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Zuli’s Bionic Ahmed: A review and Q&A
 
 

In January, Zuli (Ahmed al-Ghazoly) released his EP Bionic Ahmed under the UIQ label recently launched by musician Lee Gamble. The record is UIQ’s second release.

In the past three years, Zuli – along with partner Asem Tag – has helped form an electronic music scene by co-founding the venue Vent, one of the few serious attempts to provide a performance space and lay the basis for an independent music scene. Despite its limited pool of musicians and attendees, it was an essential space for live performance, supporting over 30 musicians, broadening their audience, marketing and networks — especially after a decline in 100Copies’ support for electronic music. Vent’s role has become more apparent since it shut down temporarily a few months back, leaving a void no other project has been able to fill.

But Zuli has been involved in several other projects, including a European tour with the KIK (Kairo is Koming) collective, which ended with the release of this fourth album.

As in his previous releases — with the exception of CFS — Zuli relies mainly on samples and Ableton software to produce, but adopts a minimal approach in Bionic Ahmed. Tracks are not too densely layered, leaving enough space to challenge listeners and encourage a curiosity around the source of the sounds that are manipulated and reshaped. The sounds are made from scratch, not relying on the presets many electronic musicians use.

At the beginning of the opening track, Robotic Headshakes, the melody resembles gamelan music but there’s also a unique, sharp sound to the chorus, with a recurring kick that sounds like a distorted TR-808. The vocals are subtle and integrated, and the track is pleasant and catchy. (For me though, the absurd performance in the accompanying music video betrays this musical effort).

Repetition — a defining characteristic of minimalism — is abundant in Bionic Ahmed, overwhelming listeners’ senses. But Zuli breaks monotony before it kicks in by making slight variations in the use and timings of sounds, demonstrating his skill as producer. This is also true in Compactpact, which relies on surrounding noise, and in 131001G.

Robotic Jabs in 4D has a distinct IDM line with a 1990s sound. With as few elements as two music lines and a couple of rhythms and pads, it’s a well-rounded piece and one of the album’s best tracks.

Ahmed reveals solid sound design to a four-on-the-floor beat, while the final track, Dr Beckett, which includes peculiar samples and surprising effects and microsounds, forms the most compounded, complex set of sounds on the album.

Bionic Ahmed relies on the sounds, effects and sampling abilities of Ableton rather than musical instruments, producing a fully developed work with the least amount of tools. Its mixing and mastering work well with its minimal approach.

High production values, skilful sound design and new, unique sounds are combined with a vision diverging from the dominant trend of relying on familiar forms, rhythms, sounds and melodies on Bionic Ahmed, resulting in a serious work that challenges traditional approaches to music-making.

An interview with Zuli

Rami Abadir: You recently completed a European tour with KIK. Let’s start with that.

Zuli: We started in Geneva, an amazing place. Then we visited a city called Winterthur, and played in a place called Kraftfield — we’d played there before. And then we went to Berlin, stayed for five days at the venue where we performed. After that we played in Brussels, in a cool place that used to be a metro station, it was fucking huge and we had a fucking great sound system, a huge stage, and one of the best audiences we’ve ever had. It was the first time the audience liked all the members of KIK, even though the six of us play different music. We went back to Switzerland after that and had two gigs there, one in Basel, one in St. Gallen. We started and ended in Switzerland because our tour manager is Swiss.

RA: How did you decide to form the collective, even though you each make different music?

Z: At first, Asem ($$$TAG$$$), Nader (NAA) and I were in a project called Vent, and Asem and I were in one called Wonderful Morning. Bosaina, Ismael [Hosny] and Hussein [Sherbini] were members of a group called Wetrobots. I was looking for someone to design the artwork of my first album, and that’s how I met Bosaina, because I liked their artwork. So she said she’d do the artwork for me, and we all got to know each other after that.

