Mahmoud Refat is the founder of a small, independent music label in Cairo called 100 Copies Music. As the name implies, they press just 100 CD copies of each release, showing true dedication to the “alternative” identity. The music is a range of experimental, electronic sound creations. One of the label’s first and most prominent artists is Hassan Khan. In fact, it was a year-long experimenting process between Refat and Khan that led to the creation of 100 Copies. In Cairo, in August, 2011, while researching Afropop’s “Cairo Underground” program, Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow visited both Refat and Khan in their home studios and discussed their work and the unusual musical niche they inhabit in Cairo. Both also spoke about the new techno-sha’bi sound emerging out of the wedding scene in poor Cairo neighborhoods. Refat and Khan consider this some of the most interesting new music in Egypt. Here are the two conversations.
Mahmoud Refat: My name is Mahmoud Refat. I’m a musician and sound artist and music producer. My main concern is electronic, experimental, avant-garde music, electronic arts in general that are related to music in one way or another. I created 100 Copies Music in 2006 in Cairo focusing on the new line of emerging artists and the new generation of electronic musicians and experimental musicians. I started this label and I started in the very beginning releasing my own stuff, just to introduce the idea and to more or less define the line of the label without really explaining by words.
In the past, there was never this concept of young, small labels that produced some kind of strange amount of CD’s, and then some kind of interest grows slowly from smaller things. This was not there because everybody wants to have the big picture: ‘I’m the big star.’ From zero. Everybody thinks it should go there immediately.
Banning Eyre: How did you come to electronic, experimental music? Who influenced you?
M.R.: I’m a musician – I play instruments. I played lots of music starting from maybe ’91,’92 as a drummer, and I played in lots of bands doing rock here, jazz there, funk here, psychedelic music there. A kind of development happened. Maybe I was not aware of the definition of avant-garde or experimental music. It was more about finding the good ideas that satisfy you somehow. It was not about having this concept and wanting to achieve it, but more about having good ideas and then forming a band around it. The influence was the musicians I was playing with; we gave each other ideas and pushed each other toward something. There I realized there is something happening. Slowly I started to know more about this music.
B.E.: So you didn’t grow up with John Cage and Alvin Lucier.
M.R.: No, no, not at all. I grew up with the rock music of the ‘70s, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and, of course, some of the local stuff. I was never into this strange music. The psychedelic rock music in the ‘70s was very special for me but still it’s rock music, guitar music. There’s the beat and there’s the bass line and the lyrics. I don’t know where the transition happened from this to that. It was just happening. I didn’t have to plan it or direct it somewhere; it was just happening. Suddenly someone got interested in what I was doing on small four-track, Tascam, multi-track tapes. You really had to do things manually. It was great. I got introduced to the dance and theater scene, and there they were really excited about my music. This kind of music.
B.E.: The dance and theater people had a different mentality than the music people. That’s interesting. The feeling I’m getting about the arts scene in Cairo is it has these little niches, but in general, it does not seem all that interested or open to experimentation and change. Tell me your experience of that. Were dance and theater people really receptive to electronic music?
M.R.: Back then, yeah. The major things that were happening in the music scene – it was rock music, big rock concerts, which was politically oppressed in one way or another. Or this new jazz fusion, “oriental jazz” scene. The rock scene really started to disappear because of the politics of the ‘90s. Rock was for me the most interesting music scene ever in Egypt. But it was more or less, ‘Yeah, rock is good’ and ‘Fusion is good.’ There was no space for this experimental approach. Except in theater. When I got introduced to the dance-theater scene, they just wanted me to come in. I started to do that a lot, like every day, for like years and years, going from this group to that group, producing this film to doing this experimental video and then going back on stage.
B.E.: Now all this is happening at a time of political oppression, right? People are being sat on by the government.
M.R.: Yeah, it was difficult. It always was difficult. I don’t remember politically it ever being very comfortable. You would find your own moment, with your friends or with your family, but nothing we could all share, the whole country.
Back to the music story, a lot of things were happening in the theater and in film. Small galleries were showing experimental videos. Then some other people started appearing on the scene interested in this music. Then, in 2003 we started to play concerts. Without videos, without a theater theme or theater production – just concerts. We started to promote this a lot. Me and Hassan [Khan] started pushing this a lot. We’ve known each other a long time. When we wanted to do something about this, we met in 2002. In my house, we put two speakers and all the possible cables, all the equipment, all the devices. And we just sat there for like a year just doing things. We have all the recordings from this period. We always sit down and say, ‘This is the best work we’ve ever done. The best work done anywhere’. Then, after this good focused year, with lots of rehearsals, and lots of discovery, we started to organize these concerts and introduce this music. And then again there’s someone coming in. Then we meet and try to do an evening together. And then the label idea came and when we started in 2006, more people came.
B.E.: What kind of places did you perform?
M.R.: We played in art galleries, at the American University sometimes, or in a small studio somewhere downtown. We tried to convince some commercial clubs, but it was not really the most exciting thing for them. Even if we brought our own crowd, good business for them, they did not really want to do that.
B.E.: When we talk about electronic music, it runs the gamut from very experimental, music that’s completely free, to techno club music that’s basically for dancing or transing out or whatever it is that people want to do in clubs. Given the universe of electronic music like in Egypt, tell us where your label focuses.
M.R.: I was never interested in putting myself and this label in this or that box. I thought I would deal with all types of music, any kind of music. It could be anything. It could be dance music; it could be experimental noise, very minimal field recordings. It could be folk music, some guy with an oud doing something, but there has to be an exception, something more, something extra, something adventurous. Because with this boxing thing, I would only produce all this drone music, or all this—I don’t know—dance stuff. It dies. It dies somewhere. Because here in Egypt, we don’t have a history of avant-garde, house music, experimental rock or electronic pop. We don’t have this history. This music is just new. We are creating this together—musicians, producers, audience.
