It seems like beachside music festivals are all the rage these days, so we decided to sit down with one of the first groups of people to bring the concept to Egypt’s shores: Amr Ramadan and Omar El Ayat of 3alganoob, who are planning to kick off the biggest and purportedly best edition of the event in Soma Bay this April.
Set to take place on Sham al-Nasseem weekend for the first time in this location (the previous two editions were hosted in Marsa Alam’s Deep South Eco Lodge) with a roster of international acts and a desire to tackle the practical issues they faced last year with newfound vigor and professionalism, 3alganoob give culture reporters Habiba Effat and Maha ElNabawi, and – of course, Ziggy the dog – the details on what this year’s festival is all about.
Maha ElNabawi: Tell us about how 3alganoob started?
Amr Ramadan: The idea was started by a group of friends. We were at Deep South Eco Lodge and the camp’s generator blew up — it caught on fire. There were people jamming, and suddenly there was music and this big burning fire against the night.
The next morning we were discussing how to help out Karim Noor, the camp owner. We had the idea to start a festival. I’d had this dream for a long time, and Karim had already been doing small events — he’d get a band to play during Sham al-Nasseem.
I didn’t have a lot of experience organizing events, so I contacted a friend, who’s an event manager. He had this idea for an event that moves from place to place.
So there were two ideas — that it would move and that it would have a cause. We thought the cause could be “3alganoob,” supporting underground music with a portable event, and supporting different places in the south.
The first year we’d do it at Deep South Eco Lodge, then move the second year because there are so many places in the south to discover, and we can get good musicians and a good vibe and promote different areas. We always have a local business component, working with local restaurants, diving centers, kite centers — we want to support local tourism.
Habiba Effat: So the first edition of 3alganoob was in 2013?
AR: Yes – and it went very well. We had three bands: Like Jelly, Youssra El Hawary, and Abou. We expected 200 listeners and got 250. It had a huge environmental component, it wasn’t just a music festival — we had workshops about dolphins, turtles, and so on. The location was a nature conservation site with bird watching.
We had sessions with locals about how and what we could support, alongside sessions with lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who linked up with the locals and continued working with them. That component was very important for 3alganoob, and the people who came supported that — very much people interested in the environment and music.
The second year we wanted to focus more on music, so the environmental component wasn’t as strong. We wanted to establish 3alganoob as a music festival. And we did. We brought on board Mohamed El Quessny and Youssef Atwan [of Like Jelly, now producing the Oshtoora festival] to help us with the music. The music part of last year was amazing, they did an excellent job.
On the accommodation side, we didn’t do a very good job. You went, so you know! We had problems with logistical planning because we had service contracts with people, rather than companies — all the suppliers, from security, to tents, to housekeeping. There was also a sandstorm — an act of God. But the main problems were due to suppliers, and there was no one to hold accountable. Especially as it was more of a volunteer effort. Even with the bands, we weren’t really supporting them — they were supporting the festival.
The good part of the first two years is that we learned a lot. There was a lot of feedback, and the people who criticized us were the most helpful. There were clear points we wanted to address this year.
MN: Yes, I can see in the press release that you have seriously addressed them, chiefly the bathrooms!
AR: Camping in general, we learned Egyptians are not ready for camping festivals like Glastonbury and such.
MN: Don’t let anyone convince you that those festivals are pristine, though. They can be muddy and messy too.
AR: Yes, but people who go to festivals abroad expect that. I don’t think the Egyptian audience is ready — we have to ease them into the camping experience. So we thought we had to raise the comfort and hygiene levels of the whole experience.
This year, the vendors we’re renting event-grade bathrooms from are very expensive, but we had to do it. We also had to buy a bigger type of tent. And this year we’re legal — we have contracts with suppliers from companies.
HE: Because you’re now legally registered?
AR: Yes, we’re a legal company this year.
HE: For the first two years, how did it work funding-wise?
AR: As I mentioned to Maha then for her article, funding came from ticket sales last year — but the musicians agreed to huge cuts to their fees. And we, as partners, had to pay from our own pockets — it was a heavy loss. The partners who invested last year are the ones who stayed on this year — the others were offered either management fees or something else. There was no sponsorship.
Another thing we learned is that safety and security are the key to the whole festival.
Firstly, having permits. Because the current situation politically is really scary. In Sinai, that festival Desert Dance was cancelled last year — during the festival the police raided it. People were running away in the desert.
