Cloud 9: Peace and love, and music too
Courtesy: Hassan Hamdi Photography

Only a Sinai-based three-day music festival could coax 300 young people to gather, in head-to-toe hippie garb complete with flower headbands and glow-in-the-dark shoelaces, in Masr al-Gedida at an ungodly hour of the morning.

The promise of local underground music for the second volume of the Cloud 9 Music Festival, located on the beachside bliss that is the coast of Nuweiba, seemed like a tantalizing getaway plan after a politically depressing summer, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who thought so. As passersby curiously watched the colorful hoard put out their cigarettes and clamber onto three massive buses, tie-dyed duffel bags and tablas in hand, I wondered what the bathroom situation would be like.

Eight hours and a cursory military ID-check later, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the toilets were quite clean. After a few organizational hiccups and abundant hugging, most attendees had been settled into simply furnished huts at the Maagana Beach Camp, and sped to the water to escape the stifling heat. Snippets of soundcheck reverberated across the shore, promising funky basslines and soft-spoken vocals.

I was hoping to find a program to elucidate the lineup or set times, but everyone seemed to be fine finding out more casually, and I decided to embrace the free-spiritedness that was being sold with the string bracelets and the beer.

The first night opened with a succession of folk rock and fusion bands, tinged with oriental vibes. Acoustic crooner Adam Awad kicked off the show, spurring a slowly growing crowd into a flower-power frenzy with catchy melodies and riffs, and the night progressed typically. Ahmed Safi, Stagnant Nebula, Deciphering Stars, and a debut performance by Of The Earth continued the familiar-sounding jam session until the late night. Fans of the acts were happily head-bobbing and two-stepping in a smoky haze, but the lineup varied in terms of quality — as expected, given that the festival made it a point to encourage newly formed acts to perform.

In one of the many breaks between performances, I elbowed a stoned kid to try and make my way into the food line — eating was rationed into two time slots, and if you missed it, you were essentially screwed. Vegetarian friends were disappointed at the non-meat options, despite promises to the contrary. The lack of candles or alternate sources of lighting meant finding your way in the dark was a bit hit or miss, and I’m sure every person prayed in one form or another for a fan or a breeze, but nature did throw us a bone and kept the mosquitoes at bay. And a spectacular night sky served to remind me that a Sinai excursion would generally be worth it.

Fans of electronic music rallied together in literal ecstasy on the second night, which saw electro hip-hop beatmaker Teknyk warm up the crowd. Bedouins and ravers alike then took to the sand and busted out to upbeat retro dance tracks spun by PretentiousByrd, a fun collaboration between established producer NEOBYRD and satirical Internet sensation DJ Pretentious.

The (in)famous KIK collective then took over the night, starting off with a slick ambient-techno set by Ismael, followed by the old-school hip hop-infused beats of sampler extraordinaire Zuli, Bosaina’s emotional keyboard-laden and spacy vocal trances, Hussein Sherbini’s dark, downtempo creations (you can listen to his set here), and the self-proclaimed ghetto-jihad-step madness of $$$TAG$$$, who finished off the experimental electronica experience with a bang, or five. N/A\A was a definite highlight, with polished glitch-hop cuts that kept the crowd grinding for the entirety of his set.

The final night was an indie and post-rock showdown. Unsurprisingly, PanSTARRS stole the show with their melancholic, reverbed brand of indie tunes, while violins held the stage during Taylor Rankin’s performance. The night featured the only cover band of the festival, Raindogs, who shared the stage with SOME MUD, Object Obscure and The Chicken Came FirstPortrait Avenue got me reminiscing about TV on the Radio, and ended up being an interesting musical discovery of the weekend. It culminated in an explosive jam session that kept people partying and drumming till dawn, only to wake up hung-over and morose but still whistling, waiting for the buses to get moving.

The decision to segregate each night’s music by genre was one I found strange, given that grouping artists together based on their overall sound alienated people whose tastes didn’t align with the day’s chosen style. A better curated program that formed lineups based on how different genres might be fused together, or one that focused on building up moods and atmospheres, would have made for a more cohesive musical experience, and done more to highlight unknown acts rather than people put off an entire day’s worth of music dedicated to certain styles.

It’s difficult to complain about a combination of friends, beaches, live music and good vibes, especially if you hail from Cairo. By the end of the weekend. most people were blissed out in an exhausted kind of way, though if I had come solely with the aim of listening to live music, I would have been disappointed by certain glitches. Soundchecking took most of the day, for example, and a DJ or two could’ve eliminated the jarring silences between acts.

My borrowed hippie attitude didn’t overcome the fact that figuring out who was playing and when wasn’t a straightforward process. And although Alchem Studio did a wonderful job illuminating every performance with mesmerizing visuals, their work was limited to a couple of small screens that didn’t do the images justice.

With this in mind, I contacted Cloud 9 partner Lameece Gasser for a rundown on festival logistics and her take on the sophomore edition of this experimental music venture.

“Festivals of this kind are really lacking in Egypt,” Gasser tells me. “The idea behind Cloud 9 is to bring together all the elements already available here: An incredible location, good music and like-minded people who want to have a good time.”

She explains that it is still in its trial stages. Gasser and her three co-organizers, none of whom have any professional experience in the field, beefed up last year’s event, described as cozy and experimental, by tripling audience numbers — bringing attendees up to 300 — and increasing the number of acts from 18 to 21.

Cloud 9, she says, aims to promote underground artists, bringing some to the fore for the first time. The team’s belief in getting back to basics and creating an organic, complete and enjoyable experience seems to influence most of their decisions, from the no-frills beach retreat location, to the inclusion of workshops such as capoeira and kite-making, to scouting bands through word-of-mouth.

The social aspect is clearly a strong component of the festival, which started off as an extended gathering of friends and acquaintances, and remains more or less as such, albeit larger. But the emphasis, according to Gasser, is on the music, and by bringing together both established and amateur acts and giving them the space to perform, the festival hopes to fill in the gaps and push the boundaries of the music scene. Interaction, collaboration and bonding between artists, audience and organizers is thus paramount.

Volunteering, both by the artists who perform pro bono and by a dedicated team of volunteers assisting organizers, is also a crucial component, and one that means that ticket prices can be kept relatively affordable (LE1,000 for an all-inclusive three-day package). The festival is financed solely through the organizers’ personal investments. Sponsors are kept out of it to stop branding and other forms of commercial kitsch from ruining the experience, and to eliminate the risk of outside influences controlling creative decisions and deviating from the project’s aims.

Gasser reiterates that the team is careful to make sure that the artists understand the goals of Cloud 9. “It’s a collaboration,” she says. “Both the organizers and the artists need to work together to ensure the development and future of the local music scene, and it’s very important that all of the performers really get and believe in what we’re trying to do.”

For round three, the team hopes to overcome many of the challenges experienced this summer, and is excited about kicking the event up another notch, even looking to reign in some international acts.

Cloud 9 has to smooth out a number of organizational kinks, but it represents a small spark of community and excitement for the alternative music scene, and one with a happy-go-lucky feel that you’d be hard-pressed to find in Cairo. To get a taste of the experience, check out SceneNoise’s festival playlist and follow Cloud 9 here.

Habiba Effat 

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