One recent evening, Maha ElNabawi, Rowan El Shimi and Ziggy the dog met with the core team behind the much-anticipated Oshtoora festival — Heba El-Sherif, Muhammad El-Quessny, Youssef Atwan and Dia Hamed — to talk music, festivals and responsible tourism.
In January, the team hosted a launch party at Vent to give a taste of the festival’s feel. They invited members of the press and twitterati community for a presentation and some bites prepared by new organic fair trade deli Ma7ali (one of the festival partners). Then saz musician Abdallah Abo Zekry debuted his new music project, followed by Sudanese sensation Asia Madani. The night ended with DJ Eskalob playing a set.
Essentially a camping festival, Oshtoora is set to take place on Sham al-Nessim weekend between April 10-12 in a desert valley 1 km from Sinai’s Ras Sudr beach, where kite-surfing spot Kiteloop lies. (Scroll to the bottom for an Oshtoora factbox.)
Oshtoora logo by Adham Bakry.
Maha El Nabawi: You guys are really active as performers (Like Jelly), so what made you cross the line to producing festivals?
Youssef Atwan: We really wanted to perform at a music festival in Egypt, and that didn’t really exist. We’re struggling to find spaces to perform.
Maha: There were some other local festivals before my time here, like SOS, but now there’s the Cairo Jazz Festival, Cloud 9, 100Live — do you feel more festivals are being created as time goes on? I feel music festival culture is growing globally — this combination of big social outings and a very strong community vibe. Here there’s a lot of festivals that come and go, but do you feel there’s more consistency popping up?
Muhammad El-Quessny (Moe): I think people want to go to something like this — why did the Cloud 9 kids think of Cloud 9, or Theatre of Dreams? Because they wanted to have something they could identify with.
Heba El-Sherif: I think it’s safe to say that with the solidification of the culture scene over the past 20 years, your demands as an audience grow. That’s my personal experience — the more I got into the culture scene, the more I wanted more. It’s the natural progression of things. Also, when you go to these things abroad and enjoy them, you want to create something here. It would be interesting to see how active the people behind the festivals are on an international platform — I’m not saying we’re borrowing ideas, but it pushes you to do more. There’s fertile ground. You have festivals in March and April, D-CAF, India by the Nile, Hal Badeel, Hayy (when Geinena was around). Audience consciousness is expanding.
Dia Hamed: When talking about summer festivals and beach festivals, it adds the element of celebration. Sun, bathing suits, you’re free to do what you want — there’s an atmosphere.
Rowan El Shimi: There’s a distinction between a festival happening in your hometown — where you’re still in your everyday life and have your work and personal stuff, going to catch a concert when you’re tired or not in the mood — and when you travel and the only thing you’re doing is that. It’s a trip. Something new and different from everyday life.
Moe: At a one-day festival like Cairo Jazz Festival, people don’t stay overnight, but with the other kind you go for three days and enter a different mindset — your phone’s away, you’re not thinking of anything outside the festival.
Maha: You guys were part of 3alGanoob then broke off — what caused you to join 3alGanoob in the beginning?
Youssef: The idea started before 3alGanoob — we had this dream of a festival, then 3alGanoob came around so we thought we’d try it out, get some practice, work out some ideas.
Rowan: There was this statement you made on Facebook about leaving 3alGanoob.
Youssef: It wasn’t one big incident. For us, we had a dream for this festival for so long. This just wasn’t the environment for it — we had to spend so much effort on convincing others of a certain idea. It was just a different vision and way of working. At one point we discussed the vision for the festival in five years’ time, and it was completely different. It would be a waste of effort, time and money to try and make it work.
The Oshtoora grounds. Photo: Aida Elkashef.
Maha: How did you choose Ras Sudr for Oshtoora?
Youssef: You’re limited by locations that are available, and have to consider accessibility, local communities, the willingness of the government to negotiate in the area. Ras Sudr is great if we’re talking about the government and local community — there are very similar operations already taking place there, mainly around kitesurfing. They have similar events, so it’s easier.
Moe: Part of the choice of location is asking what you want from it. Desert or beach? Then you assess your weak points and strong points, and see how you can do it without disturbing the place. We could have done it in the oasis, or on private versus government land. The biggest obstacle is government permits.
Youssef: The choice of location was largely because of the local partner, Kiteloop. It’s so comforting having a strong local partner, whose relations are good with the Ras Sudr community.
Maha: There were other windsurfing centers in Ras Sudr before, but I feel the Kiteloop guys are largely responsible for creating that kitesurfing culture there.
Heba: And reviving Ras Sudr as a destination in Sinai.
