A Radical Century: Mahmoud Refat Of 100 Copies Cairo Interviewed

Yousif Nur takes a trip to Cairo's only dub plate cutting facility - the open platform and experimental recording studio, 100 Copies, to talk to owner and facilitator, Mahmoud Refat. Photographs by John Doran

Cairo is a tale of two cities. But unlike in Dickens, it’s a place where old and new sit side by side. With the old comes tradition – in my case a tanoura performance – a show chockfull of whirling dervishes, spiritual chanting and supplications. It is quite a spectacle – but it’s something anyone can find out via a Lonely Planet guide.

Then there’s the new in the shape of electro chaabi and Egyptian music on a wider, more modern scale. It’s the music of the streets and speaks to the Egyptian youth of today – chaabi is used to push hair gel, soft drinks, and car sales in Cairo, so this is a bona fide phenomenon that isn’t going away any time soon.

And at the heart of it is the record label and recording space, 100 Copies – a label, recording space and venue based in downtown Cairo that specializes in releasing jazz and experimental music not just from the Middle East, but from all over the world.

Founder Mahmoud Refat talks to tQ about the necessity for the label and project about why the need for their platform and network for the musical landscape isn’t about Umm Kalthoum and Amr Diab any more. Just don’t patronize Egyptians about not having a voice prior to the revolution or political upheavals in the last few years.

Mahmoud had been looking forward to this interview, perhaps because it very nearly didn’t take place as a bomb exploded outside Giza University earlier in the day. This created fears that it would be near impossible to get downtown from the outskirts owing to traffic and closed roads. I decide to head in only to find that there are no such problems and check into 100 Copies to meet a tall, energetic man who welcomes me in to sit in his office to talk music over peppermint tea and KFC.

Elsewhere in the building chaabi producer Alaa 50 and MC Sadaat are laying down a vocal track that may or may not see the light of day.

Before I even hit the record button, Mahmoud is eagerly telling me about what 100 Copies is all about.

"There is something about this kind of motivation and environment that we never say no to anyone that comes here with an idea, even if it’s the most experimental or strange. As long as it has talent, just come along, we’ll listen, then we’ll help you."

When you first established 100 Copies, what objectives did you set and have they been met?

Mahmoud Refat: In the beginning, it was not meant to be as it is in its present form. I just wanted to put out recordings limited to 100 CDs per release and to just distribute them through this network. Then I wanted to put on some concerts, organised in a certain way that had a certain attitude. I thought that people would start to relate to the name and it would also help to gather all the experimental musicians around it. So that was the very simple, naïve purpose of it from the very beginning.

From there it was well received. We had lots of offers and musicians started to send their music to us. Then things started to get bigger and bigger. More clubs started to get interested in what we did. We also had festival offers from overseas; people in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland started to get interested in this small scene that was happening here. We started to promote ourselves and at every step of the way, that became the priority for us. So there were no plans to arrive at this point we find ourselves at now. It was just like, "Yeah, let’s start a small label, organise some concerts and festivals and maybe we’ll have a studio one day." But it got to a point where we had to deal with it.

In the beginning, we were working with electronic, experimental music. And this expression of what’s experimental and what’s alternative or new changed over the years. We could be working with any type of musician in any genre. There’s different understanding or opposition to the ideas, but now we work with these guys and they’re doing chaabi dance music and then the day before we worked with some young people that were doing noise. Then earlier this afternoon, we had a new folk musician that’s doing a very special project. So overall, we got into the whole music scene somehow.

Did that happen by accident?

MR: By accident, by working hard, because of interest from the music scene and because of us understanding it well. I know what’s happening here and there. I follow people and look for them to send me their stuff. So I actually know what’s going on in the small clubs or between friends or in the streets with young kids on the Internet and concerts. Knowing the dynamics of the actual scene and then taking back to the studio and seeing what happens here and there, to see if the interest is there with the whole movement, if you want to look at it like that.

Is the experimental scene in Cairo easy to find for people living there?