It is different than you would hear in another similar scene in Europe or the States. Different ideas because you have different influences. The spectrum of the label is pretty wide. I have a DJ from a commercial club [Ramsi Lehner], but he produced something for the label with this concept, taking his dance music, turning standard beats into something else. I have another guy from the rock scene. He plays guitar – very powerful, very proud, very loud. I have the drone guys, the minimalist guys - I have everybody. It could be someone shouting. Whatever. Tomorrow, maybe I do Indian music. Something from the river. It just has to be new, and exceptional. That is experimentation for me. I take this music and I put my own environment in it. And if you really hear it, you will hear the difference. Egyptian stuff, it’s really different. I’m not trying to give it extra credit here, but...
B.E.: You mentioned the oud and the tabla. Are those examples of the Egyptian identity in the music you release?
M.R.: I try to open the doors to anything. I don’t necessarily ask for one thing, one direction. Just promote the ideas of experimentation – just something new. You don’t have to be stuck in this picture of being afraid of the market, this fear that ‘Oh, no one will come to my concerts’. Sometimes people send me stuff. I talk to them. I always say it’s good. We have to get energy, encourage people. It’s fine if I have someone doing something with strings and basic beats and they think it’s exceptional. And it is exceptional for them. I have to deal with that and respect that somehow. I can direct this in a subtle way, but not put my hands inside the production. I can discuss things with my friends about the music, but it always stays general, conceptual. Never “Do this” or “Do that.”
staalplaat soundsystem performing at the 100LIVE ELECTRONIC MUSIC FESTIVAL in 2008
B.E.: Fathy [Salama] was telling us about some new work you are doing that involves sha’bi DJs. Tell us about your interest in that music. He talked about guys from poor neighborhoods with DJ rigs, mixing sounds, vocals, and Egyptian beats.
M.R.: It’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in Egypt, if not in the Middle East, if not in pop music on any scale. This is very original stuff. It has everything – It has the Egyptian culture, it has the aggression of hip hop music, it has the dynamics of dance music, It has the concept of radical music – repetitions in beats and cutting and doing and looping. It has lyrics – it has everything. It’s not just sha’abi, popular music, not just world music. It’s a new form
B.E.: How did you discover this music?
M.R.: It’s not only wedding music, it’s the music for the majority. The music will be in weddings, in the car, in the house, on TV, at parties, in everything. For them it’s wedding or not. It’s the music. This is what we like. What they listen to.
B.E.: Wait. You say TV is paying attention to this too?
M.R.: Oh, no. Of course not. It’s not class enough, it’s not chic. It’s threatening a lot of stupid pop music. It’s not that clean. It’s not pretty. But it’s very good music. It’s real. It’s serious music. They do everything with it. You have this guy with a very cheap Chinese DJ rack and thousands of CDs. And they cut samples like hell and they just do it, with a drummer, of 18 years old, without metronome without headphones, without anything. And they just rock the night. I mean not even one single mistake you hear in this. There is something happening with them inside there. They just see something that I can’t. It’s new. It’s very new, and it kills everybody. If you are there, you just see. Everybody is touched, and moved, and reacting.
B.E.: Is there always a singer?
M.R.: Not always. Sometimes you have someone saying something, sometimes not at all. It’s full of dynamics. Sometimes you have a drummer, DJ singer, sometimes only the DJ. It’s different.
B.E.: So you say it’s new. 5 years? 10 years? Less?
M.R.: Maximum 5 years. Maximum.
B.E.: You’re not going to hear in on the radio. Fathy Salama went on the computer and showed us this stuff. From YouTube. Are there CDs?
M.R.: No. They have their own stuff. They find the kids with good ideas. Just print a few CDs. 5 pounds or 10 pounds and give it out to some people.
B.E.: Are there key artists? Tell us about some of the individuals.
M.R.: There are some good artists, yes. DJ Figo, DJ Beckham, DJ HaHa. HaHa is the development of an expression, very dialect. If you get stopped by the police for drinking, they ask you to say “Ha Ha.” But it’s also someone who is just a weak personality. Someone not really a man. Not the big picture. Not really a loser, but someone below, that no one to trust. It’s really strange. Its something I can understand, but I can’t say what it means exactly. It means something to everybody. It’s very dialect.
Dj Chipsy playing at El Azhar Park
B.E.: Do these artists come to you?
M.R.: After lots of discussions, I’m trying to promote this now with all the other stuff I’m working on with my label, but these artists are really difficult with organization. I’m trying to find a way to get them to understand what I’m doing, but they have one gig in London and one gig in Hamburg... For them, it’s a bit like, “OK, where is the money?” I’m trying to establish good communication. I have a good relationship with some of these guys. I have this festival I organize every year. It’s called 100LIVE Music Festival. I always organize the festival in the springtime. We had a visual artist who made a project with these guys. I was really very happy about it. Then it was introduced it at the festival and everybody was shocked – it was amazing music and beautiful. This is art. This is advanced art. There was this feeling of exploding. Together with the guy doing all the noise and doing everything that they do, I heard lots of comments like, “Oh, this is not art! This is just street’…” It is art.
B.E.: This is really exciting to us. We keep asking, “Where is the new music?” Most of what we’ve been pointed to doesn’t sound all that new.
M.R.: What we're doing in this scene is the future, for me. I’m not defending my scene, but honestly, you were at that street festival last night. [We had attended a monthly outdoor festival the night before, featuring local rock and traditional acts.] called This is out of the game like 15 years. When you play songs like this (pop music), it’s not fair. A lot of Egyptian audiences are not educated in terms of music and art. It’s not fair that this is all they are exposed to apart from the commercial pop on 24 hour TV. All the productions, it’s just one thing. It’s not fair that this is the only thing that you provide. You give them the wrong idea. You make them even worse then what they were.