Rowan: This opens a conversation about the responsibility of a festival popping up in the desert or by the beach in a secluded place, suddenly bringing 500 to 1,000 people — there’s a lot of environmental and local concerns. It will definitely have a good impact in terms of local tourism, but what about trash? What about cigarette butts?
Moe: I don’t want to label it as a “green festival,” but there are certain precautions — as with any risk management, such as having an ambulance. One main thing is leaving the place as it was — to make it sustainable and go along with the entire idea of the festival, which is that there’s something good happening here. You don’t want something good to happen and leave the place a … That’s kind of hypocritical. To be genuine with yourself you do the maximum you can to take care of the place. For example, with the trash cans, we have to keep in mind the heavy wind, and be conscious of the materials we use and not let them fly through the air.
We’ll try to sell the water flasks and get gallons of water people can fill up from, because it’s better than plastic bottles. As part of the welcome pack, we’re trying to score some pocket ashtrays. Also the restaurant we’re working with will put down some rules — for example, if we have to use plastic cups we’ll get the thick ones that aren’t really disposable. They’ll have to use actual silver plates — we’ll have to wash more, but it’s okay. In terms of water efficiency, the bathrooms are set up so the shower flows to the toilet and stuff like that.
Dia: From my side, visual arts, we’re preparing a system that gets people involved in collecting trash — we’re asking people to sign up, whoever’s interested, to donate their trash for little things we can use around. Part of the scenography will be left for the people to complete with these little items. So we’ll try to get them into this mindset without giving it straight with signs and stuff — we’ll invite them to be part of it.
Heba: This brings me to the collaborators. Mada Architects, who are currently finalizing the sitemap, are environmentally conscious in their designs. That’s kind of their niche. Dia and this team of scenographers have a history and interest in using recycled materials. Another collaborator is Solarize Egypt. We’re hoping to have them provide a charging station and extension cord to be solar powered. These things are in the back of our minds, like choosing food outlet Ma7ali that does not use a lot of packaging — there will be packaging, but minimized. These little things will exist around you throughout the three days.
Youssef: Another important partner is Dream Studio. It’s headed by Mafdi, one of the best sound engineers in Egypt. He was the engineer at 3alGanoob last year, and he’s also specialized in live recording. We have a very strong sound team. Mafdi is also providing us with the onsite recording studio, with a sound engineer. He’s super organized and has such an eye — or ear — for quality.
Asia Madani at the Vent launch.
Maha: I know it’s too early to discuss bands, but in the press conference you mentioned you were selecting from different genres. What was the criteria?
Youssef: There will be different backgrounds. Local, regional. I don’t want to say it’s all “alternative.” Or an “independent” festival.
Rowan: It’s a trap, saying “underground” or “independent,” as it segregates what people listen to. It’s a problem that we keep putting these labels on this scene, like “the independent culture scene.” It limits it. And it sheds a very negative light on anything mainstream, implying that it’s all lame – mainstream is prevalent, but not everyone mainstream is shit and not everyone independent is good in terms of artistic content. Because the way in which artists get known is a bit alternative, we put them in that box.
Heba: It’s good that Cairokee plays on the radio and people know them, regardless of what my view is of their music – there’s something there that’s happening that’s good and commercial. We were thinking about having bands with huge followings, but they overshadow the other acts. And I think part of the drive of doing this is having a platform where you listen to music you like but also see people you don’t know, so we give a chance to really cool musicians to come to the stage in Egypt that haven’t before. Smaller acts, Egyptian bands – there was criteria.
Moe: Someone new, young, not well-known.
Heba: Like Abdallah Abo Zekry, for example
Moe: You saw how amazing Abdallah was in the launch. So many people don’t know him.
Dia: The mainstream industry picks certain people on certain criteria to make them stars. Somehow when we say “underground scene” we are unconsciously trying to claim this space of resource. In one way or another we are providing the mainstream with the best of us. To give an alternative to the mainstream to pick from our bucket, not from their system. You provide them an alternative that’s interesting and exciting, which is what took place mostly with Bassem Youssef’s music acts for example.
Maha: Established music festivals often utilise their mainstream acts to introduce younger acts. A portion of people come for the headliners, but see younger acts too. So it’s cool that you guys are not framing it as entirely alternative, indie or underground.
That said, are the artists being paid? Are you getting grants? Sponsors?
Moe: Taking care of the place you’re in is good, but it’s also good for everyone to get fair wages. Paying employees, ourselves and the artists. However, there are different kinds of pricing for bands. There is little, there’s a lot – for example if you go play for some corporate event you don’t want to be doing – then there’s something in the middle. From our experience as musicians in the industry, what we’re paying is fair. We’re paying musicians better – so I’ve heard – than other festivals around these days.