MN: Didn’t another one just get cancelled?
Omar El Ayat: No, it was Desert Dance again.
AR: So permits are really important because you can’t have a festival and then have your guests raided by police.
As for safety, we needed a place that had a clear, controllable exit and entrance. Last year we had 1,000 paying customers but no one knows how many people were actually there. I learned later that about 20 friends came and didn’t pay, which isn’t fair to the paying guests.
This year we also looked for a place where people could camp on the beach.
HE: That’s the problem with Deep South Eco Lodge, the road crossing to get to the beach from the campsite.
AR: We looked for a beach that has nothing on it. Because campers wouldn’t be happy with a beach that has hotels on it.
In the end we had this idea, because kitesurfing lodges are usually outside hotel grounds, we looked at kitesurfing places in Gouna, Sahl Hasheeh, Soma Bay — those were the three options. We decided on Soma Bay because the beach there is amazing.
Ziggy: Barks in approval.
MN: Can you explain more specifically where it is?
AR: It’s where Soma Bay ends. There are villas with a small golf course, and after 50 meters the bay continues and it’s just empty beach. Soma Bay itself is 40 km outside of Hurghada.
MN: So people can fly into Hurghada airport?
AR: Exactly. We’re actually putting that in the booking — we’re working with a tourism company this year so people can book their flights directly through us too. Last year the bookings were done at Cilantro coffee shop and pop-up locations in Cairo, so people would carry around loads of money — it was hectic.
HE: I have a question before we leave the first two years. You mentioned you had the idea for a moving festival — how come the second year you stayed in Marsa Alam?
AR: We thought we could grow there. Maybe we were wrong. Also, we set out to help the camp owner, and the first year it helped him out — he got all the profits. So we thought we would do it again there to help him out more.
MN: You guys drove quite a bit of local tourism out there — at least 1,000 people.
HE: And Marsa Alam became a hotspot afterward — before, it was largely unknown except among divers.
AR: It was very good for Marsa Alam. Even the hotels in Porto Ghalab, many people heard about the festival and came. So we stayed there a second year to learn and grow.
MN: It’s not a bad idea — just because it’s a portable festival doesn’t mean each year you have to move. Because half of the ease that comes with event production comes after doing the first event in that space and reproducing it, knowing the venue and security and all that.
HE: How many original founders were there?
AR: The original founders were me, Nameer Nashaat and Karim Noor. With Karim, we told him we wanted to move this year, but he was against the idea. Then about three months ago, he made a Facebook announcement that the Deep South Eco Lodge has nothing to do with 3alganoob this year. So we thought he would do his own thing, and were very surprised when he decided to launch an event using the 3alganoob name and logo.
ME: But as you have a legal entity that is 3alganoob, you have some rights there.
AR: We’re not going to take any legal action against a friend. Our strategy is to just focus on ourselves and improve our festival and make our people happy, and that’s it. I wish the best to everyone else, I hope Karim’s thing works and that Oshtoora works.
We’re really looking at ourselves, and that’s why we moved to Soma Bay. There’s only one entrance and exit, we have permits, we’re legal with all the proper authorities, and ambulances. At the same time it’s the most amazing beach I’ve seen. The campers, who are the main vibe of the festival, will be very happy — because of the curvature of the bay, you can only see the water.
Also we found out many people who want to come are aged between 25-35. They want to be spoiled and stay in hotels. Especially the divers. So we thought, where’s a place with access to cheap accommodation? Hurghada is right there and so is Soma Bay.
That also leads me to a discussion of quality. Soma Bay set standards for bathrooms and food quality. We’re very happy about that because we want to change our image after last year. People say it was a hippy festival and stuff, but these same people say the food wasn’t great, the bathrooms weren’t clean and so on.
This year we still have that vibe but very clean bathrooms and a number of food options that we think will be very attractive to the audience.
MN: Could you explain that more?
AR: It’s probably going to be local chains. We’re in the process of hiring a food consultant, and he’s going to be responsible for monitoring food health and safety. Soma Bay is providing the bar, but the prices are set by us — they’re not hotel prices. It’s very important that people have affordable beer.
HE: The festival originally started with a very clear environmental component. Where is that now?