B.E.: Fathy Salama and others we’ve spoken to made the same point about education. Fathy’s point was that you couldn’t have equivalent of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra because you don’t have the population that is well educated that could create something on that scale. There’s some broad sense of people having to be educated. Not that you went to a conservatory, but... That’s all you expect because that’s all you know.
M.R.: I’m not sure if this is correct. For me, successful music in a place is reflecting the culture. If it’s high culture, low culture, advanced, ignorant, any kind of culture. If the music is reflecting this culture in an honest way, it is success. We don’t all have to be well educated and smart. This is not my case. My case is my culture and how I can interact with it – how can I reach it and how can I express it. That’s success for me. We don’t have to make something musically sophisticated. That was another setup. Two million people living in Cairo maybe. It’s totally different dynamics. Now you have something and you deal with it. It looks like this, like that. If you can reach this crowd, this culture – that is success for me. It could be as big as Mozart. That is high standards for me. Not an academic measurement. It’s what you have, what you are. That is success.
Sean Barlow: That’s great, I’m so glad you said that. I was kind of pushing back on Fathy a little bit. Great music often comes from people who are not educated – they’re just inspired. He was pushing back, saying, “You’ve got to have this education or you don’t have a chance. Egyptian music is doomed.” Pretty pessimistic.
M.R.: It’s one way of making music. I will teach you things and then you will provide it. It’s safe, it’s good, it’s honest. But culture is not happening in this way. Then everyone would do the same thing and you wouldn’t be here talking to me. There would never be any definition anywhere anymore.
B.E.: I think he was also talking about, like, guitarists not knowing how to tune up their guitar.
M.R.: I agree with that. If you decide to make organized music, you really have to tune your guitar. There’s no other choice. If you don’t… It’s your decision. If you choose it, then do it. You can come onstage, go like this [makes gesture], I will respect that. I will not ask for tuning. I will ask for other things maybe.
B.E.: Do you know the music of Tom Zé of Brazil? He does this music with a woodcutter, power tools. Experimental music, very interesting guy. He really shattered all these expectations of Brazilian music in the ‘70s. You should check him out.
M.R.: And one more thing I want to say about this sha’bi music. There is a huge difference of the concept of production. The production happens in a very simple way. They don’t ask you for anything. They have a cheap computer from home and they start to cut the music there. Very basic software, a microphone with a line-in. Kids get attracted to that. Just sit in a small room and spread it. They don’t need anything. And they just do it. And it’s big. I’m talking about majority. So if all the kids are into the music, I can see its future. I can see this development of an understanding of this music. It going somewhere. They do it because they like it. They don’t do it because they want to be onstage, watch the girls, get some money. It’s not this at all.
Sean: We were down south in Upper Egypt. There were one thousand people, including young people to see the Sufi singer Mahmoud El Tuhamy. This was a mouled, a Sufi saint celebration. The question is this: If there is a good Muslim boy or girl coming up with a father who is Salafi, a conservative religious person, would he be told, “No, you cannot listen to this’ because the lyrics are too radical or obscene, sexy etc?” Is there a sectarian divide with this music between those who come from a very religious background and those who don’t? Do religious groups oppose this new kind of sha’bi music?
M.R.: This music penetrates everyone and goes through every door. And once you hear this music and have a group standing there, they will react almost in the same way. I’m not sure about generalizing this exported idea of Muslims. It’s like the Americans talking about Marilyn Manson. This sensitivity can happen anywhere. Any society can be conservative. They have their own ideas about music and religion. They don’t want to see naked women. That’s OK. In another society, they don’t want to hear swearing. Conservative societies are similar towards art. It’s just what hurts you more in different places. I am not worried about this music. Maybe the Islamics see the music in another way, but I would be happy to have that discussion. I don’t think this discussion will be there. In this moment you really need to think about how you make alliances with other groups to attack the government or attack pop music.
That’s a bit my idea. But what I want to say is I’m not sure if the Islamic point of view will have much to say about this kind of music or any advanced music. Advanced music is not exactly about erotic ideas or things like that they would be offended by. They actually have very special music, especially the Salafists. Now I start to hear it, because before I didn’t know this was anywhere in Cairo. They have some interesting songs they sing. Yeah, they don’t want any instruments when they are singing. They still have a music structure in their ideology. It could be drumming, it could be vocal. There were in the square last night, if you remember, someone singing. It’s beautiful. Maybe you like it or not, but still it’s music.
B.E.: Interesting. I missed that. Was it singing or Koran reciting?
M.R.: Singing, singing. Nothing religious. Maybe a few words, praise of God, love of human beings, but yes, they have music. So we can discuss. If we arrive at the point where we sit down, we can discuss. Maybe you get offended when you see a woman jumping around with her tits on TV. I understand. I think if we talk about music with them, something would happen. Something positive, I think.
B.E.: Someone told us that this new sha’bi music is often played at weddings and parties in the neighborhoods where the Muslim Brothers are the strongest. You have this situation of this very exciting, crazy music. It’s required at these weddings that they serve beer and give hashish to the men. It’s the furthest thing from what we would imagine of our conception of the Brothers. Do you agree with that?
M.R.: I understand what you’re talking about, but I’m not fully aware of what they like and dislike, these Islamic parties appearing now. I think everybody with our different backgrounds agree that we have a social situation here. We have something in common. I do this and you don’t like it, but we accept it. There is a social agreement somewhere. If you are a person like this, and you want to have a party in that way, OK. Have it under my balcony. Even if you put the megaphone here and disturb me all night, I understand you. In this sense, it doesn’t become a crime, a religious wrong. This is our culture and we all understand it. Maybe I will do it in a totally different way, but I won’t stop you.
