The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Electro Chaabi

Electro Chaabi In Cairo: Part IV - Filming The Revolutionary Party
John Doran , April 25th, 2013 12:09

"Don't politicise the music" was a warning given to John Doran before setting off for Cairo. Easier said than done... part four of his blog where he meets the film maker Salma el Tarzi

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

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with Andy Votel of Finders Keepers, Jane Weaver of Bird Records and their kids. I told him that I really wanted to go to Cairo and he kindly gave me a brief introduction to the pop music of the country and told me about its theatrical history. Before setting off for the Chorlton tram back to Manchester he hit me with a parting shot: "Don't politicise the music. You don't want to be another Westerner turning up and sticking his narrative on it. The music is just the music."

These are wise words. It is impossible to avoid mention of revolution, authoritarianism, censorship, militarism and poverty in a country that has not only recently undergone a regime change but is still politically volatile and in a state of flux. Even when trying to keep the politics out of the music, the amount that seeps into our everyday discourse with people is almost too much to process. Had I gone looking for a "hard hitting" story, to sell to a newspaper or magazine, I could have imposed pretty much any narrative I'd wanted on what I'd encountered. It has become much safer to talk to as many people as possible from as many different walks of life and to see if any loose consensus can be drawn from these sources. Before I came here I thought Electro Chaabi was a form of music that was started by the revolution but this is just one of many preconceptions that have been shattered in just one week.

You really do have to battle to keep the politics at bay however. After walking across a huge multi-lane road bridge spanning the Nile, Joost and I hit Down Town for the first time. It is immediately obvious that this area is more geared toward the tourist and business economy. Without even trying or wanting we acquire a guide. Despite telling him we're on our way to a meeting with a musician and record producer and that we're definitely not here because of the revolution, we suddenly find ourselves in Tahrir Square: "…and on that morning I was among the three million people…" There are street vendors selling revolutionary souvenir junk everywhere. The Museum Of Egyptian Antiquities has imposing paprika coloured walls which have been tagged numerous times with 'Fuck Cops', 'Dead Bodies' and the facebook 'F' symbol.

Our man teaches us a unique strategy for dealing with the insane traffic. Simply stride out into the speeding cars in a Jesus Christ pose and watch as everyone swerves to avoid you.

He deposits us at 100Copies a studio, dubplate cutting facility and left field music hang out. (Watch out for a feature on Mahmoud who runs 100Copies and his culture clash project Retune coming up on the Quietus.) Here we meet campaigner, film maker and inspirational figure Salma el Tarzi. And it is a chance encounter indeed, as she has made the first credible documentary on the scene Underground On The Surface. (A European film on the subject is, by all accounts I've heard from Cairenes, littered with mistakes and misrepresentations, and was the source of our original belief that Islam Chipsy was part of the Electro Chaabi scene and not simply a unique artist forging his own sound.)

She walks us through Down Town and off down side streets until we hit a left wing hang out coffee shop, surrounded by art galleries, book stores, libraries and meeting places for various people of a reformist inclination. As well as her work in the field of sexual harassment she has previously made a film called Do You Know Why? - a social investigation into role models for young girls and five or six films for Al Jazeera, which are a source of some frustration for her – especially since the influential media network has abandoned its revolutionary stance and backed the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the surface of it – with such bona fide heavy weight campaigning credentials – it seems slightly odd that she would make a film about Electro Chaabi, a bawdy, rowdy, mainly apolitical music form, while there was a full blown revolutionary struggle going on. She says: "I wouldn't even say my film is about Electro Chaabi in general. It was following one group over a year and a half for five days every week. I was very lucky that I was with them during a transitional period when they went from no one knowing anything about them to moving into the phase into the mainstream taking an interest in them and take them in. So it gives an overview of what is happening in the Electro Chaabi scene - however, the film does not claim to speak for everyone, or come to any conclusions or assumptions about the scene in general."

