Cairo’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) is experiencing awkward growing pains and criticism. This year’s edition, which ended April 9, left both audiences and artists frustrated over the curation and management of the big-budget, well-publicized contemporary arts festival.
Rather than examine D-CAF at large, I will zoom in on the music program over D-CAF’s four years and its implications for Cairo’s music landscape.
D-CAF’s musical history
When D-CAF first launched amid the turmoil of military rule and a new parliament in April 2012, alternative music was vibrant but in need of more gigs and infrastructure. A handful of venues in and around downtown Cairo hosted live music, such as 100Copies, Rawabet, Cairo Jazz Club and the Goethe Institut courtyard.
In partnership with the controversial Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment, who own several downtown buildings, D-CAF opened up closed venues such as Radio Cinema and Qasr al-Nil Theater on Talaat Harb Street.
Playwright Ahmed El Attar, D-CAF’s director, chose musician Mahmoud Refat as music curator — the logical choice, as Refat has wide access to Cairene musicians and experience producing music events through 100Copies, which he founded as a record label in 2006 and expanded into a venue in 2011, and a history of collaborating with Attar.
Refat, now 40, has stayed in the role throughout, and Attar has remained the “performing arts” curator — while the curator for the less prominent “visual arts” component has changed each year.
With Radio Cinema the main venue, that first year Refat invited a range of international, regional and local musicians to perform electronic and experimental or leftfield projects released between 2010 and 2011.
With 20 live concerts, D-CAF was Cairo’s most ambitious music event in 2012 — the nearest competitor was the fourth Cairo Jazz Festival, with 14 acts from eight countries.
The local selection was representative of contemporary music in Cairo, but the lack of female Arab acts was disappointing, not for quota’s sake but due to the interesting milieu of experimental female musicians available for booking.
That changed in 2013, when Refat added a female focus through a weekend of “romantic, feminine and rebellious” artists, including Emel Mathlouthy and Dina El Wedidi, the latter performing her early neo-folk songs. This was a good effort, but there was something counterproductive about putting them in the category of “romantic and feminine.”
The 2013 theme was “direct culture,” which Refat defined as “music that represents the street and urban culture, a sound originating from the people without the mediation of middle men or large conglomerates.” The selection was less jazzy and instrumental, shifting toward Arabic music genres popular among young Egyptians, including mahraganat (such as Sadat) and rap (such as El Rass). Sadly, Syrian artist Deekay was billed but the festival failed to acquire his visa.
In 2013, D-CAF’s music venue became Sharazade night club. The venue change was convenient: the cabaret has timeworn walls, high ceilings and a general air of old-school debauchery, fitting for Refat’s more dance-infused program.
The 2014 D-CAF music program arguably rivaled the first, though without the excitement of 20 concerts in 24 days. Through almost sold-out concerts at Sharazade and Radio Theater, Refat delivered a pretty solid program.
This was the year the selection really came together, giving stage to a proper range of Arabic music from Islam Chipsy’s squelching keyboard, to El Manzouma’s rousing rap, to Yasmine Hamdan, who depending on who you talk to gave either a spellbinding or shameless performance. There were two incredible mahraganat moments, one in the collaboration between Rinse FM’s Fayze Miyake, Sadat and Fifty, and later with Islam Chipsy.
Here’s a chart in which we’ve compiled the music programs of each D-CAF:
This year’s music
This year’s D-CAF left many wondering about its future, as many viewers and commentators agreed that it offered its least ambitious overall program.
Musically, it became clear that Refat’s selection was decent in terms of regional scope, but could have included more local and inernational artists. It also seems that, in order to fill Sharazade’s space and cabaret atmosphere, Refat’s selections were a sort of call to the dance floor. This makes sense in terms of covering costs, but excluded an important younger audience that’s often not allowed to attend 11 pm shows in bars.
Described on D-CAF’s website as being “directed at the urban youth culture,” with a line-up of “artists of varying genres, including high tech minimal, shaabi, experimental, noise, hip hop, and psychedelic rock,” the music selection was largely forgettable and felt almost lazy.
This was due to a combination of factors, most notably the shoddy sound quality in many performances, particularly that of Abyusif, normally known for his outstanding vocal caliber and clarity. At D-CAF there was too much bass and his lyrics were drowned out by fuzzy speaker feedback.
This isn’t a new problem: Youssef Abouzeid, founder of local alt-rock band PanSTARRS and El Manzouma member, points to sub-par sound last year. “We were very excited to do D-CAF, and with all the buzz and funds I expected it to be a proper music festival,” he says. “But they were more concerned with capturing good footage than doing a proper sound check. I normally don’t mind poor sound quality in gigs as I got used to it from playing in venues around Egypt, but D-CAF was the worst.”
