“Collaboration” has two uses. It can mean working with someone to produce something or traitorous cooperation with an enemy. In Egypt, both the process and possible outcomes of collaboration have been two of the most illuminating and disillusioning aspects of the many turbulent days since January 25, 2011.
On the political spectrum we’ve witnessed much of the adverse type of collaboration: contention, conflict, controversy, conspiracy. But when looking at Egypt through the lens of independent culture, a beacon of shining light glistens over the many fruitful collaborations that have taken place over the past few years. A notable example is D-CAF.
More specifically, several collaborative production projects in music have proved both sustainable and impactful, like The Nile Project, a cross-cultural musical collective from across the Nile Basin, and Cairo’s 100Copies Retune Mixtape series, which launched in early 2013 featuring a range of artists from Madfaageya to producers like Cellar Door.
Just when I thought the well might be drying up, another collaborative gem from 2013 was recently brought to my attention, reaffirming my faith in the collective music process. “The Big Red House” is produced by Egyptian brothers Ismail (23) and Aly Seleit (25) and features seven other collaborators.
This makes it one of the biggest collective production endeavors in Egypt’s alternative or underground music scene in the past couple years. Their EP, “The Big Red House,” is both exciting and experimental.
Ismail arranges most of the songs while also playing keys and some guitar. Aly writes most of the lyrics in addition to playing bass and contributing to song composition. But the EP takes an almost hip-hop-style approach by featuring a different MC on each track.
It opens with Salma El-Shaffei on vocals and PanSTARRs’ Youssef Abouzeid on lead guitar, backed by two layers of distorted rhythm guitars that power forward along a well-paced, precisely timed escalating drum line. The track has something of an open-road-song feel to it, the playfulness of Shaffei’s vocals countered by lo-fi filters, and distorted guitars that cut the cute and make an all-round awesome indie pop-rock anthem.
The song “Damdama” features spoken-word poet and vocalist Aly Talibab. This gives the the album takes a groovy blues slant with weeping guitar lines, retro synth sounds, and aggressive rap vocal line, which translates from the Arabic as:
The meaning for a meaning in, a meaningless whirlpool
Think of 100 laws but the sound of fire is higher.
Other exciting moments include Omar Husseiny’s contribution, “I Just Saw You.” It’s a catchy, neurotic little number that fuses together low-res electronic noise, a luscious beat, and an undulating pop hook that could move a dance floor in a sultry lounge like setting.
The instrumentation across the EP, coupled with the playground of effects, toy-box sounds, fizzy synthesizers, and distorted guitars, makes for a disquietingly beautiful collaboration that builds from noise-mongering genres like shoegaze, indie-rock and electroclash, with a dose of clattering drums.
For a moment you might think that the EP’s lyrics are stumbling onto a sensual electro-pop course. But “This City Kills” (in English), featuring Zeyad Yasser on guitar, redirects the concerns toward the gloomy realities of seven musicians who are living and creating in a bloodstained city:
This city kills, so take the money
The rich are poor
The graves are overflowing with slaves.
With “Elephant Baba,” featuring Mohamed El Sammad on vocals, the EP continues in its seductive direction with a gloomy beat, wallflower lyrics and an anachronistic structure that winds down with whimsical backing vocals and a clever breakdown of a semi-lucid audio sample:
How many pancakes can fit on the roof,
the answer would probably be purple,
because aliens don’t wear hats.
There’s an obvious chemistry, concocted and cooked over years by this collection of contributors – if you look at their musical histories, many of them have performed and played in various bands together at some point or another. Guitarist Omar Sobhy, featured on “Non-apocalyptic Dreams,” was also in the Seleits’ previous band, “Page Two.” Aly Talibab, Youssef Abouzeid, and the brothers also continue to share another performance project, Manzouma.
“The Big Red House” is a windy, alluring drive through various genres and experimental song formats that is unpredictable, playful, and perfectly gloomified for an almost despairing young audience that still wants to listen to something that will move them. The success of “The Big Red House” is fitting for an EP that draws so much of its power from creative collaboration.