The group that Salma was following are from a different town to Sadat's Salam City crew and if I'm honest, their more mainstream, polished tracks do little for me. Joost brings up the comparison that we've heard a few times about the difference between the Salam City crews (Sadat, 7a7a, Figo etc) and the group of characters she was following (Oka and Ortega, and originally Weza – aka the 8 percenters): "It's Cairo's West Coast versus East Coast."

She nods: "Exactly."

She is quick to inform us that it isn't really a particularly violent rivalry, adding only: "Perhaps if you were driving past Sadat's house, and happened to play Weza's song where he calls him a motherfucker very loud, then you would have a problem... but it seems obvious that you shouldn't do that!"

A Weza track which dropped during the author's visit to Cairo

Salma says she chose Oka and Ortega to follow for a year or so because their music was more sophisticated, there was something elaborate about it that appealed to her sensibilities. Not only that, but the lyrics made her laugh. Her old friend Mahmoud (who has connections with all kinds of different musicians all over Cairo, from experimental electronic avant garde to heavy metal, and from Egyptian classical to electro chaabi and Cairene hip-hop) put her in touch with the 8 percenters.

She then says something which chimes very deeply with Joost and I: "I found that I had a lot of preconceptions that were completely destroyed. This was the most important and brilliant thing about the whole process.

"My attitude at first was very arrogant, and the revolution has changed this attitude. We tend to think of everyone who is poor and rebellious in their attitude as being on 'our side', and belonging to the revolution, but this is not necessarily true. They may well be rebellious in their attitude but, for example, what I realised when I started working with these guys is that they never went to Tahrir, they didn't get involved with the revolution, and they didn't give a shit about it. They had other problems to deal with and other wars to fight. When I first met them they did not consider that it even had anything to do with them, because they had always been marginalised and always had their own issues and troubles. This was the first shock for me. It was a blow in the face… a wake-up call. I had to say to myself, 'We do not own the poor.' [laughs] They don't belong to us! They have a will of their own and we should really be very careful that as revolutionaries we do not turn into fascists ourselves."

Albeit on a much smaller scale, it feels like our perceptions are constantly being shattered in Cairo. Not just on a daily basis, but with each new person we speak to. However, with each new person we speak to, hopefully we're getting a more rounded view of what is actually going on. So hopefully, as I was warned not to, I'm trying not to place my narrative onto the music. The scene already has enough people who actually live in Cairo trying to gain traction via this music without us wading in - no matter how noble their intentions.

Oka and Ortega featured in the Underground On The Surface film

Salma constantly wishes to reinforce the fact that she is not an expert on the music, and doesn't know much about the other groups and performers in the scene. However, in my opinion, she is also the most self-critical, the most dispassionate in her assessment of the scene as it relates to Cairene society, and the most independently rigorous in her analysis of where it fits in society in general.

She talks about her first contact with the Oka and Ortega: "The internet is something that is very, very big in Egypt. Because we do not have a lot of venues or places where people can meet and network, the internet boom was like a window opening. Some people even claim the revolution happened because of the internet and Facebook, so obviously it is a very strong tool."

The author bonds with another Watain fan on the streets of Cairo

The stuff we in the West take for granted obviously means a great deal in Cairo. People are guarded about talking about many things in any other public forums, because they live in a dictatorship. Behind a screen and with a false name people can discuss whatever they like: love, sex, religion, revolution and, yes, music. Claims that trolling and insulting harassment constitute 'freedom of speech' issues in the West put them in an even less flattering light than normal, when compared to what is happening here.

Forums springing up where musicians could meet each other and talk freely were not the only advantages to the scene offered by the web. Salma continues: "These people download cracked versions of software to make this music, and they wouldn't have been able to do this if there wasn't the internet. I believe that the internet became the venue for certain people to 'perform' their music in or have their music heard. You can say that the internet gave a venue to poor people, but really the internet gave a venue to everyone. I downloaded a cracked copy of [names editing software] to finish my film, and I am not poor. So it is relative. This medium applies to everyone. I come from an upper middle class left wing family and it applies to me."

