Found in Translation: From Machine Eat Man to a new band called Majhoul

In eight years, Egypt went from being a country with little to no public political participation to one witnessing protests everywhere, multiple times a week, and all the way back again — now with more erratically behaved officials and an economic meltdown to boot. The personal struggles that have resulted from this disheartening chronology are the — perhaps unexpected — focus of the second edition of Mada Masr and Cairo Jazz Club’s collaborative event series.

Called “Found in Translation,” these events bring together the worlds of written analysis and musical creation: Mada picks a text, CJC picks a band, and the band finds a way to put that text to music – or at least use it as inspiration for new compositions. The first edition, back in April, saw Maii Waleed, Ahmed Saleh and Marawan Waheed interpret an article on the life and legacy of TV composer Mohamed Helal as a full set of new tracks.

For the second installation, taking place on September 19, CJC reached out to one-man band Machine Eat Man. When the man behind the machine, Mohamed Ragab, first started 17 years ago, analogue synthesizers were a rarity in local venues, so although he is a veteran of Cairo’s music scene, he says his Eastern-inflected industrial sound – which he calls “Egyptronica” – brought him more success stateside. To meet the literary challenge of Found in Translation and add to the array of synthesizers he’ll be manning, Ragab brought two collaborators on board: emerging vocalist Malak Salama and drummer Ali Soliman.

Mada chose excerpts from five articles addressing the current socio-political climate and the potential for acts of resilience and hope. The pieces cover topics from the emergency law, censorship based on officials’ personal preferences, citizens trading in dreams of a better future for the promise of security, agility and power-building in the face of websites blocks, to hope as a political act. Ahead of the event, I joined the three musicians at Ganoub Studio in Nasr City to see how these texts would be reincarnated as moody, Nine Inch Nails-esque beats.

Fortunately, the gritty material was a comfortable fit for Ragab. “I draw from the things around me when I write, and what’s around me is 90 percent political,” he says. “This is the direction my writing usually takes. I have friends who tell me Machine Eat Man sounds political even though there are no words. I use samples from wartime speeches by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat, etc. Life is really tough; I can’t make music that pretends we’re living in a happy nation.”

I arrived as the trio were running through Ma’zoul, an icy piece which conveys the sense of being surrounded by people while also feeling imprisoned and alone. With Malak behind the mic, her bold voice claiming center stage and soaring over the propulsive, tightly locked groove, it quickly became apparent that what I was hearing wasn’t Machine Eat Man as I had come to expect it. This was a more accessible take on Ragab’s music, one with a wilder, more immediate intensity. The next song was equally bleak yet still stirring, talking of inner conflict and secret pain, but armed with a beat that compels you to move.

This was the first time the three musicians had played together, but by the time I’d joined them, an hour or so into the session, they had settled into a smooth dynamic, running through each song a few times, stopping for minor tweaks every now and again. The intensity of the tracks was matched by the laid-back feel of the session.  

Machine Eat Man has previously sampled Om Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Moroccan tribal music, but Ragab has long wanted to work with a live Arabic vocals. The only other vocalist he has collaborated with is Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, on an album that is almost finished but has no release date in sight (one track can be found online). “After my project with Ghalia was put on hold, I tried working with several vocalists. Some weren’t into the music, others weren’t that committed. Then I heard Salama singing here at Ganoub Studios, and decided to approach her.”

As Salama is new on Cairo’s music scene and tends more toward pop music, I was curious about how the dynamic between her and Ragab would unfold, however, it seems the pieces fell into place quite organically. “I’m not into vocalists with beautiful voices,” he says bluntly. “What’s important is that they really feel what they’re singing. With Salama, it was clear that she felt the music and this is reflected in her performance. It’s a real partnership that makes it very easy for me to focus 100 percent on the music.”

As the conversation turns toward the local music scene it becomes clear that the two of them bonded over the mood of their music and its subject matter. “The music is either too political,” says Salama, “Too revolutionary, or just very happy. I really don’t like happy songs; I prefer aggressive, powerful and personal songs. That was the common thread between us, and it’s this dark, aggressive vibe that is lacking in the Arabic music scene.”  

The addition of lyrics directs the listener more clearly than Ragab’s other work, and Salama’s voice carrying the melody helps create a more overt mood. This shift in Machine Eat Man’s sound is significant enough to warrant a break with the past, and it turns out Ragab and Salama have decided to continue their collaboration as an equal partnership. They have begun a new project called Majhoul (unknown), and while they are in Soliman’s capable percussive hands for the time being, they hope to bring a permanent drummer and an oud player on board in the near future.

Tuesday’s show will mark Majhoul’s debut performance, where they will present 10 new songs after a brief introductory set by Machine Eat Man. The evening won’t just showcase a translation of a text to music, but also Ragab’s transition from a project aimed at a foreign audience to something that aims to have a lot more crossover appeal. With the emergence of more local electronic music and ballooning support for the scene, both he and Salama believe the time is right for a project like Majhoul.

“We’re obviously not happy people,” Salama says with a smile, tongue-in-cheek, “but we’re happy doing what we do.”

This is music the soundtrack to your neo-noir fantasies, or for your inner goth. Its strengths lie more in its ability to create a mood than specifics like lyrics, and it has a dark, vaguely hypnotic sticking quality.

CJC X Mada: Found in Translation feat. Machine Eat Man takes place on Tuesday September 19 at 10 pm. More info here.

Yasmin Shehab