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Escape Velocity

After The Fall: Carl Gari & Abdullah Miniawy interview
Tristan Bath , March 10th, 2020 09:47

Ahead of an appearance at Rewire Festival next month, Abdullah Miniawy and Carl Gari talk to Tristan Bath about their incredible collaboration

While history and memory remain irrevocably interlocked with the country, modern Egypt is a place in the middle of a distinctly current crisis. It crept up on poet Abdullah Miniawy, trailing him in the form of undercover police. They followed Miniawy back to his Cairo apartment one day, looking up at the terrified poet’s balcony from the street eight floors below. “I entered, got my razor, shaved my head, and I thought I have to write as much as I can or I have to jump from here [right] now. I wrote a few poems that night; one of them was released the same night with a big online message asking everyone to translate it into their own language ... just in case I got arrested.”

It was that night that Miniawy wrote what would end up as the core text behind The Act Of Falling From The 8th Floor. The collaborative album, recorded with German trio Carl Gari, details the imagined suicidal jump from his balcony, describing his thoughts with each passing storey, ultimately slamming into the ground taking him, as he puts it, “again to floor number 9”.

“As I'm a strong writer – or at least that’s what people see in me – I'm also very fragile,” explains Miniawy. “I cannot be in Jail it's impossible! The poem saved me to be honest! To satisfy my fantasy with this crazy story and to ease my pain was like a drug to me.”

In 2015, a German philosophy student – who was studying Arabic and working for the Goethe Institute in Cairo – Skyped with some musician friends back home, telling them about a charismatic singer she’d seen and gotten to know in the Egyptian capital. “She also knew my band Carl Gari,” says Jonas Yamer, “so I suggested she bring us to Egypt funded by Goethe Institute to give us the possibility to collaborate with Abdullah – which she did only a few months later.”

The group’s trip to collaborate with poet, singer, and trumpeter Miniawy saw them thrust into an Egypt at a crossroads, settling into an unsettling post-revolutionary mire. The demonstrations of 2011 and onward may not have fixed the country, but reading tQ’s own reports from John Doran’s trip to the country in 2013 reads like a report from a culture (briefly) unshackled, captured by Electro Chaabi’s fire and energy. By 2015 already however, Carl Gari were already witnessing the new face of the nation, as Yamer clarifies:

“In the streets we clearly stood out as foreigners and there was a sense of paranoia. I remember guys in black suits approaching us on a public square with the words 'Welcome To Cairo', and then tried to ask us out about our stay. We were later told that these nice gentlemen were from the secret service. The anger about the failed revolution and the repressive Al-Sisi military dictatorship was omnipresent. Many were convinced that Egypt was on the verge of a third revolution.”

The group met with Abdullah, instantly getting along, and spending several days in-studio recording material, while exploring the city at night. ”It was loud and the streets were full of people,” continues Yamer. “Illuminated party boats - often with families and little kids on board - were pumping peaking Electro Chaabi music on the Nile river.” Against this backdrop of Cairene noise and post-revolutionary tension – not to mention the initial rumblings of the refugee crisis that would engulf European politics – the trio plus one instinctively drifted somewhat away from dance music.

Their initial recordings turned towards the drones, ice cold electronic spaces, and tone of desperation captured on Darraje, their debut which would eventually drop on The Trilogy Tapes a year later in 2016. Once the Al-Sisi regime’s oppression further intensified, it became clear that Miniawy should soon leave Egypt, with the poet eventually and after much struggle, attaining some kind of legal status in France, where he remains today. The group now operate quite literally between Paris and Munich, recording in a remote house in Neunburg vorm Wald, a town nestled in the Bavarian forest.

Making music together in Munich since 2012, Carl Gari deploy bass, guitar, synths, drum machines, and effects, twisting their source material into minimalistic techno instrumentals. Extended techniques see Jonas Yamer, Till Funke, and Jonas Friedlich scratching bass strings with their thumbnails or building busy chains of pedals and dubby echo chambers to craft timbres that “sound more like a synth to most listeners.” The group’s progress has seen it grow increasingly abstract since working with Miniawy too, skirting the edges of deconstructed club sounds and into sections of pure ambience to prop up Miniawy’s dramatic readings.

Far from being some ‘cultural exchange’ or anything as painfully Graceland-ian as that, The Act Of Falling From The 8th Floor is a collaboration that taps into a universally vital sense of personal fear. Its dark depiction of Egyptian society in particular, brought to a head on ‘B'aj بعاج’ (the track where Miniawy ‘jumps’), speaks specifically to a variety of issues listeners outside of Egypt will thoroughly appreciate, even if the secret police aren’t (yet) following them home. ”The ticket prices in the theatres are so high/ And We are underpaid,” sings Abdullah as he passes the fifth floor, his voice pained and anguished into a cry of pure desperation at the state of his culture and country. Carl Gari’s steady and cinematic soundscapes offer the perfect counterpart to Miniawy’s trembling voice and sparse trumpet, hushed away from beatmaking and into reflective reverence.

Now somewhat safer in France, Miniawy continues to struggle with the status issues facing MENA citizens in Europe, increasingly tightened by the virus of right-wing populism. As ever, it is worth underlining how this displacement was not a luxury for the artist. “Music was great from 2011 til 2013,” says Miniawy. “Tasting a drop of freedom of speech was such a magical experience!” He was ultimately prevented from playing in Egypt, bit by bit, and theatres would be warned if they thought of inviting him to play. “The closest police stations used to send a document to cancel my shows I couldn't live or make a living!” Now, in France and Germany, Miniawy is for the meantime free to play and create with Carl Gari, including forthcoming dates in Europe. Other projects including the jazzier Abdullah Miniawy Trio, due to appear within the next year.

Jonas Yamer of Carl Gari draws his own clear conclusions from the experience of visiting Egypt, and on working with Miniawy throughout the last five years: “I think the EU should stop the hypocrisy and see Al-Sisi and its regime as what it is: a ruthless military dictatorship. That clearly means that business ties with the regime should be cut. The EU should make immigration easier for artists that face political oppression.”

Abdullah Miniawy & Carl Gari play Rewire Festival on Friday 3 April