Explaining how she came to this genre of music she adds: "After the first 14 days of the revolution, I was having a lot of difficulty in choosing a subject to make a film about. Everything had changed, and why would I make films when people were dying? For some reason the Electro Chaabi was the only thing that attracted me, and I recognised that it was political but not in the straightforward, traditional sense because I knew I wasn't going to make a film in the straightforward sense. I wasn't going to make a film about Tarhir Square and the clashes with the authorities. I would still document it, but why would I make a film about it – I was living right in the middle of it.

"Even though a lot of my assumptions changed during filming, I could tell that this was, in fact, revolutionary music – it was a form that rebelled against everything. It was non-conformist, be it in the lyrics, be it in the music, be it in the way it was promoted. It broke all the monopolies and the conventions and even the market of the music industry. And for me, this was very revolutionary and very refreshing. So this helped me look at why there was a revolution, because rebellions were starting at the same time in many different places and on many levels of society, and not all of them were necessarily very politically motivated. But they were all against authority and the mainstream."

Some things sound depressingly universal and very familiar. She talks about the media's complicity in scapegoating the working classes and the poor. "This is a group of people who are coming from areas that are completely marginalised and that the mainstream, via the press, are snubbing completely. The image that they have presented to the middle classes is that these are dangerous areas occupied by thugs who are going to come out and eat us. But these are people who have managed to get three or four million views from a single YouTube audio track, they say what they want to say, there is no censorship or auto-censorship… they are rebelling against middle class values without even knowing it… They are only underground because that's where they are. If it was up to them, they would have massive cars and be in the movies and have massive posters of themselves on billboards.

"And who am I to say something like, 'No, no, no, stay underground… it means so much to us, and blah blah blah.' Who am I to say this? They are starving – it is not my decision to make. So it was difficult for me to be neutral. I tried very hard not to influence them because this is where my two worlds collided. People I know from activism would say to me: "Oh, you know Oka and Ortega? We want them to make a song about sexual harassment!" No! No! I'm not going to tell them anything… not even if they were sexually harassing women… which they weren't."

She screws up her face in disgust. "But you want to get one of the 'poor singers' to reach other 'poor people' with your message… just… no. The idea is just disgusting."

She conceded that during the course of the film, as they got bigger and bigger, a lot of agencies started contacting them to offer them commercial work, and then she read the contracts for them solely to check that they weren't getting ripped off.

Although in some respects it's a 'rags to riches' tale, Salma is more ambivalent about what the actual narrative arc of the film is. She says: "At the beginning they were saying, 'We are poorer than poor, and the underground, but we don't care as long as we can say whatever we want.' But by the end of the film this had changed to, 'This is not real fame. We want to have real fame. We want to have lots of money. We want to have cars.'"

She highlights another aspect to the scene which attracted her: "What is very interesting is that the artists have a spontaneous belief or application of creative commons. No one owns a tune. No one owns a song. No one owns lyrics. They can all inter-use the same lyrics. Even if they hate each other and are dissing each other, they can all use the same lyrics. As long as the person who wrote it has their name at the beginning – the tag line – as long as you say on the track, 'This is a remix of a Weza song', then it is ok, they are totally cool with it."

Salma says that for her this is heaven because she is a big fan of open source, creative commons.

We finish up our coffees and bid Salma farewell. I hope that she gets some foreign interest in her film - she needs this to fund her next project and if anyone should be documenting this scene, then she is certainly a person who has made a concerted effort to observe without influencing.

As I'm heading back to the hotel in a taxi at rush hour, weighing up everything that she's told me, I'm snapped out of my reverie when a van driver leans over to my open window and shouts: "Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to Egypt, Mr Hulk Hogan!"

If you work at a film or arts festival and would like to contact Salma with a view to showing her film Underground On The Surface, drop me a line -