Nader used to run a magazine called Discord, and they used to organize live gigs. He booked Wetrobots and Bosaina for one, and later on they organized a gig on the North Coast called Sandstock, where we all performed. Before that, Wetrobots and Bosaina had performed in [Zamalek bar] Amici. We then had another gig in Meluk [in Mohandessin], where we all performed: me by myself, Vent, Wonderful Morning, Wetrobots and Bosaina, and Abyusif was also there.

A Swiss guy called Philip [Phil Battiekh] couple of the gigs. He liked us and we became friends, and he wrote an article about us in Norient. He contacted us when he went back to Switzerland to say he’d organized a European tour for us. And that’s how he’s become our tour manager — that’s when we decided to form the collective. I think it was Bosaina or Hussein who suggested the name KIK. That was early 2013. We had another tour in September 2013. By that time the acts had started to split, and by the last tour we all did solo performances.

RA: What did you all have in common, in terms of music?

Z: We had almost no audience except for each other. And Wonderful Morning’s new-wave/electro tendency was similar to Wetrobots. That’s why we made remixes for each other and played the remixed product live.

RA: Let’s talk about the album then, and start with the label or its founder, Lee Gamble.

Z: One day I was in the car with Bosaina and I played a track that she thought was mine. I said no, this is a guy called Lee Gamble. So she suggested that I send him my music. I searched online and found out that he presents a show on NTS radio. I sent him my music and he started playing it in the show — that was early 2014. A year later, he started a record label and told me he’d be willing to release an album consisting of a couple of tracks I’d sent him.

RA: So this album was recorded at intervals from 2014 to 2015, and includes several tracks you had sent to Lee Gamble’s show.

Z: Exactly, but Dr Beckett was the only track I made specifically for this album.

RA: What strikes me the most about this album is the sound design. How did you produce the sounds, and what kind of instruments or gear did you use to record this album?

Z: I generally try not to use the same style in sound design, and I like trying different methods. For example, Robotic Handshakes starts out with the sound of keys on a pot, and the sound in the chorus is the squeaking of a door. Compactpact was almost entirely made using a Casio keyboard, which I recorded and altered using Ableton. In 131001G, I used Analog and the sound of keys, too. In Robotic Jabs I used Operator, with the sound of people talking in the background. In Ahmed, there’s the sound of my dad asking my niece if she’s home yet, and I also use a Casio. In Dr Beckett I used Operator as well, and there are recorded sounds by Hussein Sherbini and Mahmoud Shiha.

RA: So your main setup is Ableton, or a laptop?

Z: Yes, exactly.

RA: Do you feel like this limits you? Does the laptop have an edge over hardware, or vice versa?

Z: I don’t feel like it limits me at all, it’s a wide open field. I don’t think one has an edge over the other, it depends on the working method you’re comfortable with, or the tools you know how to use. Computer software is cheaper, and has features that aren’t available in hardware, and the other way round. On the other hand, hardware can be better because you work more with your hands, not a mouse – but it’s expensive.

RA: What ultimately matters is the product, no matter how it was made.

Z: Exactly, what matters is the tool you can control the most to produce what you want. In CFS, for example, I only used a guitar and a delay pedal I took from Ismael.

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RA: When you’re performing live, do you play the same thing you’ve recorded, or do you create a live set that has nothing to do with the album?

Z: I’ve started making live sets that have nothing to do with the album. I used to make tracks and look forward to playing them live, but I have to think carefully about the word “play,” especially with the kind of music we play. I mean, I’m not going on stage just to press play. And in live performance it’s impossible to play the tracks the way they are, especially since each track contains so many sounds, parameters and [FX] sends of its own. So I eventually decided to make music that’s not related to the album, created according to the limitations of live performance. I use two Launch Pads, two Launch Controls and two Launch Control XLs, and I hook them up with Ableton. That’s how I’ve managed to make music that fits this type of setup. And I keep in mind that I should play music or sounds that are suitable for the venue.

