Masafat Cairo: Within striking distance of larger musical aspirations?
On aiming beyond musicians’ exposure and learning from the choices of our predecessors
Cairo producer ZULI performing at the ICA as part of Masafat London - Courtesy: Brian Wahr (VENT)

When independent music space turned concept-based event series VENT mysteriously announced that it had “good news coming” in late July, I perked up — along with many people invested in Cairo’s ailing experimental music scene.

Billed as a two-city multidisciplinary festival, VENT’s well-kept secret, Masafat (literally, “distances”), boasts the most exciting avant-garde electronic lineup set to grace Cairo’s sound systems in the last couple of years, including Birmingham-born producer and DJ Lee Gamble (founder of UK label UIQ, which released VENT organizer ZULI’s latest EP Bionic Ahmed) with designer and visual artist Dave Gaskarth, Brixton-bred producer Gaika, “mysterious” duo Rezzett, Tehran-born Brooklyn-based singer and producer Lafawndah, Berlin duo Amnesia Scanner, London-based musician and DJ Beatrice Dillon, and Istanbul-raised London-based producer Sami Baha.

Performing alongside this cosmopolitan collection of experimental beatmakers starting Tuesday is a handful of some of Egypt’s finest leftfield talent: hip-hop gurus Dawsha Music, ambient sound artist and songstress Nur, audiovisual collective C31S39, bass powerhouse Ismael and visual and sound artist Ola Saad. A small set of film screenings (selected by Mada Masr’s Jenifer Evans and Andeel, starting tonight) and three panel discussions are scheduled to complement the exhilarating performances these names promise.

The project gives Cairo’s electronic music enthusiasts much reason to celebrate, and VENT has proven over the years that it is adept at pulling off solid events, both in terms of organization and substance. But will Masafat’s impact reverberate strongly enough to contribute to resuscitating an independent music scene that oscillates between starving and eating itself alive?

VENT and the scene

VENT has yet to secure a permanent venue since it moved out of its hole-in-the-wall downtown Cairo club venue in mid-2015, and many local producers and musicians — particularly from more experimental crevices — continue to lament the loss. The space carved out a dimly lit corner that saw the debut of dozens of local artists, bands and DJs (myself included) over the two years it ran, with club nights, production workshops, musician showcases and sweaty parties that ran into many a Friday dawn.

To circumvent the problems the lack of a fixed space has created and to keep the concept alive, VENT pirouetted into a series of slick, nomadic, DJ-focused events over the past year, with diverse local and international bookings. But since adopting its more fluid persona, it’s unclear where the project, which played an instrumental role in the development of a generation of local underground musicians since it began in 2013, is destined to settle — and, more importantly, what this means for the community it once hosted.

There have been few attempts to fill its shoes since the closure, and even fewer that have attracted the confidence of musicians on the edges of the industry hoping to fill a room with listeners seeking music, not customers seeking entertainment.

The brief boom in Egypt’s post-revolution experimental music scene, of which VENT was an integral part, built on the legacy of established independent music venues of the previous decade, such as free-entry pioneer alternative label 100Copies, expensive yet popular late-night haunt Cairo Jazz Club, family-friendly El Sawy Cultural Wheel and Townhouse gallery’s rentable industrial-style Rawabet Theater.

As the revolution brought down government oversight on independent culture, as well as the myriad legal, social and financial restrictions choke-holding the music industry, funding flows from the US and Europe increased and a reinvigorated youth culture emerged. Makeshift performance spaces in the form of small bars and cafes, as well as venue-hopping music-based projects, began popping up unfettered. Festivals brought alternative musicians to urban parks and unsullied coasts and Egypt’s club culture laid down roots in weekly raves and organized parties on both banks of the Nile. The scene during these years, according to local electronic and mahragan producers I interviewed in 2014, was rapidly growing, and it seemed there was room for young artists to produce and perform more freely than ever.

