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Electro Chaabi

Electro Chaabi In Cairo: Part I - A High Speed Ballet
John Doran , April 22nd, 2013 07:49

John Doran is spending a week in Cairo to report on the city's new Electro Chaabi scene. He's keeping a blog while there, and this is the first part

Click here to read the rest of the Electro Chaabi In Cairo series

It was Record Store Day on Saturday and as always time was conspiring against me. I woke up in Liverpool where I'd been helping out at the GIT Awards the night before. Even at 7am the queues were too long outside Probe Records and I had to get on my train to London. A dodgy Internet connection on the Virgin service meant the hastily typed out guide to RSD booty didn't happen. I mean, how difficult is it anyway? You see an album by Bolt Thrower - you buy an album by Bolt Thrower. It's not rocket science. Instead I tweeted an old feature that was originally written for RSD11. Egregious pomposity and galloping challops aside, I still agreed with the gist of it.

This particular passage caught my eye though:

"For me vinyl is the medium for a trans-Atlantic conversation that has been going on between England and America (and Jamaica and Germany and Japan and Brazil and Norway etc) for the last half a century. It’s conversation that I'm excited to be a tiny part of."

I still believe this, even though, of course, outside of the polemic, the conversation takes place not just on plastic but on cassette, on CDRs, on data sticks, on MP3s (bought, stolen, swapped) and now takes place between the majority of countries in the world to some extent or other.

And of course sometimes these conversations are a bit more literal and less romantic than you hunting through dusty racks (they're always 'dusty' aren't they?) in foreign cities. It's the altogether more prosaic literal conversations that can end up being the most important.


On June 22 last year I went to see The Congos at Village Underground with Phil Hebblethwaite, then editor of The Stool Pigeon. Just before the gig he introduced me to Joe Bangina of Cargo distribution. He's a cool guy and he brings a lot of good music into the country. For the last month I've been rinsing a compilation he's helping distribute: Dabke: Sounds Of The Syrian Houran compiled by Mark Gergis. As a whole the bpms are more chilled than you get from Omar Souleyman, but check out the track ‘Mili Alay (Sway To Me)' by Mohamed Al Ali, that has pitched up almost hardcore vocals… really great stuff.

On the night it wasn’t long before the inevitable question came up, "What's new? What's been blowing you away?" There was no pause before he said: "Islam Chipsy."

I asked if it was rai or dabke but he said, "Well, it's wedding music, but it's called Chaabi and it's Egyptian, not Syrian. He has this crazy keyboard style and two drummers. He might start working on an album soon. I really want to get him over here – he’s amazing."

You can call me a hipster if you like. I don't mind. In fact I kind of like it; it makes me feel younger than I am. But these people that I talk to at labels like Sublime Frequencies, Soundway, Honest Jon's, Dust To Digital, Nashazphone, Soul Jazz, Finders Keepers, Strut, Analogue Africa, Now Again… well, they're true heads. A lot of them have dedicated large chunks of their working lives to the rediscovery and promotion of artists who would have remained marginal or unknown outside of their own regions. In some cases this has had negligible effects on the actual musicians involved; in others it has transformed their lives, allowing them to tour the world, earn better money and form artistic bonds with like-minded souls around the world. I guess it's up to the individual to worry about cultural commodification and the impact on the perceived purity of the art. But really what we're talking about here is new and catalogue music from non-Western sources being fully licensed to reach a relatively small international collectors' audience. It’s hardly the Elgin Marbles.

I had a nervous breakdown a few years ago, and as part of the recovery process I took up yoga and meditation. A well-meaning writer friend said that these things "did not belong" to me as I was a white English male and that I should take up something more "culturally appropriate", such as boxing. Showing typical political insensitivity I carried on trying to perfect the downward dog and the shoulder stand, as my line in the sand is inscribed in very pragmatic and altogether much looser ways.

I guess personally I'm not a big fan of jet trash DJs who rock up in a foreign city, take an indigenous form of music and then whack a trance beat or electro ska rhythm to it for the benefit of clubbers back in Brooklyn or London, but then that's more of an aesthetic choice than anything. And I'm equally suspicious of blogs that 'share' music for download, sourced from far flung locales seemingly with nothing going back to the artist. (But as I’m planning on doing some Mixcloud compilations when I get back, perhaps people should be suspicious of me as well.)

All I do know is that with helping to promote shows by the likes of Omar Souleyman, Tamikrest, Afrocubism, Konono No.1, etc, that these artists are really not as conflicted as many hand wringing British observers, and simply by being played to Western audiences changes the context of the music, temporarily enough! The great thing about watching several Omar Souleyman shows is seeing how without changing a single note, his music fits a rave context when played to people who have attended raves. How the music of Charandrajit Singh and the later TV scores of Andrzej Korzynski resonate with clubbers because of the use of the Roland TB-303. To put it simply: none of this music needs a gap year donk. And please keep it away from the rancid, homogenised, melting pot slop of (ugh) 'global beats'. Listening to a new form of music, waiting for something to click out of the chaotic sounding rhythms, the unfamiliar scales etc, and then, if you're lucky, it becoming your new favourite thing, is one of life's purest pleasures. Which raises a question: why would you want it to sound like Goa trance?

