Band of the week: Aly Talibab and El Manzouma

The stage lights turn from blue to red as a fog machine engulfs singer Aly Talibab and his band El Manzouma in clouds of color. PanSTARRS’s Youssef Abouzeid strums a reverbed guitar lightly as Ismail Seleit lays down a melancholic melody on the keys and Omar Sobhy sparsely plucks the top strings of his bass guitar. Talibab steps forward, gripping the mic stand with one hand and a cigarette in the other. Eyes closed, he begins to recite: “Give me your hand my friend/Pick me up from the dirt.”

Projected on the screen behind them, squiggly lines move sinuously to the music and for the first time in the D-CAF concert series, the decibel of the crowd is brought down to a hush of whispers. But as Talibab reaches his third verse of “Ey baad al-boas da?” (What next after this misery?), and Hassan Seleit comes in with a steady, basic drumbeat, a jazz-like high-hat variation, the audience begins to roar with excitement — many seem to know the words to the lyrics he sings:

You’re not the monster that fights the devil,
You are actually this monster and your roar
Is simple, and not frightening
We’re fighting the walls,
and the walls are not for us
We’re fighting to free the chains
but the chains are heavy
We’re fighting the corruption
And the corruption is in us …

His wide smile beneath closed eyes softens the sad words and the angst or rather agitation of the delivery. It’s somewhere between rap without the rhymes and poetry without the pretentions. It’s set against amorphous, post-rock textures. In the audience, people sway back and forth with their eyes closed, others recite the carefully memorized lyrics with just enough abandon. At one point, I actually stumbled on a guy just sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with his head bowed into his closed fist, bobbing to the lyrics as hundreds of people stood swaying and seething around him.

That’s Talibab’s charm. Like all good rappers, he calls to action through poetic agitation. His music also paints visuals, and your mind runs with a catalog of images, from disturbing to self-determined, bursting with suspense, melancholy, frustration and faith.

In “1772” his tone, and phrasing makes it sound as though he is reciting all the things young people in Egypt grow up hearing from the authorities: The religious preaching, the parental reproach, the oppression.

Don’t get closer
Don’t run
Don’t stop
Don’t throw up
Your fate is sealed
Don’t search
Don’t listen
Don’t look
Don’t feel
The sun rises from the East
Don’t think
Don’t deprive yourself of (material) things
Don’t choose
Fixed hesitation

And a little later, he sings:

Don’t break things
You can’t
Sleep early, don’t stay out too late

Don’t do drugs
Don’t get thin
Don’t get fat
And if you eat, don’t make a mess
Cleanliness is a sign of faith
Hold the confirmed in contempt, and dignify faith
Be beautiful

Born in the UAE, but originally of Nubian decent, 22-year-old Talibab recorded his first track in 2004. He is now living in Cairo, after becoming heavily inspired by late-1990s poetry-laced rappers like Gil Scott-Heron, Questlove, and Mos Def.

“I went into music because it was easy and something very real — it’s straight to the point,” he says. “If I’m upset about something, about this or that, I can say it. Like the mindset of shaabi music, my inspiration is from the street and day-to-day struggles.”He says that in 2007 and 2008, when he was beginning to take music more seriously, the local heavy metal and rap scenes were both difficult subcultures to enter, with rigged structures that limited the music he wanted to make. In 2011 he started recording a new style of rap, mixing verses of rhyme and spoken word poetry against minimalistic music.

“My music started to resonate with people because it was quite different than the rap that was going on here,” he tells me. “I know people who dislike rap entirely, but when they start to hear it presented in a different way, they’re more open to it. It’s rap music for people who might like or dislike the hip-hop culture but enjoy the ideas and words presented through most rap.”

“After that, I stopped worrying about being within a specific genre,” he adds. “I just make music now — so with El Manzouma, even if its just instrumental or a cappella and noise in the background, it’s not a specific genre we are working in.”

That’s a safe statement as El Manzouma and Talibab’s music draws off a range of influences — you find elements of post-rock and its riffs and power chords swapped with guitar based timbres and textures laden with pedals and effects.

In 2013, Talibab worked with emerging producers Ismail and Aly Seliet on a track as part of a compilation album titled “The Big Red House.” Talibab had already begun releasing music under his self-titled solo project on SoundCloud, but for performances he teamed up with the three Seliet brothers (Hassan, Ismail and Aly) to form the band that eventually became El Manzouma.

The band has struggled over the past year as Aly is abroad working on his masters and Ismail is occupied with his army draft service. In the D-CAF show, the current combination of Abouzeid (guitars/pedals), Ismail (keys) and Hassan Seleit (drums), and Omar Sobhy works — but they could use a little rhyme and rhythm here and there in their live sets. Just a little something to keep the audience engaged throughout while still creating their incredibly new Arabic post-rock post-rap hybrid. I’m curious to hear how Talibab manipulates and morphs language into rhyming alongside the different combinations of musicians that back him. When speaking to Talibab, it becomes clear that he has a keen grasp on various forms of Arabic: Quranic, Gulfi, Egyptian colloquial, classical, and all the slang in between — now with his rap beginnings, and spoken-word evolution, I imagine his flow to be incandescent.   

Talibab is trailblazing a new way for live rap in Egypt. The typical rap in the scene is often backed by heavy bass lines, aggressive beats, oriental drum samples and a sort of gangster-rap approach of in-your-face, rapidly delivered lyrics and rhymes, but he is experimenting with all sorts of genres including noise music.

An example of this can be heard in his recent side project with Hashem L Kelesh — working under his moniker DIJIT — in songs like “Walls Repel.” Kelesh backs Talibab’s vocals with echoes and delays, creating an atmospheric soundtrack of white noise and soft industrial sounds.

“The greatest hip-hop songs have the power to pull energy and excitement and anger and questions and self doubt and raw emotion out of you,” The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson wrote in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, citing Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and the Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin.”

“The common thread is change. The best hip hops songs aren’t blueprints — they are calls to action, reminders that you can start a revolution in three minutes.”

And with upward of 58,000 hits on SoundCloud, and songs like “1772,” it’s safe to say that Talibab is not alone in his own personal revolution — on the contrary, he has thousands of people listening to his vivid combustible words and hundreds who can recite them by heart.

Maha ElNabawi 

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