MR: Cairo is a big place, but the trends are very clear. Things will come to us and we will find it. If not, then people will tell us about them and send us these things. If I ask for advice, help or promotion within this network we will get it in the end because we are active all the time in different channels. It’s not very difficult to find things here – we know a lot of people.

The scene here is different from scenes in Europe. In Europe you have so many places and so many clubs and venues featuring old and new music. Cairo is big in terms of quantity of music but we know the places we can look for it, such as on online platforms. Most of the time the music comes to us. There have been a few other things which I have discovered by chance or I heard about here or there.

I saw Islam Chipsy play in London a few weeks ago and while he’s not strictly chaabi music as such. How many variants of electro chaabi are there?

MR: Chipsy is not exactly electro chaabi. EEK is a live band with the line up of Chipsy and two drummers, which is quite crazy. The elements of Chipsy on the keyboard come from folk music and chaabi. Street music. That’s the only common thing between what Chipsy does and what electro chaabi is. It’s really, totally something else.

Inside electro chaabi there are some divisions over definitions and styles. But the genre is not so wide; I would say that there are two or three types of electro chaabi. There’s the street type that has the macho energy; it’s very upbeat and very fast. Then there’s the very poppy, happy go-lucky style and also there’s the one influenced by psychedelic music, the drugs and really strange stuff. They’re not really that different.

They all use the same type of loops and use the same type of energy; even the trends around them are almost the same. But there’s just that little bit of difference with styles and approach. But as for Islam, he’s definitely on another side of the spectrum. He’s also a musician. You can’t forget that because he knows music theory and progressions, plus he does lots of compositions. He understands this very well and that puts him on another level.

I’ve heard the new Maurice Louca album Salute The Parrot, which features Richard Bishop, Sam Shalabi and Alaa 50. Is this an album that’s a microcosm of the experimental scene?

MR: Hmm that’s very tricky [long pause while he draws on a cigarette]… I have to say that in the very beginning, when Maurice came with this idea, I kind of felt that it wasn’t going to work and that this kind of fusion might go somewhere different to where he wanted. But I couldn’t ignore the influence of the electro chaabi scene; the influence of the hardcore street chaabi gangs that is now everywhere. Not only on society but also musically.

Maurice has a special understanding of this culture and it was very clever of him to realise it on this album. I think he had to go through a few different stages before he got to where he wanted to go. In the beginning he was using loops and making songs, but then he decided, "No, I’m going to do this instead and record it live with these musicians." Then it started to become interesting. After that he took it to a hysterical understanding of this music, he took the energy of this music somewhere with Alaa and Sam. They had the right understanding of it, but adding this colour and musicianship to it.

I think it has an impact of… how can I say it… like it really explains what’s happening in the music scene right now in a way. This music has an influence on everyone and you can actually go far with it. You can actually try to do different things with it. What Maurice did is quite good and I think it’s very romantic. It has a nice flow, it’s very well made and he had a lot of nice ideas while he was recording it here [in 100 Copies]. I can’t really give my final opinion on it yet. But as I say, it’s actually quite good.

How necessary is it to have 100 Copies as a hub of creativity in term of experimental music in Cairo?

MR: I think it’s important just to give this kind of opportunity to musicians. Of course I mean this in a very romantic, naïve, clichéd way – it’s always good to give musicians a place that they can come and express, even explode their ideas. I personally also think that the studio is very important for the dynamics of the scene, to keep it alive and warm with having different kinds of ideas coming from different people. It’s also very important to keep this scene working, to always be here and to be open. Sometimes with some projects we will even produce them in a studio or help them artistically or financially. So I think we’re quite important.

I don’t think we could even live without this studio now. It’s giving a lot to the scene and it’s kind of creating a special life around it. You shouldn’t have asked me this question! Of course I would say that! On a personal level though, it’s all about belief and that’s how I stand in my life. This is what I think and it’s a good life, it’s fun. That’s my perspective.