Youssef: Not just festivals, even gigs. Some you play for art’s sake, like say Geneina Theater. There you don’t see logos – regardless of the Mawred funding – it’s a theater in the traditional sense: You go buy a ticket and watch. They pay really low fees. But for me the goal is that Geneina or other theaters be the source of income for artists. A band can ask for LE50,000 from Vodafone, to launch something, but if a festival can offer the same money, they’d go to the festival.
We’re taking a first step in that direction. The more the audience grows, the stronger the infrastructure becomes, the more artists we have, the more labels and so on, we’ll get that power. Then when a company comes and asks for a band, the band can ask for a shitload of money because they don’t need the support of that company.
Maha: There’s so little money, and only so many favors you can ask of musicians who rely on this as their income. Talking to musicians, a lot seem pretty burned out on favors.
Youssef: Since Geneina closed and Sakia became an extension of the government, there are no venues. There’s Al-Rab3, that appeared recently, Room, Rawabet. But there’s a much bigger audience. Massar Egbari can easily fill a 5000-seat space. We need bigger venues. Bands have to go do something with Vodafone in the Gezira Youth Center to get the crowd they want. Or Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Maha: Are you guys hiring staff? I know there’s a volunteer process.
Moe: We’re hiring. We want a team to be working after the festival on evaluation, future projects, etc.
Dia: And we have a lot of people who are excited to contribute as volunteers.
Oshtoora planning. Photo: Ma7sool Productions.
Heba: In the last few months it’s been a lot of laying groundwork. The idea, the partners, the way things will look, the music and so on. We’ve been interviewing this week and realized that as we’re definitely expanding, it’s time to relay this thought process we’ve been going through to additional people. Because it’s a huge operation. More people need to be hands-on involved, as well.
Maha: This leads me to ask about the programming in general. Anything outside of music, visual arts?
Maha: Right, there’s a partnership with Cairo art house cinema Zawya.
You mentioned Mada Architects is designing the space to utilize the elements?
Moe: Yeah, but even the bigger person working with the wind is Dia.
Dia: Basically, a lot of windbreakers. In a music festival you really need to hear. If you have wind blowing in your ears, it’s not a good experience. But as a scenography team we think of wind as a friend, not a foe — a lot of structures will be based on transforming wind into other things.
Rowan: How is that balance happening, between functional windbreakers and using wind for installations?
Dia: Windbreakers are actually very good for us because we know where there will be wind, and where there won’t. It’s a barrier — then you can use the wind at a certain altitude and transform it into something that happens on the ground.
Maha: Who else is on your team?
Dia: We have an illustrator, a physicist, a mathematician, an electronics hacker, an architect, a mechanical engineer and instructors for little objects made out of recycled trash.
We started with understanding the audience and their needs. Then we went back to studying the space and forces of nature, and the shapes and natural systems. So there’s a scientific start. Then how to integrate that into design, and produce from design the language of a civilization that never existed but would inhabit this village. From these elements, we assemble the structures that use the wind, sun and shadows to set the design of the stage, the entrance and the orientation tunnel, and the camp ground, with little items included. Those are the basic phases, and that’s why we have such a variety of backgrounds in the team.
Visuals and scenography code. Credit: Dia Hamed.
Maha: I remember you guys saying there are many housing options.
Dia: The dream was to cover everything, make everything look in harmony, belonging to the same civilization or cult. But we keep cutting down on things as we’re running out of time, and have to go toward going to a company to provide a shaded area and so on. What we do is intervene without destroying this, and integrating it into the visual identity.
There are a lot of elements that would excite people who find sacred geometry and so on interesting. We’re not using the hexagon and the numbers 3, 6 or 9 though — we’re using 5, which is not really sacred at all. We try to take inspiration from audiovisual phenomena, how sound frequencies resonate with sand and water surfaces. And it’s fun. We have funny characters. We rely on the bunny. We discovered the friend of the bunny, the octopus.
We’re not going for installations — as in pieces of art that you go and look at as art. We’re trying to integrate the creative thing within the structure. It’s applied arts and design. The design of the stage itself is an installation.
Maha: Have you been spending a lot of time there?
Dia: I went there twice, and I worked on a little clay model at home. When we gather as a team we discuss it on the map. We came up with this visual language. It’s all based on circles and tentacles. Transformation is a main theme. How wind transforms to other shapes. How information transforms from one state to another. How you have one shape and with rotations make a full library of potential probabilities.
When animation first started they would draw several characters, spin a circle and look through holes and see the drawings animated. We’re going in this direction, trying to bring back the simple things we were so excited about before phones, television and Facebook. The little things that make people happy.