I don’t really want to argue your opinion of the Muslim Brothers now, but I’m telling you that the view of the Muslim Brothers is not exactly as it is exported. There are many of them. They are strong and others are way much stronger than them. These skits in the street – they bring the speakers, and yes, we can go and fight, yes, if you want this type of confrontation. They can stand there and do what they have to do. But if it gets to this, they will also protect themselves. The Brothers are not really all over us with the machine guns. No, it’s not like this. They are there, but it is not like this at all.
B.E.: Nobody really knows where this process of revolution will end up politically. I’m interested in where you think this revolution is going culturally. You seem to have a more optimistic perspective than other people we have talked to. You do see things that you are excited about, where you can say, “This is the future.” Let’s start with the uprisings in Tahrir Square. Did any of these new sha’bi musicians go there, or perform there?
M.R.: Yes, a lot. It was the only acceptable thing other than the speeches and revolutionary songs. If I would go there and put on my I-don’t-know-what, or any other DJ, or even just a pop song, it would never be accepted. It happened in front of my eyes several times. They tried to put songs, like new songs, or something cheerful everybody said, “No. Stop. Don’t do it!” Many people. You put the revolutionary songs. Or else you put these guys onstage with their PC laptop and just “dit-di-di-dit-di-di-dit” all night, and everybody’s happy and it’s accepted.
B.E.: That’s fascinating.
M.R.: They really sense the vibe of the crowd. They are really from the majority. It’s some kind of agreement. It’s not from scratch too. It’s the development of existing popular music that was always there since the ‘70s. It’s a totally different form now, but it’s coming from there. Then this development went somewhere in the ‘80s, then the ‘90s – Now it’s the development coming from this and all this modern technology for modern music. How to produce beats without drums, danceable beats. The maxim is to make you dance with words that can touch you. It could be an extremely danceable track but the lyrics make you cry. Still, it’s very up and hyper. They can sense the crowd. They know what works. They know where it hits and they just do it.
B.E.: It seems like the Egyptian music has been divided into these little camps: there are the sha’bi people, the old classics, the heavy metal groups, the artists on your label, the Sufis, the folkloric musicians at a place like Makan. These are separate groups in Egyptian music. Little islands. I don’t get the feeling that they really come together anywhere. So, given that fragmentation, what is your vision for the future of Egyptian music?
M.R.: I don’t know what it will look like, honestly. I just believe in hard work even if it’s small islands, true. It’s true for reasons. I believe that even if it’s small islands, if people just keep doing it and not going to big commercial companies. Doing some stupid things and transforming yourself. Be who you are, do what you do. You don’t have to go somewhere else. Where is this all going? I don’t know. It’s all so difficult. Pop music – it will always be there. The small heavy metal guys – they will always be there. I’m hoping for the electro sha’bi guys. Hopefully some guys from the traditional scene will come up.
B.E.: When we went to that mouled and saw Mahmoud El Tuhami, we heard very powerful singing, so deep. If you could take a singer like that and get them to work in a genre that you’re talking about, the possibilities are very exciting. Don’t you think?
M.R.: This is the thing that could happen. There are all the means and the tools. It’s great, but it’s also very busy and very crowded with things like what you saw last night. The culture scene is full of this crap, and all the money and efforts go there. It makes me sad with all of this stuff happening. I don’t understand why in an event like yesterday, why don’t you get one of these DJs? It’s in the streets, its outside.
B.E.: I’ve talked to some of the people involved in these different musical islands. A lot of them seem to have resentments toward one another; this one doesn’t like that one. I hear it’s difficult to get all the representatives from these different groups into one room and get them to feel like they’re part of one thing. In the past ten years, there have been all these developments. These are the sprouts of a new universe of music in Egypt, if it’s nurtured correctly and the right things happen. Every time I say this though, I see that look – there’s skepticism. Do you feel like Egypt is on the verge or reinventing itself musically?
M.R.: First of all, I would consider the past ten years as past. It’s old school, old fashioned. Over. Thank you. Good job. Second, you can’t deal with conservative people. You can’t go anywhere with someone that is extremely conservative about new ideas. You can fight for your one idea all your life, yes, but you can’t just kill everything around it. You can’t say, “Oh no, this is not up to my standard.” No, you can’t. Yeah, fight for your one idea all your life. But don’t just put everything else around it down. It’s not good, and it’s not helping. Of course, you can’t put everyone in one room, go hand in hand, “Let’s conquer the world.” No, you can’t do this. Because, then, the person next to you doesn’t believe in your existence. How can you talk? How you can you discuss?
Makan is focused. Okay, this is clear. The guy is very clear about it. I’m just doing this [Egyptian folkloric music]. And I will just do it. Okay. Fine. But if you have an open stage and you say, “I’m not doing rock music because it’s a Western influence played by young Egyptian guys living in Heliopolis.” I mean, this is Egyptian. How can you put this away, take it out of the picture? You can’t go anywhere with this kind of personality, this kind of attitude. Plus these things did good things in the past 10 years. I think it’s fine here. We don’t have to make a big story about it. Now, I don’t want to see music like Wust al Balad again, and this is for many people, not only me and experimental/alternative/conceptual artists.
For many people the revolution was about things like this, because of this shallowness, this naïveté that kills the culture that does not respect the human being’s intellect. The revolution came out of things like this. So this is one… The past ten years are somewhere else. I totally agree that the people working in this field should sit down and look and see what should be done, yes, but I still believe in the separation of these islands, that each island has to be strong. Because if we have different strong scenes, then something will grow together. But I’m not sure if we have to consider the old crew as part of this coming thing or not. I’m not sure. It’s not for me to judge.