Cut to the present, and a dwindling number of venues and organizers, such as Nacelle and The Tap, are forced to rely on tried-and-tested, profitable approaches to events — migrating to coastal resorts for the summer, for example, to bring beach-goers the sounds, names and aesthetics that sell tickets and fill venues. In the past year specifically, a heavy-handed crackdown on cultural spaces by the state and the Musicians Syndicate’s newfound bravado in shutting down spaces and shows, arresting performers or attempting to fine them exorbitant sums, have killed off projects in their infancy and scared countless others from materializing.

Attempts at growth in the form of large-scale events — which seemed promising in past lives — have fallen flat, with festivals marred by a lack of innovation in curation but also disorganization and ineptitude, resulting in disappointment and even a camp owner’s death since 2015. New material by electronic and indie rock artists released over the last year is rarely performed locally, with more producers and DJs fleeing to other Middle Eastern or European cities to gig. Collaboration outside of exclusive social networks and fixed community ties is minimal, and it’s exceedingly challenging to make a name for yourself without becoming entangled in Cairo’s incestuous musical clique-dom.

That’s not to say it’s all bleak: Mapping Possibilities, an informal self-funded collective keen on playing with the parameters of audio-visual production, event curation and audience-performer relationships, has held two well-received events this year, with the promise of future editions. Some initiatives born in the post-revolution boom have also clawed open more room for conversation and potential. Ma3azef, a pioneer online Arabic music zine, was founded in late 2012, and EPIC 101 Studio’s music production course, which has impacted the careers of many bedroom artists in the five years it’s been running, led to similarly low-key but vital production and DJ classes and workshops springing up around town.

Largely, however, efforts at building a sustainable community base, rather than individual brand names, are few and far between.

The multidisciplinary festival-symposia model

As with most internationally funded events held in Egypt, cross-cultural exchange is Masafat’s buzzword of choice, and the press release states that VENT, along with London collaborators Thirty Three Thirty Three (a UK label specialized in organizing “exploratory arts and music events around the world”) and the veteran Institute of Contemporary Art, is facilitating this through a series of performances, screenings and talks in Cairo and London.

The eight-day two-part festival is reminiscent of past partnerships between local music initiatives and European counterparts. Record label 100Copies’ 2014 Cairo Calling springs to mind, which in collaboration with London-based radio station RinseFM brought together UK artists Kode9ArtworkFaze MiyakeMumdance and Pinch with Egyptian mahragan producers Diesel, Figo, Sadat and Knaka in a year-long project meant to bridge London’s electronic scene and Cairo’s burgeoning “electro-shaabi” one. The framework and funding are also similar, with both aiming to promote cross-cultural exchange between underground music communities in London and Cairo with the support of the British Council in Egypt and coverage by Boiler Room.

Since 2014, 100Copies — once regarded as the bastion of Egypt’s alternative music scene — has devoted itself almost entirely to promoting mahragan acts locally and abroad, earning artists a steady flow of gigs and production deals, alongside international music festival bookings. Given how the genre’s revolutionary appeal and grassroots nature allowed it to take the country by storm as truly “popular” music emanating from and appealing to the working classes rather than just the wealthy, it’s not difficult to surmise why. For the first time in a long while, an underground musical phenomenon presented itself as both artistically innovative and a sustainable venture, with a return on investment potentially representing the end of years of financial and motivational struggle to keep it afloat.

But currently the label shows no sign of returning to signing artists from other local (albeit less widespread) musical subcultures, offering its space as a gigging venue, or organizing future editions of the 100LIVE electronic music festival that, from 2007 to 2013, was an essential annual event for experimental electronic musicians and their fans, also marrying cutting-edge acts from abroad with up-and-coming local producers in electrifying performances across the city.

