Monday, August 1, 2011

Cairo Journal: Heavy Metal and Ramadan

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

Varden at El Sawy Culturewheel
Today is the first day of Ramadan and on the suggestion of our key adviser here, Kristina Nelson, I am joining the faithful in fasting, as she put it, "to see what it's like."  We will be attending a "break-fast" this evening with Kristina in Heliopolis, a sprawling residential extension of Cairo heading towards the airport.  So far, I've only foregone breakfast and the stomach rumbling is mild.  But after a day of beating around Cairo without drinking water, I may get a taste of what Muslims will endure for the next 30 days.  Ramadan is a particular ordeal when it falls in summer, as the daylight hours when one cannot eat or drink last 17 hours.

For this post, I go back to a couple of evening outings from last week.  First, a visit to the Cairo Jazz Club, a cozy nighclub favored by ex-pats, well-informed visitors, and progressive Egyptians.  Alcohol is served, few women wear the scarf, and people dance, not necessarily in couples.  If all this seems normal, it does contrast with other choice music performance venues in Cairo, which are alcohol free, and also with the far sleazier environment of the belly dance bars downtown and along Pyramid Road.  The Cairo Jazz Club, not far from downtown, presents local DJs spinning Egyptian varieties of "electronic music," also blues, funk, rock and, yes, jazz, acts.  But the night we visited showcased an unusual singer named Mohamed Bashir (also Beshir).  Bashir comes from Upper Egypt--that's upriver and, counter-intuitively, south of here--and he uses folk melodies and rhythms from that region as source material for his urban electric band.  This was a discovery, a truly organic blend of roots and rock.  Instrumentation included oud, violin, bass, drums, keyboards, saxophone and percussion.  The grooves were strong, and notably different from the tried-and-true rhythms of most Egyptian pop.  Bashir is a powerful singer, and a warm presence on stage--shades of the younger Cheb Khaled.  Bashir had his loyal fans too, dancing in the tight space before the stage, some stepping high and coiling their bodies in distinctive ways that suggested knowledge of the Saidi (Upper Egypt) folk culture that inspires Bashir's original sound.  We are pursuing an interview with the man. 

Bashir at Cairo Jazz Club (Eyre)

The next night, we ventured into Cairo's touted heavy metal scene.  The venue was El Sawy Culturewheel, a short walk from our hotel in Zamalek.  In recent years, Sawy has established itself as a key venue for various kinds of alternative music. The venue is arranged around a rather complicated intersection between two major roadways, so there are tunnels and bridges connecting an outdoor garden space right along the Nile with four or five performance spaces, an art gallery and offices.   Even on heavy metal night, no alcohol is served.  This party runs on caffeine, sugar, and the pent-up energy of youth.  There is much to say about Egypt's heavy metal scene, which was pioneered by brave young musicians determined to buck the trends of predictable local pop.  Concerts were closed down by police, people were arrested, even jailed, and accused of promoting satanism.  But the musicians persisted, and since the revolution, they have been breathing a little easier.  The 800 or so kids that showed up for this Tuesday-night lineup of four bands were exuberant and fun-loving.  There was no hint of fear in the air. One young metal head lamented the fact that the metal scene was still so small. But he also expressed hope that it would flourish in the new Egypt.  He did not seem at all worried about the effects of a potential Islamist government.  Those guys will have much bigger things to worry about than heavy metal concerts in Zamalek.


The first band we caught was called Varden, and they cranked out a fairly standard, tuneful take on the genre.  They addressed the audience and sang in English, an intriguing characteristic of this genre given how few Caireans speak the language.  A woman got up and sang one song, winning loud approval from the crowd.  This band's lead singer worked a little emo into the act, even a little melisma.  At one point his expression and gesturing reminded me of a tarab singer, perhaps Umm Kulthum herself.   Overall the act presented fairly rote rock histrionics, but the mood in Sawy's Wisdom Hall was electric.  Teens and twenty-somethings in their element, mostly boys, but a number of girls too, wearing head scarves and mingling in an alcohol-free party mode that was at once wholesome and exhilarating. 

Varden lead singer at El Sawy Culturewheel
Varden guitarist
There was special excitement about the next group to take the stage, Origin.  A couple of guys whispered to us that they were the best on the bill.  The genre, we were told, was "Oriental Metal."  This apparently meant that they sang in Arabic, but that wasn't all.  As the band took the stage, a row of girls made sure they made up the front row.  Among them was woman in her 60s, without a doubt the oldest person there, but seized with the same giddy enthusiasm of the girls around her--perhaps a musician's mother, or grandmother.  Origin certainly delivered an experience, a campy blend of toga-era costumes, emo rock, metal flourishes.  There were two lead singers, a guy and a girl, both in white robes.  Their voices were strong but their art rock torch songs seemed too fraught with pretension to have much visceral affect on us.  Not that the crowd seemed to mind.  Even when a guest artist sat in rather timidly on clarinet, and another more confidently on oud, they welcomed him warmly.  In theory, the notion of a local metal band bringing in Arabic language and musical touches seems interesting, but in this formulation, it seemed lost in a fog of experimentation.


Origin at El Sawy Culturewheel
Fans for Origin
Origin
Origin vocalists
The last band of the night was called Destiny in Chains, and they play straight up hard core metal.  We had been in touch with band's drummer, Ahmed, who happens to be the son of Hakim's sound engineer Alaa El-Ghoul.  This band made no effort to "orientalize" their sound.  They just blazed ahead with wall-of-sound guitar roar, snarling devil vocals, and thrashing rhythm.  If Origin gave the girls a special thrill, this was definitely boys' music.  From the start, the crowd formed a mosh pit, writhing and running in circles around it in a fast-moving human mass.  The energy became wild, but also joyful.  At one point, mid-set, I spotted a group of boys rocking back and forth with the music.  In that moment they seemed little different from the Sufis we had seen rocking at the mulid in Abou Teeg a week earlier.  Mark Levine (author of Heavy Metal Islam) notes that at a time when Egyptian popular music sticks with tight pop formulas and completely avoids the expansive emotions of the old tarab music of Umm Kulthum and others, music designed to bring about an experience of spiritual ecstasy, there is still tarab to be found in Egyptian music, at heavy metal concerts!

Destiny in Chains at El Sawy Culturewheel
Destiny in Chains
Destiny in Chains moshers
Tomorrow, we will meet Sammy Sayed, singer for one of Egypt's pioneering and most successful metal bands, Scarab.  We'll have much more to say about the paradoxes of Egyptian heavy metal scene, and how its direction and prospects are being affected by ongoing revolution.

Ahmed El-Ghoul
Destiny in Chains
Metal with sponsorship
Cairo metal heads


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