While analogue synthesizers were at the center of Rami Abadir’s contribution to the My Nineties project, in his new album Shawakish — co-produced with Mustafa El Sayed — the Roland TB-3 synth bass demands a 1980s-tinted spotlight.
The duo is known for its crafty use of analogue instruments, mainly synthesizers, drum machines and keys. Shawakish seems to push their very contemporary electronic sound into unchartered dance music territory, which I have to admit sounds pretty good. It’s a new, retro direction.
The album opens with a big punch, directly introducing their new friend Roland. While he might not always choose to, Abadir can tip-toe the thin line between the rhythmic avant-garde and experimental dance music. Shawakish has squelching basslines and drum patterns and a lot more pep in its step than the duo’s previous work, particularly tracks 1, 3 and 8 (the notable dance track), all featuring the new addition of Roland TB-3.
Recently built — and based on its massively influential predecessor, the Roland TB 303 — the Roland TB-3 can produce on-the-go performance-ready bass synths, from squelches to trippy acidic pulses to harsh-sounding whorls. The Roland was put on the market as a synthesizer for guitarists who wanted basslines to jam off of while alone (and Abadir is a guitar player). But it found better use on the dance floor, in breakthrough tracks like Alexander Robotnik’s Problèmes d’Amour (1983), a “progressive” hit in Chicago’s techno scene.
Back to Shawakish: Turning an ear away from the Roland, I hear an absence of context for certain sounds. For example, we hear just hints of anything resembling the Egyptian soundscape, such as the “sik siks” textures and “dom taka dom taka” beats of Abadir’s Zaat or the audio for My Nineties, created through samples from 1990s pop musicians like Hamid al-Shairi, Hesham Abbas, Amr Diab and Simone. There’s pitch-bending in track 4, which gives me an image of a robot dancing to machine-made tarab, but in track 5 some tabla drumming is quickly overtaken by a technology jungle, and a long way into track 6 a zaghout-like sound fades before establishing roots.
The tracks get a bit repetitious or lengthy, particularly the atmospheric track 7, Khubaiza. But overall, it’s a compilation of mostly good songs, a couple of misses and a closing track just as strong (if not stronger) as the opener. This is the title track, Shawakish, and it’s filled with movement between the Roland’s resonant pitch-bending and trippy, bassy tensions. The duo can’t help but call us out of the living room and onto the dance floor.
I don’t know exactly where to place this record, given that any recognition of the clear production skill of each track furiously clashes with the fact that I’m just not a child of the 1980s, and my musical tastes remain stubbornly aware of this. Dance hits that are both cheesy and monotonous, slathered with reverb and other theatrical effects, have always triggered my fight-or-flight response, along with the decade’s excessive use of synthesizers and hairspray. It’s all a tad too melodramatic.
Here’s a track-by-track breakdown of my thoughts, not that you should ever take my (or anyone’s) word for it:
1. Muqademat Rustum: Synths arpeggiate in aggressive Arabic pop fashion, but this up-tempo track soon decides to crescendo into an eclectic dance number with more than slightly eerie overtones. The lovechild of Islam Chipsy and Eurythmics would highly approve of this ravey opener, which features a snare that sucks me right back into a bygone era of electronic dance music.
2. 100 Qetta: Layer after layer of syncopated percussion forms a synth-laden hysteria along with snippets of a voice — the first faint traces of human presence behind the intimidating level of machinery clearly used to make this record. Every line seems to be fiercely competing with the rest, and the fighting gets ugliest halfway through.
3. La Ba’s: My psyche is assaulted with hi-hats as I enter into this Gameboy version of Alice in Wonderland. I’m already feeling slightly claustrophobic, and the consistent modulation doesn’t allow for much breathing space. Could be a fitting anthem for the birth of Cairo’s methamphetamine scene.
4. Ya Nadama: We’re getting darker, if only sardonically so, with a pulsing kick-dominated intro. A psychedelic One Thousand and One Nights vibe makes a wailing entrance, and belly dances uncomfortably throughout.
5. Aqzam wa Lakin: I can’t reconcile the tribal beats, flanging synth lines and nasal electro-shaabi references here. There are brief, less paranoid reprieves in the latter half of the track, though at times I feel my own brain signals are being phased, ambulance-style.
6. Al-Mustalib: This track could work in a soundtrack context, and I can’t decide if it’s closer to a 1980s detective drama or an early 2000s Showtime series, but I’m reaching for my sunglasses and sleazy smirk with every bar of this bassline.
7. Khubaiza: My senses are drowning in this gothic wash of effects, but kept alive by a sassy oriental-ish beat that materializes roughly three minutes in. I decide to ignore, or enjoy, what is the digital equivalent of barking dogs, and decide that this is my favorite track of the lot.
8. Shawakish: A penchant for the tribal has resurfaced with rounds of chanting occasionally invading the industrial shaabi-esque beat of the final track, in which Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora’s keyboard counterpart is commissioned to produce a solo, but finds himself in a Ramadan tent and promptly leaves.
I went to the album launch in January. The carpenter delivering my new table was stuck in traffic so I missed the beginning. As I walked down the narrow alley where the Townhouse Rawabet theater is, the beats got louder. It was the kind of noise you hear outside a club, not like normal Rawabet concerts. I liked that the music made me feel like I was going to a club, especially because I only paid LE30 and people were very welcoming on the door, unlike at clubs.
The setting was simple: Abadir and Sayed had their machines on tables in front of them, with a large video art projection behind them. Abadir’s pullover made him look like an older brother, unlike Sayed, who looked like he was about to jump into a swimming pool with his T-shirt on.
Their contributions and performance styles suited the way they dressed. Abadir provided a platform of beats and pads, occasionally using the keyboard to emphasize a phrase, while Sayed would splash out with a craze of vivid jamming or improvised solos. Abadir’s moments used noises and sound textures and felt a little bit more experimental, while Sayed’s were quite jazzy and easier to access.
Overall it had a cinematic feel: The rhythms would perfectly suit flamboyant film scenes. That was amusing sometimes and gave the work a popular taste, but sometimes made it feel (especially with the not very developed electronic noises) like a video game soundtrack that has to stretch out in the background for as long as you need to finish a mission.
This feeling was emphasized by the fact that the songs sometimes felt a little too long. I like it when you’re given good time to digest a musical phrase and get to know it better. But some phrases didn’t encourage me to explore them much.
The concert felt epic and exciting, and the audience seemed to be having a good time (a red hooligan flare was let off at some point!), until eventually it started to feel like it was taking forever. So I left before the end to get to other commitments. That wasn’t the carpenter’s fault, though.