Around 30 bodies lie on cushions quietly chit-chatting in a dark room. A projection of morphing geometric shapes and odd film clips shines on the wall of the adjoining room before us. Whispers and chuckles emerge from the clusters of people whose bodies blend into the darkness. Soft techno plays in the background and cigarette smoke wafts through the air. It’s a bohemian setting — surprisingly, there’s no smell of hash in what may otherwise seem like the perfect stoner environment.
Since opening in the intense month of March 2011, the Balcon Lounge in Heliopolis has been hosting weekly film screenings, music nights, workshops and hangouts in a neighborhood that, until recently, hadn’t tried to compete with downtown Cairo’s culture infrastructure of art spaces, music venues and cultural institutions.
Balcon’s exterior lies inconspicuously in a row of identical mid-20th-century residential buildings, now used as commercial and office spaces. Inside, it is a cozy flat with curved archways separating rooms that open up onto each other. It looks like it could hold about 80 to 100 people if tightly packed in, but 50 makes for a more comfortable capacity. The walls are covered with art posters and murals, the latter mostly created by celebrated Heliopolis-based artist Sad Panda.
The space was birthed out of the uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, according to its founder, 30-year-old Mohamed Farouk, an artist-turned-entrepreneur who studied theater directing in university.
“During the 18 days, it became more difficult move around Cairo — I wanted something here so people from Heliopolis could have something local rather than always having to go downtown for performances,” he says. “There was simply little else in Heliopolis that catered to artists or the culturally curious.”
Most of the cultural scene is centralized around downtown Cairo or Zamalek, with state-run music venues such the Cairo Opera House and non-governmental venues ranging from El Sawy Culture wheel to Cairo Jazz Club, and 100Copies to Makan. But new performance spaces have opened up recently in other neighborhoods, such as Maadi’s Beit El Raseef and Mizan (owned by the brother of Mada Masr’s Amira Ahmed). The bookstore Bikya, which has branches in Maadi and Nasr City, was also founded in March 2011 and hosts performances.
In Heliopolis specifically, there are now a few notable cultural spaces.
Megawra, which was also established in 2011, focuses on urbanism, sustainability and social responsibility in built environments, and is a hub and co-working space for architects and students. It hosts mentorships, residencies and a library, and its research projects are often launched in partnership with other institutions.
Photopia, which opened up in Korba in 2012, also aims to be a hub, this time for local photographers through courses, workshops, a studio, gallery, a bookstore and photography gear for sale.
Balcon, however, is less of a pedagogical center and more of a performance space for live music, theater, dance, comedy and open-mic nights.
That said, it does host an erratic schedule of workshops, such as an eight-day “oil painting through history of art” course, meant to provide an introduction to art history while imparting painting skills through the copying of cubist, surrealist and impressionist paintings. The fee was LE120 including supplies, and it was moderated by a young Egyptian scenographer called Maha Fahmy. Entry fees range from LE20 to 40 for screenings and music, and LE120 to 300 for courses.
The space is also open during the day as a sort of café or creative space to work from. With light refreshments and free wireless internet, it hopes to create a social workspace for local residents.
In addition, Balcon offers weekly film screenings. They charge a LE20 entry fee for a good selection of mostly western art-house films such as Michel Gondry’s “Mood Indigo” (2013), the Matthew McConaughey vehicle “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), and Krzystof Kieslowski’s 1990s “Trois Couleurs” trilogy, in addition to the occasional regional film, such as those of Tunisian director Nacer Khemir.
Aly Talibab performing at Balcon Lounge.
But where the space excels is in the music it presents, particularly within the ambient, experimental and intelligent dance music genres. Since opening its doors, it has seen a range of acts from Egypt’s independent cultural landscape performing every Saturday, including well-known musicians such as Aya Metwalli, Maurice Louca and Gast.
Importantly, Balcon has also helped introduce lesser-known performance projects. These include Heka, who plays oud, experimental electronic music composer Hossan El Sammad (SomeMud), ambient musician Mostafa ElSayed, and experimental producer GradTude. Last night, Balcon hosted 17-year-old Yaseen El Azzouni, under his performance moniker “Cartoon Therapy,” playing dark, intelligent techno alongside psychedelic visuals.
The space is becoming something of a haven for what sounds remarkably like a burgeoning post-rave music culture, a genre sometimes referred to as armchair techno, ambient techno or intelligent techno — what “Energy Flash” author Simon Reynolds calls “dance music for the sedentary and stay-at-home.” In the early 1990s, Reynolds explains, its pioneers, like Warp’s “Artificial Intelligence,” worked toward more traditional ideas about creativity, prompted by a desire to make expressive, intricate computer-generated music rather than drug-driven, dance floor hits.
“There’s people who like to go places without alcohol — you know, non-party settings,” says 26-year-old Mohamed Green of Gast, who performed an intelligent techno set at Balcon last week.
He points out the difference between performing at a space like Balcon, a more apartment-style bohemian lounge space, versus VENT, a recently established bar and music venue in Downtown.
“VENT, for example, has alcohol so it brings a different crowd than Balcon — with some crossovers,” he says. “The people coming to Balcon are coming to listen to your music. At VENT, there are many people who are coming just for the party or just to dance. I like having different settings for my music, because I like to have a voice within my music even if its all electronic — sure, I make some dance tracks, but mostly I like to make music for people that are removed from the dance floor.”
As someone who frequents central Cairo’s venues regularly, it’s certainly reassuring to find that Egypt’s young and experimental music scene has more depth and branches than I was previously aware of.