinkling stardust, in the company of a blindfolded bear cub, and was inspired by an already unusual and surreal photo taken of her mother in Greece 30 years ago.
“I didn’t know when I would get the chance to turn it into a mural, until they called me for this event and I just felt it really suited it,” Mergawi told Ahram Online.
Her usual palette of blues and purples, with figures and creatures roaming mysterious galaxies, matched the event’s theme and vision. But this seamless fit is not what made it a unique experience for her.
“The vibes of the event were different, and the freedom I had with my work was special. They only showed me the palette and let me do whatever I wanted. I had no barriers for what to do. It felt like me.”
Perhaps the only weak link in the curating was the placement of the art installation by El-Warsha. While the wooden arch that held the string art echoed the vibe of the event, it was placed on the sidelines like an afterthought, and invited little interaction from the crowd.
Nada El Mergawi's mural at Oksoundsgood. (Photo: Mohamed Samir Saad)
With the interplay between the different art forms, concert lights and music performances, Oksoundsgood felt like more than the sum of its parts, inspiring creativity and connection between different creative genres.
“The more I heard about their vision, I started to realise how all their choices would make a difference and how it would all come together,” says Mergawi, adding that for her Oksoundsgood went from “just another mural” to a unique experience she felt connected to.
“Everyone is investing everything, and it’s a chance to experiment freely - when you’re surrounded by people doing that in different mediums, it really pumps you up,” Baghdady commented.
At the end of the concert, Salem and his partners announced an open call for creatives to get in touch with projects or ideas for coming editions of Oksoundsgood.
While some artists and entities have reached out to collaborate, Salem expects they will still be scouting for talents and curating the event, or mixing both methods, especially as they build momentum for the next event.
Their ultimate vision is to act as a springboard for underground bands and artists, supporting them creatively and financially as they move to the next level. “We hope it will grow to become like a stamp of approval if a band or artist is featured with us,” said Salem.
Oksoundsgood. launching event at Startup Haus Cairo (Photo: Mohamed Samir Saad)
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