AR: We just hired an environmental consultant. She used to work with GIZ and is making our lives a living hell, but we’re happy. The aim now is to demonstrate how an environmental camp should work. This year we have to limit the water. We’re trying to find a good balance — sending environmental messages, but without being too forceful.
MN: And what about trash and cigarette butts?
AR: We need to discuss that with the consultant. Inside the camp we’ll try to use solar energy. Tents will be 2×2 meters, so they’re huge, come with a solar light and charger. So we’re trying to be environmentally friendly.
MN: How many can the camp accommodate?
AR: 1,000 people.
MN: Can people can bring their own tents?
AR: Yes, that’s factored in as well. As for the rest of the 3,000 potential guests, they can stay in hotels in Gouna or Hurghada and come in for day use.
HE: So you’re more than doubling numbers from last year?
AR: Yes, but we’re keeping the camp at the same capacity. We realized last year that we can make a camp with the same vibe a bit further from the stage. The camping part we want to keep secluded and more quiet. It’s a 1.5 km long beach.
MN: Will there only be one stage?
AR: Yes. The idea is that we have a lineup, but the real music that happens at 3alganoob is the jamming tents. The musicians are coming from five different countries — including France and the US — so we have a huge operation. The bands each stay for four or five days because 3alganoob is meant to be an interactive experience between the bands and the audience. We also picked them with that in mind.
MN: Don’t you feel that for it to be more festival like there should be more than one stage?
OA: We’re focusing this year on one stage because we’re contacting the most important suppliers for light and sound. In the beginning when we had the option of Porto Ghaleb, we thought we’d have two locations in the festival and a morning and an evening stage. But in this case it’s a flat, long strip of beach, so we focused instead on making this stage with the best equipment.
AR: We have PROLITE, who are one of the top light providers – they organized the Scorpions concert and have worked with Shakira and Beyonce when they played here. Essam al-Saharty is our sound engineer — he’s worked with Bassem Youssef’s Al-Barnameg, now he’s in charge of sound at El Sawy Culturewheel and he came highly recommended by our musicians.
MN: Two stages can work against you too, I’m not sure if it was last year or the previous year at the Cairo Jazz Festival — they made a critical error putting the main stage with mega speakers not too far from the side stage, so the poor side stage was drowned out.
AR: But the thing is, 3alganoob is not about the stage at all — last year there was a lot of jamming. People play music everywhere, you’ll be walking and find people playing in three or four areas.
MN: Yeah, there was a really nice jam that happened last year.
AR: These jams were part of our ideology from the beginning — to have 120-150 musicians from different countries for a few days, and they might know each other and they might not. We create an itinerary, so there are activities for them before the guests come, and they can jam together.
OA: And a large number of people from the audience are musicians, who bring their own instruments and come to play music with the bands.
AR: This year there will be two to three jamming tents, and after the stage acts finish at 1:30 or 2 am, it turns acoustic. We’re not going to organize this at all — people just start playing music.
MN: Let’s go back to the program and the lineup. Tell us a bit about your selection process.
OA: We tried to raise the bar this year, and bring the most important bands from the Middle East. We also focused on local bands that play really great music but don’t really reach people, allowing them to play on the same stage with international bands like Jadal and Autostrad from Jordan, Zeid and Maii Waleed from Lebanon, Gultrah Sound System and Emel Mathlouthi from Tunis.
MN: What was the criteria in picking these bands?
OA: I’m a musician, so I’m a fan of the local underground music scene, and I did research on all of these bands, and like I said the main criteria is to bringing in bands from the region and giving local bands exposure.
MN: How many acts a day?
AR: There are three lineups per day and there are different genres spread throughout the day. The morning lineup will feature bands playing English-language covers and original songs. The afternoon and evening lineup has the bigger bands, including a few of the most popular acts from Jordan, Lebanon and Tunis, which will preform Arabic rock, reggae and pop. And then each evening we’ll have electronic music, with some of the best local DJs. We actually got the idea to mix up the genres in each day’s lineup from Habiba’s article on the Cloud9 festival, where she criticized the decision to segregate each evening’s lineup by genre, and suggested bringing different genres together to build a more cohesive musical experience. So this is a really important part of the festival this year.
The reason we’re getting these bands is that we want to be compared to festivals in the Middle East that are huge and bring in Middle Eastern talent, like Dum Tak in Jordan and festivals in Dubai that are more commercial and have more popular acts. In terms of quality, these are the festivals we want to compete with.