It’s a sunny afternoon in Agouza on Cairo’s west bank. Kinda Hassan, a visual and sound artist and founding member of music platform eka3, is talking to songwriter and composer Maurice Louca and visual artist Maha Maamoun about Benhayyi al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), the album Louca released in Cairo at Rawabet on November 27.
This is his second release, produced by Nawa — his debut solo album Garraya was released in January 2011 on the Cairo-based 100Copies label. The album artwork is Maamoun’s contribution, and adds to her repertoire of works exploring the construction of images in mainstream culture and the various ways in which these images are re-appropriated. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, about the new album, what influenced it, their collaboration and the production process.
Kinda Hassan: I feel your music is a salute to Cairo today, as if what you present to your audience is an externalization of your internal experience of this city.
Maurice Louca: Cairo is in my subconscious. It’s my home. I never took the city as a subject per se. I don’t actively try to get inspired by Cairo’s sounds to create my music. I imagine that if I traveled and stayed in Switzerland in the mountains I might be actively influenced by the city, but the influence appears subconsciously because I live here. I have no nationalistic musical feel, yet there’s no misconception regarding the fact that Salute the Parrot in particular has a clearer bond with the Egyptian audience.
Maha Maamoun: I remember when we were starting to brainstorm ideas for the artwork, we were actually scared to go into the urban and wanted to look for other angles, the urban being the main, limiting lens through which the work tends to be seen. In general my own work deals with Cairo but it’s never really the goal or theme — it’s just that this is the context we live in, and that we engage with in different ways because our lives are completely immersed in it.
KH: Maurice, your music is rooted in an Egyptian folk culture, and obviously the shaabi subculture. Are you inspired by shaabi music because you identify with it, like you find something that resembles you in psychedelic music, for example? Or is there something in shaabi subculture as an Egyptian political phenomenon that’s appealing to you?
ML: In my opinion, shaabi music is the only real alternative to the mainstream music scene today. Shaabi has always come out in my solo work since before Garraya — as you say it’s a genre I love, and I’m the kind of musician who absorbs what surrounds him and reacts to it, and in the past three to four years it’s been the most exciting thing happening in my opinion. Other musical influences are also audible in my work but shaabi is dominant because it’s dominated my music listening lately. I recognized this from the beginning with this album but always felt it was a first layer. I never wanted it to be what the work’s all about. I want all the other elements and influences to be audible.
KH: Maha, how do you position your work on this album in response to pop or shaabi culture?
MM: When I shot this photo, I didn’t have the conception that it’s shaabi. There was a cafe on the side of a street, I stopped there and there was a poster that I captured. I’m generally interested in attempts to find nature in the city. I did a project about the clothes people wear in Cairo that have flowers printed on them, as a kind of alternative to nature. The idea was that we don’t need to always have this frustration, we don’t need to leave the city to find nature. We find solutions like wearing flowers, hanging such posters on our walls. So to me this artwork isn’t located in the field of shaabi — it exists everywhere, it’s an urge that exists across classes and spaces. This kind of nature wallpaper existed in Egypt in the 1970s for the middle and upper-middle classes, and with time the photoshopping applied to it changed — it wasn’t a fashion anymore to have it in houses but you started finding it in public places.
KH: Maurice, Alaa Fifty among other musicians is featured in this album. Can you tell us about your relationship with him and the experience of having him to record on the album? Did he write his lyrics? How did the process go?
ML: It was clear to me for this album that I wanted to work with musicians, that unlike Garraya I didn’t want to work alone at home sampling and resampling. I wanted it to be expansive, for the ideas, melodies and compositions to be executed by musicians and for there to be the sound of a band. I want this album to be heard as a band album.
So I started by going to this studio in Shubra that Hassan Khan advised I go to, and I started recording my ideas with session musicians there. An organ player, a rababa player and percussion. You’d be surprised with the outcome: For example in Tasaddu (Rupture), the keyboard chords are the musician’s own input and they’ve changed the sound of the track completely.
I also had a couple of ideas related to mahraganat-style vocals. Mahmoud Refat (founder of 100Copies) suggested I approach Alaa Fifty, who accepted. For two of the three tracks I constructed lyrics from bits and pieces of segments collected from existing shaabi tracks. For the third track, Sharraq rah Tegharrab (it will set), I didn’t have lyrics at all — I only had the musical structure and guided Alaa, who improvised for 10 minutes. I then worked on a lyrical structure out of it, and later electro-acoustically transformed it from performative to melodic and created some harmony with it.