B.E.: If people have rigid categories – this is right, this is wrong – they can’t easily collaborate on building a new future. That goes for art as well as politics.
M.R.: You have to be open. I still go to concerts that I do not support. I support the action. I don’t say, “I will not put my money there.” We can discuss about music taste forever. We can even fight. Okay. But if this is what should happen, we all have to support it, we have help each other. However, if from the very beginning of the conversation, you just kill my existence, where can we go? The past ten years are gone, the good things and the bad things. “You really helped a lot in killing a lot of good things, and you did some bad things. But you’re gone.” It’s about other things now. It’s not about getting some money from the EU and making a development center for music. What is this? Is this art? Is this culture? Are we retarded people going to listen to music? With all my respect to special cases, it’s really already killing the idea of culture, of any idea of creativity. I’m dealing with you like a totally helpless, poor, undeveloped person. What is this? And this was happening for the past ten years. What kind of creativity is this?
…and here’s Banning’s conversation with composer Hassan Khan. It took place in Khan’s Cairo apartment, overlooking a busy—and loud—street.
B.E.: I like the automotive language of Cairo, the beeping of taxis, in the background. Have you ever used that as inspiration?
Hassan Khan: The beeping? Not consciously.
B.E.: Why don't you introduce yourself?
H.K.: That's the most difficult thing to do. My name is Hassan Khan (kHEN). I am a musician and an artist. I have been working with the music since the early ‘90s in different formats and different guises.
B.E.: What was your musical background?
H.K.: I had no training. I started out with a feedback and guitars and, you know, kind of picking up the instruments, jamming, improvising. That slowly developed into other things. But I have no training.
B.E.: Who inspired you in the beginning?
H.K.: It's a real mix of everything: from John Cage to Jimi Hendrix to local people, Yasin el Tuhami, mawwal type singing, to free jazz. Whatever. It was quite a wide range. ‘60s underground rock. A wide array of things came together at the same time roughly when I was around 15, 16.
B.E.: So feedback and guitars led to …
H.K.: Well, feedback and guitars remain. They are not over yet. I started by picking up that instrument, and what drew me to that instrument was that there was something untamed about it, something uncontrolled about the electric guitar, which also meant that a note was never as clear as being just a note. The logical progression of this is moving into a sense of -- I don't want to say soundscapes -- but an understanding of music as something that goes beyond notes and modes and chords and modalities, but almost a physical structure, a physical presence. I think that there is a relationship with that instrument, somehow. Because of its rough, untamed nature, and because it's amplified, the note is never pure. And because it sustains. When a note sustains it fractures into many microtones. It can never sustain as a completely pure tone. It will always go up and down a little bit. That was exciting for me, because of that fragmenting, where you could see a wide range, almost like a landscape inside one tone. I guess that remains relevant to what I do to this day.
B.E.: You were telling me the other day about a particular kind of synthesizer that you work with now. Tell me your path to that discovery.
H.K.: Yeah, I described it as a sort of homemade synthesizer. But literally it is not. What it is is a feedback in mixer, in which the output signal is split and routed through different potential routes, different filters and processors, which also have either two outputs or a bypass output, which means an output that is not affected by the actual filter, which means you can continuously split the signal into different routes, because your output from the mixer is in the end limited. If it's a small mixer, it's only left and right. If it's a bigger one, you might have other outputs to play with, but in the end, you have a limited array of outputs, and so you take one output, and you continually split it by going through different filters and processors, and you feed it back into the mixer. Each route goes into a different channel. In the end, what you have is the whole mixer input back into itself in different paths, and everything you do in that mixer, everything you touch in that mixer, affects the sound it produces. And so it becomes almost like a machine through which to sculpt the sound. The sound is like raw material, and you use all this to kind of adjusted and pitch it and throw it and take it back and do anything do it. So it's not exactly a synthesizer, but a way of generating sound, chaotic sound, and harnessing and shaping it at the same time.
B.E.: Tell me how you went from experimenting with the sounds to creating actual works, pieces.
H.K.: Well, first, in the mid-90s I started working with a theater troupe as the resident musician. I started making soundtracks for them. So, somehow, that having to function or instrument allies what you're doing also forced it into a more formal aspect. I still work with the same people, until now. I made the first soundtrack for them in ‘96, and that was a different process than when I produce live sets. But I think that was the original impulse, thinking of a concert as a piece rather than just as a performance.
Even when me and Mahmoud [Refat] worked together for a few years, and there was a lot of improvisation in that. We always designed the concert, and we gave it a title. We had a score of sorts, a score that could be a diagram, or it could be notes and drawings and stuff, but a score that both of us could understand, and that we performed, even though it was not absolutely dogmatic. So every time you would perform that score, it would be a largely different piece. I became more and more involved with the idea of structure itself in the music.
B.E.: Mahmoud mentioned that performance was central to what you do. When you talk about soundtracks, what kinds of productions are you talking about?
H.K.: It's theater.
B.E.: Experimental theater?
H.K.: Well, what is experimental? In theater, it's a bit hazier than in film, I think. Because the generic is not so defined. The mainstream is not so defined in theater. But let's say it's not Broadway. It's theater. I don't know if I can call it experimental theater.
B.E.: One of the things we've been talking to a lot of people about is the way that Egypt in Cairo in particular has evolved from being like the center of theater film music production for the Middle East, in the sort of mid-20th-century, and something of a decline since then. I guess I have two questions. First, what is your sense of that process, the part of it that you've lived through? And then also, where do you see your artists fitting into those of larger Egyptian musical tableau?