How is your album coming along? You were matching up young MCs and producers with leftfield-established names to do a kind of cross-genre compilation.

MR: We’re already done and hopefully we’ll try to make another one. That’s another line that interests us, which is something we want to do. We crash people together from different scenes and have them develop something, and so we give them something to take back to their bands or forward to their future careers. We do this sometimes and it’s not always easy and it doesn’t always work either. Sometimes it’s fun and other times you have to face things that you have to try and push things forward. But some people are conservative and some aren’t, so it’s all ongoing research for all of us in the studio and the musicians.

It’s like taking a risk, almost like gambling. Sometimes something happens, most of the time it doesn’t. I totally understand that there needs to be some kind of experience or we need to put them in a certain confrontational situation. For example, during the first collaboration we did – we got everyone here and we had eight weeks of people coming to work, recording and shooting. Then we organised different concerts and lots of press. After that we stopped and said, "Ok, now you’re on your own." There were only one or two musicians that went on working with this stuff after that.

Of course, we will always have to give some support to the artists. I’m very shocked that some of the musicians are not producing work, even in their own time. So that’s why I’m saying that it doesn’t always work. Of course, the collaborations are very exciting musically, but it’s not only about the music production. It’s also mentally a starting point to push something to happen and then you go on your own – even though we show you some of the way, ultimately the artist has to find it themselves.

As for my own solo project, I’m always doing things but I’m just very busy at the moment with my two bands – Bikya and another new one, which is a kind of a punk/electro/trash sort of project. It’s a standard format, but it’s quite harsh in terms of lyrics and the kind of compositions we use. I don’t know how far we’ll go but we’ll see how we do when it comes to working in the studio.

Now and then I have time to myself in the recording room. I am very selective about which concerts I play if I get invited to perform. I don’t miss it though because what I’m doing right now is very fulfilling. I hope I will finish something soon!

I’d like to talk about a record you released last year called ISIS, which was Dr Nahla Matter’s project/concept album that flits across three acts and genres. How did she approach you and was this a record that was pre-meditated?

MR: I always knew her work. I was following her and I became interested in what she was doing. I don’t understand anything about contemporary classical music although I would just have an opinion on it as a musician and as someone with an appreciation for experimental ways of thinking in music. I don’t really know what happens compositionally and so on.

So I was following what she did and then we started working together from a distance. I had some people come in doing to make films and they would ask for someone so I would recommend her. I always wanted to do something with her, to bring to her into our network.

Nahla’s very academic, she’s a professor and works for museums. One day I heard a piece on the internet that she composed and I said to myself that I should call her in and ask her to put this on a record so that we could start to work together. It was also at a time where I was asking myself what the studio should sound like. What the output of the recording room should be like and what did we want to present to the scene at that point? We’d done a lot of electronic, digital work. I got a little bit bored of that because the scene was only doing that sort of thing. It was then that I got more interested in putting on more acoustic based performances.

What about the Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session compilation CD you released last year?

MR: These girls were students of an old friend of mine, Ahmed Bassyouni who died during the first few days of the revolution. And he was always forcing a special workshop for these musicians. He’d work with them on sound and an experimental way of making music. I was always following them and I was always inviting them to do something here, whether it was playing concerts or for them to come to the studio to have collaborations. There was a long history of working with these girls. Then one day I just decided that I wanted to put all this on a record and see what happened with it. The plan was to take them to another stage, not just with workshops that end up as live performances. This was about working with them on the recording process and promoting the record. That’s a brief history of those two years and also to continue the memory of Bassyouni.

How did the leftfield scene in Cairo go from being semi-interested in Western leaning stuff to becoming more interested in Egyptian culture and how to push that forward?