Masafat’s organizers argue that promoting non-shaabi acts is crucial to battling a stereotype that mahragan is the pinnacle of what Egypt’s independent musical landscape has to offer. “There’s so much other talent here, and we’re trying to showcase that,” says VENT’s Asem Tag, a music producer in his own right, who released his EP Crowd Surfing with UK label Opal Tapes last year. According to Tag, the artists selected for this week’s Cairo leg are pioneers who will give Egypt’s audiences a much-needed kick to their expectations, and on the UK end of the equation, the project is securing essential exposure for local acts like Nadah El ShazlyAbdullah MiniawyHerein Lies, MSYLMA and ZULI, who performed alongside some of the UK’s hottest fringe artists earlier this month.

Who benefits, and what comes next?

Generally, I’ve developed growing resentment for multidisciplinary cultural festival-symposia hybrids held in Egypt, particularly those bearing hallmarks of the funding channels that have a cultural bridge-building narrative closely in tow — which, more often than not, fails to result in any long-term impact — or those that rely on corporate sponsorship and the watered-down audience-friendly mediocrity that comes with it.

One example is the once-vibrant but now largely stale Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, which started in 2012, and is run by playwright and Studio Emad Eddin founder Ahmed El Attar, with 100Copies’ Mahmoud Refat programming the music, while pro-gentrification landlord Ismaelia for Real Estate Development provides the venues (Ismaelia’s Shehrazade is also being used for Masafat’s music events). Another is this year’s launch of the MUZIX conference, touted as the “Middle East’s first music expo,” which saw low turnout despite an intense marketing campaign and multiple sponsorships.

Both these annual events, held in downtown Cairo, do not satisfactorily address the awkward if obvious question: Who actually benefits? In the long-term, it doesn’t seem to be the musicians attempting to make a living here, beyond offering the few chosen an opportunity to perform alongside exciting acts they might not otherwise get a chance to. In an industry lacking basic infrastructure, in which there is virtually no effective collaboration, resource-sharing or audience building, and in which musicians do not have access to the record labels, venues, radio stations or studios needed to make their chosen careers locally sustainable (or worthwhile), why is it that we continue to rely on one-off and short-term financial investments to fix it?

Many industry professionals and cultural practitioners have argued that it’s the classic catch-22: Were it not for the resources provided by funding bodies, quality output would be impossible without making the event completely unaffordable, and audience traction and diversity in Egypt for non-popular art forms is already restricted to the well-to-do and who’s who without jacking up ticket prices higher and making cultural activities of this nature more inaccessible. In order to fulfill the necessary criteria to secure funds, however, organizers need to work within the confines (in terms of both form and content) that come attached, and make it appealing enough for a wider audience to engage with a larger-scale event.

Tag believes that if Masafat is successful in its mission, it will invite the attention and investment needed to begin working on longer-term goals. He says VENT aspires to continue developing the project over the coming years, alongside re-activating its more space-based activities and pushing the boundaries of Egypt’s experimental music community through promoting fresh local talent. Focusing the international spotlight onto artists from Cairo and other cities in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is essential in building a base to share knowledge and draw in resources that fledgling underground cultural movements require. “This kind of dialogue is necessary to inject life into the process,” Tag tells me confidently. “It’s just the beginning of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Platforms of this kind are crucial to interrupt stagnation, draw crowds, shed light, provide resources, develop discourse and provoke people, I agree. But when the rush fades the morning after, how do we move the conversation to a point beyond head-nodding in a scene that offers electronic musicians three options: compromise on ethos, sound or aesthetics to go mainstream, go online and remain trapped there forever, or get yourself a visa (hoping you’re not a young male Muslim Arab here) to go someplace where your skills might earn you a proper paycheck? And when will we move away from pouring finite energy, time and money into fleeting events that strive for short-term success over long-term impact?

It’s too soon to tell if Masafat will help fill a collaborative void, but I hope the perennial launch-pad theory and cultural exchange model soon move into integrative efforts to pour whatever remains of this kind of funding into sustainable structures for creating the vibrant local music community that once seemed so close — where resources and education can be exchanged at a local level, audiences can grow and diversify beyond the elite, and exit channels for musicians, DJ and producers are available, so that more artists on the fringes have the chance to be artists here too.

Check out the full event bill for the Cairo leg of Masafat here.

Habiba Effat 

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