I found myself going back time and again to look at the few clips I could find of Islam Chipsy. I was transfixed in particular by one clip of an outdoor gig at some late night festival or street party.

The music is great, but it's the delivery that's arresting. The functionality of this as celebratory music is undeniable, the double drumming is infectious, Chipsy's unabashed showmanship, the way he slaps and tickles his synth, the way he karate chops and punches the keys, his arms whipping up into the air as if each keystroke has given him an electric shock. No wonder the crowd seem to love him.

But the crowd themselves are perhaps the most fascinating part of the spectacle. As the cameraman stops filming the concert and wanders off round the throng many different things are happening. Groups of young men are chanting in time with the music but these songs are instrumental; what are they shouting? Revolutionary slogans perhaps? This film was shot only a few months after the MENA revolution/ Arab Spring/ Cairo uprising after all... Other young people are dancing unselfconsciously, and others simply grin wildly. Of course it would be fanciful to say that it is like the early days of jungle or dubstep. It is literally nothing like either of those things, but it is reminiscent in one faint way; it does feel to me, from the scant evidence available, like something new happening. It's deterritorialised, it isn't codified, people don't seem to be sure how to respond to it.

Weeks later I was speaking on a bizarre but enjoyable panel at my favourite international arts and music festival, Incubate in the Netherlands. Roy Wilkinson had read several extracts from his excellent British Sea Power book, Do It For Your Mum, accompanied by improv flute, and Gentleman Punk John Robb, expatriate head Richard James Foster and myself then became embroiled in a debate about what the role of the music journalist is now we have the Internet. (The answer to this question, by the way, is that our role is to sit on panels entitled 'What Is The Role Of The Music Journalist Now That We Have The Internet?')

After a lot of chatter about YouTube, a Dutchman accused us of bias toward the areas of the world that have Internet connections, and demanded to know what we were going to do about this outrageous bourgeois privileged attitude we had. "It's not my job to bring you news of developments in dubstep from the fucking Pitcairn Islands", I shouted angrily as the seventh espresso of the day kicked in. "There are dance music scenes less than 300 miles away from London which don 't get written about by journalists. There are dance scenes probably 50 miles away from Tilburg that don’t get written about by music journalists. We need to concentrate on covering new musical forms happening in easily accessible modern cities which are crying out for attention first. As we speak there are new musical forms cropping up all over the globe, they're on blogs, they 're on YouTube... Some of the most exciting music I've heard in years is happening right now!" I was getting dangerously close to taking my shoe off so I could bang the table with it.

"Name one!" he snorts derisively.

"Let me tell you about Islam Chipsy," I say.

As I explain, the young man walks out in a huff but I can see my friend Joost Heijthuijsen who runs Incubate take out his phone to make a note.

As soon as the festival is over and done with Joost, another true head, becomes obsessed with these YouTube clips and this discovery spirals outwards into contact with other young artists and a scene called Electro Chaabi.

Speaking now, Joost explains: "It’s very new. The scene is less than three years old. It really has a lot to do with young people getting internet connections. It does have something to do with the Arab Spring, but they're not political songs. For example they took this very popular song, 'The People Want Revolution' and changed the words to 'The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit'. They’re making music using cracked copies of Fruity Loops and Autotune. It’s very, very basic and a lot of people hate it. It’s very difficult to find out about, because I don’t read or speak Arabic and they seem to speak a very peculiar dialect, but then we use Google Translate to speak to each other."

The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit

I lasted until about Christmas until I snapped. I phoned him up: "Look, we’d better go to Cairo and interview some of these musicians. If it’s not us, it’ll just be some other bunch of European idiots."

Which is how we now find ourselves (late last night) in a cab travelling at up to 80mph through crowded streets across the vast, multi-level concrete arena of Cairo. Our driver slots in and out of car shaped gaps in the traffic as part of a high speed ballet that would be beautiful if it wasn’t so terrifying. The drivers are in a state of hyper alertness, they constantly signal their intentions with a never ending stream of morse-like flashes of headlights and horn beeps. Buildings are built on top of buildings, walls on top of walls, flyovers on top of roads, it’s impossible to get any sense of Cairo at nighttime. Our driver turns on a popular FM station for us.

Joost shouts to me: "I think the best thing to do is to become acclimatised to the Cairo speed of life as quickly as possible."

Everything moves faster in Cairo. Even music. I close my eyes and try and go limp until we reach the hotel.