H.K.: Oh, this myth of the “Hollywood of the East.” There's something inaccurate about it. It was a center of industry for sure. A center of film industry, of music, of popular music, of mainstream music. But the history of these forms is very, very rigid. You have a film industry that more or less stayed within certain parameters, and you have music production that, of course changed with time and development and everything, but in the end stayed within a certain idea of what music is, what that product is, and kind of not just stayed with it, it kind of promoted that. And that had to do with the idea of being central. So it's a center of industry, and it had a political side to it, in the ‘60s for sure. It was the mirror of the political dominance of Egypt in the region at the time. But I do not see it as a golden period that has declined. I see it as a period of industry dominance, but that doesn't mean it was a period of artistic flourishing.
B.E.: Okay. So if we take the business angle away from it, and just talk about artistic flourishing, creativity, what would be your description of sort of the arc of the last hundred years, and where they have lead? Are there new ideas, creative stuff, worthwhile art, completely apart from what sells and what the industry is promoting?
H.K.: Well, that period, the “golden period,” is for me the period where things became codified. Musical structures were codified because of this desire to have big orchestras and things like that, and therefore other formats either died out or became extremely rare. So, yeah, it could also be described negatively in a way. However, since the 70s, since the advent of the cassette and the rise of sha'bi in all its formats, from its early beginnings in the way of development, also inshad (religious singing) with the way that it also crossed-pollinated with sha'bi music in the last 10 years to make a new forms -- both of these forms came out of a popular base that was not dominated by a single industry, and yet at the same time remained very, very strong ties to a popular culture, and had a big audience. It had a large economy because it was on cassette, and it was accessible. This was the format that was distributed.
I think with the advent of that, this kind of monolithic structure slowly started to crumble. The pace has picked up with time, of course, as things become easier or, as forms of communication become faster. Of course, as things pick up, mutations are more visible, and faster. I think in terms of popular culture, which is not "pop", but in terms of popular culture itself, there has been a disintegration of this monumental structure that was dominant in the ‘60s, and also, interesting strands keep rising—kind of on their own. This is a form of cultural mutation, which is a bit different from the way someone like myself operates. Although I can be influenced by that to an extent—and I would argue I could also influence it to in another way—I don't exactly operate under the same conditions. I do not operate in that economy. And my background, my musical background itself, is different. The arc itself is quite different.
So I wouldn't identify myself within that niche, although I have an affinity to it, and I see something positive in it. My work is not easily identifiable as belonging to a specific genre, and that is very different from what happens within generic forms that mutate and develop and become highly original, sometimes in highly radical ways. But in the end, what's happening is related to cultural shifts, and I would make some distinction between this and people who are working on developing an individual language that is not tied to that so directly.
B.E.: So the cassette is an important beginning in sort of breaking this cultural monopoly. It's portable. People can put it in their car, their home, whatever.
H.K.: And you can copy a tape.
B.E.: Right. You can copy it, make it your own, take out a song you don't like, and you can share it. And this leads right up to the world of the flash drive and the Internet, which is just a continuation of the same process.
H.K.: Exactly. Yes.
B.E.: So tell me a little bit about what your career has been like with that as the background. Have you been able to find places to perform here in Egypt, venues that are receptive?
H.K.: Well, in some ways. Again, I function both in the art world and in the music world, and they overlap at different points. Within the art sphere, my career is not marginal at all. I have a very large position, even though in Egypt there is a big split between the official kind of state-sponsored system and the rest. Yet I hold a certain, I would say, dominant position within that as a figure. In the music context, it's a bit different, partially because there is an industry as such, like a pop industry. So, in many ways, within the music sphere, I think I have been very marginal. I have only made this one album Tabla Dubb. Although I could release many more, I've only made one album because releasing is... I guess the music would not be considered releasable by most labels, except 100 Copies, which is very small, very marginal, by decision. It decides to take that position. But at the same time, I would argue that that position has been very useful, and quite influential.
First, because you do make a claim for independence, and you demonstrate it. That means you can propose things that are quite out there. The lack of a clearly identified subculture means that what you do, whether it's completely out there or not, does not have to be labeled in a small slot. And therefore, it can infiltrate other sides more easily, and kind of pass more easily, even if in the end what you do will never be incredibly popular. But that's not its goal in the end. Its goal is to build a close relationship, and a very engaged relationship with an audience. And I think that over the years this relationship has been established. I do see other younger musicians who are doing things that have a relationship to what I'm doing. And so there is some kind of progression, and some kind of context that is born, and exists out of the joint labor of all these people.
B.E.: Who is your audience?
H.K.: It's a good question. Well, I think, funny enough, partially because of the fact that I have a presence in the art world, there are a lot of artists who are my audience, or people who are involved in the art world who also then, in the early 2000s, used to perform in both art contexts and music context. There was a bit of a crossover. And then you would find by the late 2000s, a lot of the new musicians who came out of art background. So that's kind of a circuitous route in which these two fields cross-pollinate. And I would argue I definitely had something to do with that, personally, not by intention, but just by being there and straddling both worlds.
B.E.: When you say that some of the new artists also came out of the art world, are there some names?
H.K.: Well, there is Ahmed Basiony, who passed away in the revolution. He was also an artist who got interested in music. There's Magda Mostafa, and Kareem Lotfy. There is a duo, Yara Mekawei and Hend El Kolaly. These are all people who are artists, studied art, and studied music, and who are still making music.
B.E.: Let's talk about your music. Are there any works on there that you would particular like to draw attention to? [Note: you can video of some of Hassan Khan’s performances in the Feature for the program “Cairo Underground” at www.afropop.org.]
H.K.: Well first, the CD Tabla Dubb started as a live concert set in 2001, but was only released as a CD six years later. Since then, I have had many different concert sets, every one radically different from the others. Tabla Dubb was conceived as a situation in which I would use the tabla, which is a hand drum, the main hand percussive drum and Egyptian music. The idea was to use that not just as my instrument but as what I called the musical culture itself. It’s based upon a large amount of samples of tabla being played in totally different rhythms, and it’s micro-edited to construct totally new beats. The whole album is composed of tracks that are based on different beats. There is a strong noise element also involved, but all the noise that is there is structured rhythmically, and structured out of an interference with these audio bits.