RA: Is your music currently influenced by other artists or musicians?

Z: There’s no clear influence, because I’ve been listening to less music than ever lately, due to my living conditions and the fact that I share a place with other people who may not like what I want to listen to. But I think it’s influenced by other things, not necessarily music-related. Perhaps the things you see every day.

RA: Anyone can record music and post it online now. So I want to ask about the difference between releasing an album online on your own and releasing it through a record label. What does the label add?

Z: In my case, the music scene I wish to reach has always been using vinyl. This is the best way to reach that particular audience. My contract with the label is only for the album, and not as an artist, so my relationship with the label officially ends after the album’s release. Besides, the label doesn’t control the music I make. You can get great exposure through the label, and expand your network. That’s much better than releasing an album online on your own.

RA: What’s the best release format in your opinion: an album, an EP or single releases?

Z: That depends on the music scene. In my scene, everyone works with vinyl and EPs, and that’s because they cost less than full albums and have better sound quality. In other scenes, albums are still important, and they pay attention to the artwork, the order of the tracks and their relation to each other. In pop or mainstream music, it’s all about singles.

RA: How do you explain the increasing interest in releasing vinyl albums?

Z: It’s a trend. But like I said, in my scene, vinyl goes way back. I personally don’t care whether it’s MP3 or vinyl as long as it reaches people, regardless of format. I certainly like digital formats because of my age, that’s what I grew up with. So it’s good that this album has a digital version.

RA: As part of the album’s promotion, you were a guest on Lee Gamble’s NTS show, where you also played the music of other musicians. How did you select the tracks?

Z: I played music I listen to generally, and I tried to use the show as a platform to introduce other Egyptian musicians. That was the approach I took at Vent. I played, as much as I could, the music of people I respect, but I couldn’t cover the whole Egyptian electronic scene, unfortunately.

RA: According to your experience touring outside Egypt, what’s the difference between the way the audience receives your music and the way they receive “Egyptian” music, like mahraganat?

Z: The difference is huge, and they like mahraganat so much more. I’ll give you an example: Hussein has a song called 2-4 that includes two bars where he sings mahraganat-style, like a sketch. The audience doesn’t understand the language or what he’s saying, but as soon as the mahraganat part starts they go wild and crazy and start dancing. That doesn’t mean I should switch to mahraganat to appeal to its audience, that’s a motherfucking trap. The best music comes out when you let yourself go and follow your own taste. But we’ve seen this type of non-Egyptian audience that expects you to play mahraganat just because you’re Egyptian. A guy came to us after one gig and said: “Why don’t you play your own instruments and music?” I said to myself: “Our own instruments, you motherfucker!”

RA: Exoticism.

Z: Exoticism, fucking orientalism and ignorance. There was this seminar in Berlin where I kept saying “Geography shouldn’t matter,” especially in 2016. A guy like Amr al-Alamy can kick any English grime producer’s ass, and he’s never been to England. So fuck the idea that you have to play a certain kind of music because you’re from a certain country. We’re all on the internet, we grew up using it. The whole world’s out there.

RA: How do you see the electronic scene in Egypt, and what’s missing in it?

Z: It’s too fucking small. You could say it’s still a baby, or like the seeds of a scene, but it exists. It needs venues where people, the audience and musicians meet and listen to each other, so that musicians understand listeners’ opinions and over time those listeners become musicians too, and so musicians can make a living. An audience like that can produce objective critics who have standards and an actual viewpoint. These are the elements that form a music scene.

RA: Do you think Vent changed something in that scene?

Z: Yes, it was a venue where musicians who had no other place to play could perform. We booked around 40 musicians at Vent who played live for the first time. There’s got to be lots of places like that to expand the scene.

RA: What are you going to do next?

Z: I’m going to release two EPs, one’s already finished, and I’m still working on the other. They’ll both be out this year.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Ma3azef.

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Rami Abadir