Other failures this year included the lack of a single Arab female musician or local musician not connected to 100Copies — many had played also at D-CAF before. This gave fodder to those who have criticized Refat’s role in shaping Cairo’s alternative music landscape — more of which shortly.
This year, for the first time, D-CAF officially partnered with 100Copies as booking agent for the local artists. Thus many in the line-up are somehow connected with the label: Egyptian DJ ISMAEL has a record dropping soon through the label, Okka and Ortega are managed by Refat, and El Dakhlaweya feature heavily on the forthcoming 100Copies-produced compilation MAHRAGANAT 2015.
I ask Refat about this. “For this year, who’s better than El Dahklaweya? They are the most popular new mahraganat crew. Who’s better than Abyusif? Who is better than ISMAEL? It’s not because these guys work with 100Copies, it’s that I find them to be some of the best at what they do,” he says. “That and part of what I’m commissioned to do is fill up the space, and a bedroom artist won’t be able to do that.”
According to the D-CAF box office, the 2013 and 2014 music programs were almost all sold out. This year, however, except for the first night featuring Abyusif and El Dakhlaweya, concerts did not reach capacity expectations. The pairing of 8% (Okka, Ortega and Wezza) with mash-up-style British DJ GoldieRocks garnered about a third of people expected to fill the GrEEk Campus. The closing performances of ISMAEL, Palestinian MC Boikutt and Dutch rock group Birth of Joy were also under capacity — perhaps affected by the overlap with Sham al-Nassim, Easter and the Oshtoora festival.
I asked friends about this closer, and was told that Boikutt gave “one of the most emotionally driven shows in the festival, with raw poetic lyrics exposing life in Ramallah,” but also that Birth of Joy were sad, talentless and “chosen to mindlessly appease the evening’s Dutch funders.”
8%’s low ticket sales might have something to do with the fact that they’ve played before at D-CAF, and their core audience, aka Cairo’s “urban youth,” have frequent access to them at much cheaper ticket prices than LE50. Regardless, their show this year was underwhelming. It was like a repeat of their 2012 D-CAF performance: despite slightly different lyrics it felt tired, and Wezza was still trying in vain to steal the show from his more enigmatic frontmen.
D-CAF 2014 also saw repeats of previous acts, chiefly Sadat, but his collaboration with Rinse FM’s Fayze Miyake (as part of the Cairo Calling project) was fresh, exciting and just plain good.
100COPIES and mahraganat
Over the years Refat has garnered both supporters and detractors.
In a post on 100Copies’ Facebook timeline, one mahraganat fan wrote, “The secret to the success of mahraganat was that it came from the street to the ‘simple people’ … over-production is marginalizing the people who cared about mahraganat to begin with.”
Another comments, in reference to the collaborative track Hez Hez (Shake Shake) with MC Amin: “The music has lost its edge as shaabi, and now sounds European … poor people don’t listen to Sadat and Alaa 50 anymore, it’s high society they’re catering to now.” Another claims Refat is an “intruder on the scene who is exploiting mahraganat.”
So a main accusation is that 100Copies is capitalizing on the mahraganat scene. It’s easy to argue in response that a label’s job is to find trends and develop them, while exploiting the music rights so everyone involved makes cash. And that’s what’s happening with the mahraganat musicians working with 100Copies, who willingly come back to Refat because he gets them major tours abroad, access to superior equipment and money to sustain their art.
100Copies has been rooted in leftfield electronic music since its inception, and mahraganat is leftfield electronic dance music. But it’s also far from the only thing it represents: the number of mahranagat artists represented by or producing work with the label is small compared to artists outside the genre, from rappers such as MC Amin and Abyusif to noise musicians like those involved on the Egyptian Females Experimental Music album to artists Hassan Khan and Maurice Louca.
I ask Refat what led to 100Copies’ interest in mahraganat, and he simply refers me to Salma El Tarzi’s film Underground/On the Surface (2012). “It’s all there in the film,” he says. “Anyone who’s curious can go buy a ticket to the cinema and learn the whole story.”
He adds, however, that he genuinely believes mahraganat is the new global dance music trend. He shows me a video of Chipsy performing at one of France’s largest electronic music festivals, Trans Musicales, in front of what he attests was an audience of 15-20,000.