So there were all sorts of experiments with the musicians. Sometimes I knew exactly what I wanted from them, other times they surprised me. In some cases I worked post-recording. It was a mixture, there wasn’t a set working process. There were 14 musicians, I think, on this album, and we recorded over a year, which allowed the approach and ideas to change and develop.
KH: What do shaabi musicians think of your work?
ML: It’s a nice story actually. When Alaa finally came over with his friends to listen it was at 1 am the night before the album release. I was super nervous. Alaa’s a very nice and decent guy, he listened and it was clear from his facial expressions that he wasn’t happy. He found himself on a track singing two sentences, in another singing lyrics he didn’t say, He congratulated me and all that, but I felt bad. Two or three weeks later I found him at 100Copies and he told me that he loves it and wants to do a video clip with me, that he listened to it and all his friends like it. Even Sadat congratulated me. So he came round, which was really touching for me. I was on tour with Islam Chipsy and was also very flattered that he liked it, and how he and his trio perceived it positively. I’m getting flattering responses from the shaabi music scene. It took time though.
KH: Would you have Alaa sing live?
ML: It will be weird for him to go up and sing two tracks and come down. I’d love to at least once perform It Will Set with him live on stage, but in the context of how I play this work now it would be very strange and slightly disrespectful for him to go on stage, sing one song and go down.
KH: So Salute the Parrot is a sound clip you found on a shaabi track. Why did you choose it as the album title?
ML: I think it’s a very powerful sentence. For me the idea of the parrot is a person who repeats something he doesn’t understand. It contains several layers and meanings. It can be very surreal or fantastical, it also can have a social or political or even personal context, and I also felt it described the work itself in the two or three years that passed, the absurdity of it: Even you, working in this context, could be a parrot. Parrot also is another word for nabatshi (MC). I was doubtful if I should use it as title with the risk of falling again into a romanticization of shaabi culture that isn’t present in the music. Nor did we want it to be in the artwork. We eventually decided to keep it because I’m attached to it no matter how it will be understood, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t perceived from that angle.
KH: It’s probably irrelevant at this stage to talk about fusion in your music, as it’s irrelevant in our contemporary world in which we, our bodies, minds and lifestyles are the definition of fusion. But your work is probably one of the most exciting experiences in terms of how sounds from different universes fuse harmoniously, and even as they dissonate they make perfect sense to our senses. My guess is that you don’t really think about it, that it’s not a cerebral process — fusion is intuitive and spontaneous as opposed to constructed in your music.
ML: I think you answered the question — it’s very flattering how you answered it and I hope that’s what gets through to everyone, because that’s the truth of it. Fusion is a western idea, and as Alan Bishop says, as a musical genre and approach “it’s the Israel of music.” And I agree — conceptual fusion is probably one of the worst music [genres] because it comes from an unnatural place, taking elements and mixing them together for reasons that are sometimes not so genuine. We, living in this part of the world, have the privilege of not having the fusion idea as a construction because we have all those different influences intertwined in our lives, allowing us to be genuine and mix these things as opposed to forcing them.
KH: This album is probably one of the best independent Arab produced records in the last decade in terms of mixing and mastering. Can you both tell us more about this aspect? The production process, where it happened, how important was it and how you made sure that it happened the right way?
ML: It was very clear to me from the very beginning that I wanted Khyam (musician and founder of Nawa) to do the mix. Just as it was clear that I wanted Maha to do the artwork. Khyam knows and loves the work and is very passionate about it — he knows where I’m coming from, he was the obvious and perfect person to ask. The fact that he went above and beyond just mixing appears in the work. He came to Cairo, I made him listen to the work, he got really engaged in the finalizing of the recording phase, and then in the mix, he did the first few drafts by himself. I wanted him to add the sound he imagined. I’m thrilled with the mix and like you think it added so much to the work. Khyam gave it much more than what’s usually given, he just did a great job. The credit goes to him.
MM: Maurice was completely involved in the process from the beginning. The artwork is the result of our discussions, going back and forth and trying out things together. I would have never been able to do it alone. Although part of the image — the background — was in my archive and I loved it, I can’t say that the artwork existed before the album. It missed something and became complete with the album. I’m super happy that this process gave it this life.
KH: Do you remember any of the keywords you used in the artwork brainstorm discussions?