And so, I shaped these audio bits into new sound blasts by structuring in these new beats, and in the end, what you have, or what my ambition was, is that you are listening to music that makes sense in a way because its references are recognizable, and yet its grammar is different from the music that you associate with that sound. That's kind of the idea.
Still from Khan's film 'GBRL'
B.E.: Interesting. So that was a 2001 project.
H.K.: Yes. It was released in 2007 as an album, but I was performing it live in 2001. For a few years, I recorded and performed live with video accompaniment, which I shot and edited specifically for it. The next set I can speak about is Incidence, which is totally different. Incidence is a 60-minute set, also accompanied by film and performed live. The music is based upon studio sessions with pianists, strings, flutes, different instruments, that have been done over the years for various purposes. They were not specifically made for that piece. I used these sessions to compose new passages with these instruments, and at the same time, I worked with my mixer that I mentioned to you, this feedback mixer, to generate fragments of sound or noise, certain pulses, different patterns, or even harmonies. And together, these two elements are used to compose a 60-minute long structure, including low frequency patterns that are laced with piano melodies, for example, all seamlessly molded into each other. Some of them also integrate elements from previous compositions. So it's kind of like a meta-composition. And it's performed live with live synth, an actual synth, and this feedback mixer I mentioned.
Another set that is completely different is called The Big One, and it's based upon the sha'bi genre. I composed and arranged beats and sections in the studio, with session musicians and arrangers who work within that genre. So there are musicians who play the music professionally, for recordings etc. I'm attracted to this music, and I am reiterating it with my own motives and my own accents, basically.
B.E.: What attracted you to that music in particular?
H.K.: First, it's intensity and rawness. But not this kind of live and rawness. It's the opposite. It's because it is highly synthetic in many ways that it actually becomes raw. I found this music to be incredibly radical. It insists on, for example, a pattern, and it bleeds that pattern dry. It is synthetic music, even if there are musicians playing it, but because it is a studio-based music, it steers away from the sentimentality of the organic, in a way. That's attractive to me, and I find it quite radical. Also, what I find interesting in this music, which is funnily enough when I was trying to do in Tabla Dubb, is that people use the musical culture. So the musicians who are using this, they are lifting and using fragments, phrases, structures, formats, from popular Egyptian music, without having to fulfill the expectations of these formats. They're just using it almost as a ready-made mode, and doing something else with it. So in that sense, there has been a very productive cross-pollination between what is happening in zikr [Sufi] music over the past 20 years, which has also developed in his own way, and that kind of went into this new wave sha'bi music, and became streamlined into something else.
It is not about fusion. They are not trying to fuse this with that. It's just about using whatever seems interesting to you. And that is a different logic. You are not driven by this goal of making things work together. You are driven by your interest to do something without having to be constricted by a set of rules that have other purposes. So all these things attracted me to this music.
B.E.: I love the idea that sha'bi is itself already borrowing things and using them its own way, and that you were just taking things one step further by using it. But we talk about the new sha'bi, the new wave of sha'bi, when would you date that?
H.K.: I think the past seven years. About. It's hard to say, but I imagine I first heard something that I could call that in probably 2004 in a nightclub. And then I immediately searched for it, and I found it. I kind of searched for in the street kind of buying cassettes and CDs, and then now mostly it's online. And it has mutated a lot over the seven years, but also there so many strands within it.
B.E.: Talk about some of those.
H.K.: Well, there is a strand that seems to have a relationship with hip-hop, for example, which is a newer strand over the past two years that has become a bit more visible. There is a strand in which the nabatchy, the guy who cries out, was completely dominant, in which the beats underneath are very simple and minimal, but they take known or expected melodic structures. It's not the whole riff that's played. It's like three notes out of it, or something like that. And I find that incredibly elegant and sophisticated in a way. Also, another strand is where the song becomes less important as a song. It's more like a long track, and the nabatchy is like an MC who sings words above it.
B.E.: Tell me about the nabatchy.
H.K.: A nabatchy is something like an MC, who usually in weddings calls out names in a rhythmic way, to salute people, so that people would throw money. That's kind of the tradition. But then, the nabatchy was used as a major part of these tracks, which were produced for street weddings in a way. He will salute some names, but he will also make the lyrics that could be about anything. It could be about getting trashed, or having a hard life, or whatever it is. But that's very different from a singer. And a nabatchy again, what really appeals to me, is that he could be very aggressive in a way that’s more difficult for a singer to be. Because he's not singing melodies. He's shouting. And they shout. They can scream. And out of that, they could also start doing strange things with their voice, which also happens in this genre.
A third genre is the song itself, also mutated. So the song remained, but mutated into new forms that had to do a lot with studio wizardry in a way, using effects and kind of using highly compressed beats. These were usually songs that came out of the sha'bi repertoire, or were new additions to it, so that was a new strand. I guess these are the kind of three main directions.
B.E.: We heard about a sub genre called "mahragane."
H.K.: El mahragane, yes.
B.E.: Which means party or celebration, but I gather this also became a kind of sub genre of his wedding music. Is that right?
H.K.: Yes, that's true, and also it took on another performed aspect, because it was mostly a DJ. So there wasn't much to perform. And then there would be these kind of weird synchronized dances that came out of watching video clips that mutated into something definitely much more uncanny. So you have these kinds of strange synchronized dances in the middle of the street done by people who are into it. So all these formats kind of were born and moved and mutated. In The Big One, there's no sampling. All the music is recorded and arranged and performed live through an eight channel mixer, and it is interspersed with short, minimal tone pieces. So I have these minimal compositions of frequencies interspersing these highly beat oriented pieces.