“They were breaking down the doors to get into his show,” he exclaims. “Chipsy has 50 gigs booked through 100Copies in Europe in 2015. MAHRAGANAT 2015 has another 48 gigs in Europe. It’s happening because we as 100Copies are working on this precisely. Of course it’s because they’re talented, but we saw the limits the scene reached a couple of years ago, and that was because of the poor management it was under. So it wasn’t that things were working on their own and 100Copies just came in at the end to take a piece. This criticism is coming from someone naïve about professional life and the music industry.”
“Do you really think I could really exploit Alaa 50 and Sadat?” he adds. “There’s no way!”
He says a previous manager exploited them to a degree that not only caused the artists to break ties with her, but created a fallout that’s left her unable to work in the scene. He also mentions exploitation by film producer Mohamed al-Sobky. Many mahraganat artists have tried acting in his films or providing a song for a movie, but often found themselves left without payment or credit. This happened to Sadat in Alb El Assad (Lionheart, 2013) and Figo before him.
100Copies has just signed a distribution deal with Sony with a focus on mahraganat, Refat explains, discussing the hard work his studio and the musicians have put in.
“When was the last time a major label came to downtown Cairo to sign a contract with an independent downtown artist?” he asks. “We sit with the musicians for three to four months on a record and then we pay to send it to England to the same studio where Prodigy and Groove Armada are mastering and mixing their music — who else is doing this but 100Copies? For the scene, and for the musicians, and for the money? We’re building an economy around the music, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it’s coming at the request of the artists.”
There is also, of course, a great deal of praise directed at Refat on social media and directly from those who work with him.
Ahmed Soliman, manager of Sallam City’s Madfaageya, says 100Copies and D-CAF have hugely benefitted them. “The opportunity to work in D-CAF was one of the most important things we’ve done. It’s a massive cultural festival,” he says, “We’ve worked a lot in the street and in weddings in different neighborhoods, but as an organized contemporary culture festival — this is one of the few we participate in in Egypt.
“Mahmoud has helped Madfaageya’s music in 100 ways,” he adds. “Currently there a bunch of mahraganat groups working with 100Copies to release the first official compilation album on CD, the first time this is really happening in a professional sense. That’s not to mention the opportunities the crews have had to travel. Most mahraganat groups don’t get to travel outside of Cairo, let alone the country — we’ve gone to London, Switzerland, Kuwait and soon we’ll be going to Holland.”
If the artists maintain artistic control with equal rights, there’s a convincing argument that it’s good that an economy is forming around a genre rooted in a marginalized youth culture from Cairo’s densely populated informal areas. For it to become sustainable, the artists need to capitalize and start their own studios and labels to ensure autonomy, as happened with 1990s hip hop culture in the US and rave, jungle and dubstep in the UK.
What’s exciting is that, just under 10 years after it began, mahraganat recording studios have indeed been popping up, like Sadat/7a7a’s in Sallam City and Alaa 50’s in Shubra, where Maurice Louca produced part of his recent album.
Seen this way — in terms of the exposure and development of these artists — perhaps it makes more sense that Refat is booking mahraganat artists, even if audiences are not over-excited about them.
But in terms of D-CAF, it’s undeniable that there are several other issues to contend with. “There is definitely something positive about the emerging culture of music festivals in Egypt and it’s good that D-CAF is taking place,” says Abouzeid, echoing the sentiments of many this year. “But just because there is nothing better happening around doesn’t make it good.”
Firstly, the sound needs to be a priority. Secondly, the use of a third-party booking agency or diversifying the curators of the music and performing arts programs would help D-CAF avoid ongoing accusations of nepotism — which are not limited to the music program.
Thirdly, to be a success, the target audience must be better considered. There should be an earlier alternative stage to avoid alienating the core young Egyptian audience who often have curfews and can’t go to bars, and Refat should have more room to take risks rather than being under pressure to sell enough tickets.
This leads to the fourth point, related to the festival’s structure and funding. Because D-CAF is reliant on Ismaelia, which provides the venues and aims to gentrify the area, it is no doubt expected to bring in well-to-do audiences rather than the “urban youth.” Meanwhile, funders require the participation of artists from certain countries, which can lead to exciting collaborations but sometimes — like this year — results in odd, tokenistic choices.
Although it’s been undeniably exciting to see iconic performance spaces like Radio Cinema open up, a radical move might be to pare the festival down, break free of the dependence on Ismaelia and hold D-CAF in venues such as 100Copies and Falaki Theater and in public spaces. This would be cheaper and allow the organizers to focus more on quality, innovation and on making a truly accessible cultural event.
Perhaps rethinking these structures in some way would give D-CAF the much-needed life-blood to continue. Because sure, it’s been a bad year for the festival, but if it ceases to exist, there’ll be one less event to look forward to in a city fairly sparse of ambitious arts programs.