MR: I don’t think it was always interested in only Western culture. With the electronic scene, of course some of the music would sound Western, if I understood the question correctly. Of course there was also the exposure to the music coming out of Europe and the States and Egyptian electronic musicians using the same software and equipment that has this sound. It’s quite fine as far as I’m concerned; I’m not conservative about whether they’re influenced by Western or Egyptian culture. But the thing about chaabi music is that it worked very well because it’s originally from here with this mix of using an accessible worldwide form, such as dance music, with a different character – a local, original one. That’s why it was successful.

As for an influence from Western culture from an artist, that’s their approach. You still have people interested and influenced by stuff in that culture. And in the end, the reward or benefit of doing something related to your own culture and being influenced by the dynamics of it; that’s the most successful formula. If you’re here and you’re trying to do something that sounds like it was made here, it works in terms of talking to your own people because it’s relatable. In the end though, it’s an artist’s approach.

But for me personally, if you’re not doing something that’s having an impact on your own environment, then there must be something not yet correct or perfect. Of course you can do stuff like DJing, Jazz or whatever. But still, there must be something that says you’re from here, you’re a part of this place, you’re influencing as well as being influenced from your own culture and that’s very important. And you see the reaction of that very quickly on the scene, your fanbase grows and people are following you. You’re actually helping direct the scene somehow. We’re at the stage where we are grassroots and we’re also very glad that people are asking us for this kind of help to develop them.

Are there any links between the spirit of the revolution and spirit of new music in Egypt?

MR: Agggh! Let me get you some more tea. [Laughs] The thing about Western journalists coming over here to interview us is that it’s like they want to link the revolution to what we do and they end up making it very shallow, idiotic and superficial. They want to come and consume something, to try to get an understanding of it and they just want to relate it to politics like some sort of pre-conceived notion. This is the formula that we know and this is what we’re used to in terms of how we operate here.

They understand that if there’s a revolution there should be a song and they should fight the revolution with songs. It’s like they come here without an understanding or know what’s really happening. An artist may have something to say, relating to music but not exactly what people can relate to elsewhere like riding a camel or visiting the pyramids.

But in terms of a relation and a link between them, of course there are reasons to think that there would be. I think that the revolution opened up the masses to listen to what was new; what was different; what was young and what was coming from the streets. The youth coming out and saying what they felt was an important need of understanding as to what this was in terms of their culture. The most attractive part of it was the music. People were listening to it and having very sophisticated reactions to it or hearing new forms of music that had been previously hidden from mainstream view. And with the collapse of all the major labels, there was a platform for all these musicians to enter into the picture. And with the new dynamic of posting things online combined with youth culture this brought the new music to the surface. Everybody wanted to understand what was new and what these kids were talking about. It was quite interesting what they were doing and there was a lot of depth to it. There was a whole other life going on that hadn’t previously been exposed.

Internationally, there was definitely this big spotlight on us in wanting to know what we were about, to listen to us and wanting to have something to do with it. Either as part of their agenda, to promote it or invest in it. The revolution had this sort of promotional effect somehow but this experimental, electronic and hip hop music was there before it took place. But suddenly people were going out and bands were being formed and people were making music and coming downtown to venues like this all because of the revolution.

Are you saying that western journalists come here without an open mind?

MR: Most of them don’t have an open mind. I don’t know whether it was trendy back home for them to write about Egypt in their press but the result was just very shallow. But we still had some interesting, smart people come and want to understand what we were doing and listen to us. That made sense. But for them to be creating this trend out of nothing, the sort of thing that would die quite quickly, that’s what bothered me. We met this one guy who only wrote about songs related to the revolution – maybe he’s sitting around at home doing nothing and gluing pieces of the story together to make it look like the whole thing was something to do with the political upheaval. It’s just a very cheap way of trying to understand a music scene or a revolution or even the political situation in a country.

A lot of the young people feel very disillusioned with the system and unemployment. Many feel they have no future. But in contrast, many people are also being very creative and harnessing their aggression and frustrations towards it. Would you agree?