ML: Maha heard an older, live version of the work and came and told me the exact words I was thinking about. She said: There’s a parrot in this, there’s nature, a forest, lights, the urban, nighttime. Then I added words like surreal and fantastical. This fake and real thing was key throughout: We don’t want it to look like it’s completely constructed because it’s not, it’s not a Photoshop thing but an actual image and a real parrot. Yet we wanted it to be absurd. I love this light bulb at the top that can look like a fake sun.
KH: Lots of people love to dance at your live performances. For sure there’s a big inspiration from your own body language onstage, as you dance to your music when you’re performing it. Do you think there’s any opposition between the audience dancing to your music and their respect for the amount of work behind it, or do you believe dancing is one way to experience your music in all its layers and to listen to it not only through the ears but also through movement, and the body?
ML: For me the line between what to dance to and what not is blurred. I don’t believe in this puritan view that if you dance to something you disrespect it. Dancing is another way of communicating and interacting with the audience. It’s the victory of youth really. When I was young they used to tell me my music was depressive. So it’s a pleasant surprise.
KH: As a soloist with machines on stage, and given that not everyone understands what you could be doing to produce sounds live, you tend to be framed as a DJ or, at best, as an “electronic music producer.” Yet in Salute the Parrot, it’s clear that you’ve reached a much more developed relationship with how you would like your music to sound. You’ve collaborated with different musicians and your sound has definitely matured. What’s the challenge you face as a soloist on stage? How would you best describe the medium you use to produce your music, and can you describe how you collaborate with other musicians?
ML: How I’m perceived as a soloist has always been a source of frustration. I never thought of myself as an electronic musician and it’s not really the case. The real issue is that I’m unclear about what I do on stage and I don’t present my work — it’s a common mistake.
But I’m thinking that with time and different projects and the more I manage to do what I want to do it will be clear that I’m not a DJ. In Garraya I didn’t have the ambition of having musicians recording with me. With Salute the Parrot I felt I could now ask musicians to play my ideas and my work on the record, to play my kind of vision.
My biggest ambition is to form a band on stage to perform my work with me. If I could afford it I would’ve had a band from the very beginning. So electronic music was a need more than a choice. I think of myself as a musician and a composer — machines are a way to fulfill a need. Of course they open worlds too, electronic sounds and using machines to treat acoustic sounds is very exciting. But my ambition increased with the experiences of others like Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Maryam Saleh, or Dina el Wedidi, who formed their own bands performing their music. That inspired me. I think I’m going to try and do the same next year — I already found the musicians and the plan is to start performing this work live as a band starting in 2015 with Bashar Farran on bass guitar and Thommaso Capelato on drums.
KH: The music scene in the Arab world and especially in Cairo in my opinion has boomed over the past three years. Can you tell us about your perception of the role of record labels and other institutional initiatives in this boom? How was your experience with the different parties you’ve dealt with throughout your career, and what do you think the scene has achieved and still lacks in terms of platform building and providing sustainability for musicians?
ML: There’s something happening in Cairo, it’s undeniable and incredibly stimulating and overwhelming. I’ll dare to say that Cairo is one of the most exciting places to be a musician. There’s a great musical energy. I’m from a generation where it was difficult to find a band you’re interested in. Now you can’t keep up there’s so much music happening and there’s a giant audience, thousands tuned in to what’s happening. I feel that the musicians and audience are light years ahead of the institutions. Maryam Saleh has 800,000 fans on Facebook and there are five music venues in Cairo and about three festivals. Dedicated radio shows are nonexistent. Press, writers, critics, agents, managers — there’s a bit of that but it’s too little compared to the millions of fans and the number of emerging bands. The scene’s too limited for all this. It happened relatively fast — it’s been brewing since before the revolution but it’s impact became clear in a sudden manner. What’s missing is obvious: more venues in different cities and areas, more platforms, the music’s accessibility for the audience. I don’t want to sound like there are no opportunities, but we’re discussing size — it’s a matter of scale.
KH: Who is Koukou?
ML: I never met Koukou! Maha will tell you about Koukou.
KH: Who is Koukou ya Maha?
MM: Koukou is the hero! I was looking for a parrot, so I found a pet shop next to my place and asked them for a colorful parrot, and there he was. I found him cute and agreed with them to photoshoot him. They were really cool. There was just one Koukou. I thought it would be more complicated to shoot him but it was very easy! He’s polite and spreads his wings so easily.
KH: Did you give the shop a copy of the album?
MM: Yes, and the owner was very happy to see the parrot with this background. But his main interest was that this would help sell Koukou.
ML: We can do an announcement on the Facebook page.
KH: It’s cool because on the album you have all the information that can actually take you to Koukou!