So these are three very different projects, Tabla Dubb, Incidence, and The Big One.
B.E.: Fantastic. Very interesting stuff. I look forward to hearing it. Let me ask you this about The Big One. Was it difficult to get the nabatchy to play by different rules? These are probably people who are used to doing things their own way.
H.K.: I told him he shouldn't speak. I told him he is performing for a deaf mute audience. It was difficult, until I said that. And then he understood what I meant, and I asked him to look at me and to kind of interpret what I am doing. So, basically, I was stabbing myself or rolling on the floor, whatever, so that I could control his emotional pitch, to get more desperate, or calmer. And the sound engineer was having a nervous breakdown. He was not happy.
B.E.: You told me that you don't like performing at Sawy Culture Wheel. So where do you perform in Cairo?
H.K.: I don't perform that much anymore. I perform in the One Life Music Festival, and sometimes I perform in an art context, at CIC, is where I did the album launch on the rooftop of the old building. I used to perform in clubs and bars a long time ago. But I haven't in quite a while now.
B.E.: Let me ask you this more philosophical question I mentioned earlier. How important is it to you in projects like Tabla Dubb and The Big One that you are putting an Egyptian stamp on what you're doing? Obviously you are drawing on traditions that have not really flourished here, but how important is it to you to make it feel or be Egyptian?
H.K.: I am not concerned with a stamp. I am just interested in what interests me. And so, whatever format I use, whatever elements are used, could have a background, and have a background, but that is kind of irrelevant to what I do with it. In some cases, like Tabla Dubb, or The Big One, the background is related to very specific genres. So then, you could say that. But then in the live improv session, the background could be somewhere between free jazz and live improv, people wouldn't make the claim that that's a Western stamp as such. So, I think it's just a matter of familiarity. If it is a format that is kind of accepted or familiar, you don't rank about what to stamp it with really. Especially a national stamp. But if it's not as familiar, then it becomes easier to say, this is stamp with this, and this is stamped with that.
B.E.: Let me come finally to this question of where the larger tableau of music in Egypt is. Are you optimistic? Is this something you think about, care about? Do you go along at all with this notion I mentioned that there has been a lot of new interest and creativity bubbling up in different areas, and maybe we are on the verge of seeing some exciting new developments in Egyptian music, something that might defy the kind of monopolistic industry control over popular culture? What do you see as the future for Egyptian culture?
H.K.: Well, it's hard to tell of course. It's hard to tell what's going to happen on any level, politically, or in terms of culture. What I am sure of is that, whether people know it or not, there are a lot of mutations, as I mentioned before, that are happening anyway, whether the revolution happened or not, they were happening anyway. Probably the fact that something, an event of that magnitude, did occur, would only make these mutations gain more speed, and I imagine we will be surprised by things that will come up. They will be surprising. But I also know that there will be a lot of very bad stuff. LAUGHS. There will be a lot of very bad stuff from the revolution, of course, like just pure kind of celebration. There is also a certain trendiness of course to this kind of thing, a certain sound that is trendy, and that is not so interesting. It has gained a bit of visibility on the mainstream radar, which it didn't have before, so I guess this will increase and increase, but there will always be an underbelly, whether a popular one, or one that comes from individual artists, or a cultural one, there will always be that. And I imagine that it will slowly gain its own ground. It will never be the mainstream I think. The mainstream will always remain mainstream, as in all situations. That's its role.
B.E.: And if the underbelly becomes the mainstream, then it will quickly be replaced by another underbelly, right?
H.K.: Of course. Of course. But there are shifts and mutations. I think we will be surprised by things. I have been surprised by things in Egyptian music before, but I think it now a whole new wave might arise. I don't know. I can't say exactly.
B.E.: Do you think this new sha’bi has any possibility of breaking out internationally, and becoming a sound identified with the new Egypt?
H.K.: Yes. You are talking to a fan, so I would say probably yes. We will see. I don't imagine would have huge success, because it's comparable to something like Dubstep or Grime, which in the end has some appeal but remains within certain confines. Because it's interesting, it's not so accessible. It's quite unique and has its own quirks. So I'm not sure it could have this kind of complete international dominance, but I can imagine it can gain some kind of interest. Somehow.
B.E.: Not necessarily headed for Carnegie Hall right?
B.E.: But definitely headed for larger audiences. It's very exciting music, so there is some room for growth.
H.K.: Some room for growth, yes. Sure. Also, on a totally different level, not to underestimate what is happening within this kind of experimental fringe, I think that musicians like Mahmoud Refat do have possibilities, within that genre. We do perform at places around the world, and have contact with different circles. So in a way, it is kind of widespread, but that whole field is anywhere marginal. Anywhere. But it is widespread within that. It has some recognition within that field.
B.E.: And that is also a development of the past decade, isn't it?
B.E.: Well, that's great. So that has legs as well. Maybe we will see you at Carnegie Hall.
H.K.: [LAUGHS] Same issue. But I have performed in New York at the Queens Museum, or in Philadelphia at the Slought Foundation. So there are cultural venues, but they are not massive, popular venues. They are within a network. As musicians, we are not labeled as coming from Egypt or not. It is irrelevant in that case, I think. Especially in that field. It's just musicians within the network.
B.E.: It's a network that is defined by genre, not ethnicity. As opposed to the “world music” universe which imposes all this kind of ethnic and national thinking, which is problematic.
H.K.: Yes. And also detrimental.
B.E.: Most of the artists who live and die by the “world music” tag, also hate it. So you're stuck with it, you can’t avoid it, but it is very problematic. Thanks very much for talking with us.
H.K.: Yes. Enjoy.