MR: If you’re a young kid and you don’t feel that you’re part of anything except your own community and you feel that there’s no future then, yes. Whether you’re in France or Cairo, the young people won’t accept this status quo. People all over the world have different kinds of energy or attitude but everyone feels that there are class issues. If they feel that they are exceptional or want to do something else or want to gain an understanding of the old-fashioned institutions, of course they can feel angry about this; the lack of access. But there’s different types of exposure everywhere. The most important kind of exposure and experience young people can gain now is growing very fast. And when it meets with the old-fashioned state or ways, of course there is going to be a clash.

Artistic expression among the young is becoming the strongest it has ever been. You can do many things from your bedroom, create art and put it on the Internet whilst gaining feedback; this is all helping when it comes to music, film and photography. These forms of expression among young people are very successful. The needs of the youth in terms of being able to understand how fast things are growing are totally different than the same needs for an older generation.

Do you think that a kid in Cairo has a different state of mind to one in London or Paris? Or is it now universal?

MR: I think that it is universal. Of course that there are a few little differences but in the end it’s the same kind of energy. You need to channel or understand it, make space for it or deal with it. I think in the end, it’s more or less the same. If you look at it from a global perspective, everyone’s exposed to the same kind of information. Some countries have a bit more or a bit less, much in the same way that you had good or bad education wherever you might be. But in one way or another, the dynamic between young people is almost always the same, only with different languages being used. It’s a globally uniting thing and that’s why it’s so impressive to see it all happening at the same time.

When it comes to unearthing local talent, is it more difficult perhaps to find appropriate acts to sign or work with?

MR: Yeah it takes time of course. With a venue like ours, we don’t always want to repeat ourselves in terms of putting on the same artists. It’s always very difficult. Yeah the scene is big, but still if you want to keep up an ongoing evolving program it’s still difficult. But that’s why it’s still an interesting challenge to keep looking for things and proposing new concepts and ideas to other musicians to experiment with.

I’m not stressed over the artists I want to book or sign for the label. When they turn up, they turn up. It’s not that I have a schedule that I need to fill with a certain amount of releases or concerts. When the opportunity arises, we’ll work on it and give it our full attention. Then we’ll look at the right time to release the record or expose the artist to the public. We’re quite flexible with it. The good stuff eventually arrives and then we work with it. I have the luxury to be able to be very selective just like with any record label, especially regarding the acts we sign and the music that we promote internationally with our festivals.

100 Copies could be like a free platform. People could come here and they do what they want with different ideas, from different communities and different genres of music. We have a stage here for everyone to do something – and then things will happen.

What’s next for 100 Copies in the immediate future?

MR: We’ve done a lot in terms of promotion, production, support and output. Sending people abroad so they can have exchange experiences. I think what I would like to do now, especially starting with my new project, is to take a close look at the dynamics and actual structures of the music scene. I would like to have everything working in exactly the right way. I don’t know what the right way is exactly… but just having a structure, a business model, a kind of process and understanding of why one should be in the studio and why it should be recorded this way and not in an amateur way. I also want to get more exposure for the musicians that we work with and not just the famous faces. I’d like to work with managers more and start to get the private sector to work with us. We’d like a solid structure to take it from the successful amateur superstar level to mega grand level like arenas, but to be a bit more organised in the direction of having a real scene with a model that works financially and artistically in different ways, not just with a rock & roll or disco vibe. We want to invite different players into the game. We don’t want this to be all about hype or a trend that dies quickly.

There’s nothing wrong with big arena shows if they’re done with honest intentions.

MR: Exactly. It has to be professionally done to a certain level and to be taken seriously when it comes to management, promotion, scheduling, studio time. This is where we need to do our research. That’s what I think and it’s definitely what I want to do.

In closing, what are your final thoughts?

MR: [Very long pause] How can I put this? It’s very… It’s becoming too big and mind-blowing to the point where I almost don’t want to realise it. I want to stay in the studio and keep it running and flowing. It’s definitely exciting but it’s just becoming too big. I knew something would happen with 100 Copies, but I never thought it would go this far. But it’s fun… let’s not get dramatic now.

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