Reclaiming the city’s dancefloors: JellyZone
Courtesy: Bazooka

On a balmy Saturday night in July, the scene at the Virginian restaurant and bar seemed split in two. On a sweeping balcony area on the edge of the eastern Cairo suburb of Moqattam, men and women sat around calmly smoking shisha and drinking Stellas while taking in the views of the city. Meanwhile, in a room nearby decorated with strings of colorful lights, violent churning bass and mechanical drums blasted from the speakers like a Transformers robot getting ready for a dancefloor battle.

It was just before midnight — still early by dance party standards — and DJ A7ba-L-Jelly (“The jelly bitch,” as she translates it), aka Donia Shohdy, co-founder and organizer of the Cairo club night JellyZone, was just getting started with her set. Young clubgoers were trickling in, buying beers and cheap cocktails from a table set up near the door, while fellow musicians Rami Abadir and Ahmed El Ghazoly (Zuli) circulated around the room to make sure the sound was right.

A single rotating fan blew at the front of the stage while A7ba-L-Jelly smoked cigarettes and, as the night progressed, spun a set of heavy bass, alien dance beats, dreamy ambient chords and deconstructed hip-hop tracks. Bodies moved to the inescapable rhythm as she crossed wires between genres.

It’s easy to feel disillusioned about dance parties in Cairo. The city only has a handful of nightclubs, and most of them cater to a moneyed clientele — there’s high drink and ticket prices, homogeneous musical programming and byzantine door policies that involve RSVPs, mixed groups and the final approval of doormen. Even for people interested in music and dancing, it all can feel alienating because of the formal atmosphere and the harassment women often face by male clubgoers.

But JellyZone offers a DIY alternative: Since launching as an official party in the summer of 2017, it has brought in DJs and artists who routinely push the envelope with their music, while affordable ticket prices and thoughtful door policies welcome a diverse crowd.

One evening in Shohdy’s apartment recently, the 27-year-old DJ and party organizer sat on a big sofa cushion on the floor and spoke to Mada Masr about the history of JellyZone.

“I wanted to throw parties that weren’t really expensive, and that weren’t exclusively for rich kids, where there would be good music,” she explains. “I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to have, but I knew what kind of music I didn’t want. For example, I don’t like house music at all.”

Shohdy’s cats, Zaatar and Kumm, lounge around the room, occasionally poking into my backpack with curiosity. The flat is on the 10th floor, but everything felt down-to-earth — dimmed lights and pillows arranged on the floor alongside colorful decorations, like a little blue lamp and an empty liquor bottle stuffed with a string of lights.

Throughout our conversation, Shohdy is relaxed and reserved, speaking quietly, her legs pulled up casually to her chest. Onstage, however, she takes on a much stronger personality: “ahba neik,” she says — a phrase that might be best translated as “bad bitch.”

In her set at the Virginian, Shohdy was flanked by triple-stacked speakers as she played tracks off a laptop. At one point, she combined distorted kick drums with haunted trap synths. Later, clanking rhythms led into weird robotic voices. One track was just an insane burst of harsh feedback, which then morphed into a punching beat, followed by colorful pixie pop that you could imagine coming out of Japanese anime. It was a potent and strange combination, guided by a beat that was impossible not to move to.

“When I first started, I had this idea that I’d never play experimental stuff in a DJ set, because people need to dance, they don’t want to just listen. But then I found that I didn’t want to do that — it’s boring,” she says. “When I took this idea that the whole set had to be about dancing out of my head, I started including things that I actually wanted to listen to, not just what’s meant to be in a DJ set so people dance.”

Cover art designed by Shohdy for a JellyZone event in September 2017

JellyZone first began as a series of house parties. Shohdy and her friends would play hip-hop, shaabi and mainstream music, and at every party there’d be a giant plastic container full of liquor-infused jello, which Shohdy would scoop up with a spoon to feed to partygoers.  

When the crowds got bigger, she and her boyfriend at the time, Amr al-Alamy — a DJ and producer who goes by the names 1127 and Alshareef Tor5y — launched JellyZone as an official club night. JellyZone’s first official party happened in July 2017 at Underground in Mohandiseen; it was also Shohdy’s debut as a DJ. She hadn’t DJed before, but Alamy — who had previously worked as a resident DJ at VENT, the short-lived but much-loved downtown venue that later became Zigzag — urged her to give it a try. VENT was a groundbreaking venue for experimental dance music in Cairo, and Alamy was interested in providing another forum like it. In his sets and his music, he’s often shown a passion for raw and underground dance music forms, harnessing the power of rhythm, texture and electronics to create potent vortexes of sound undergirded by bass.

“The idea was just to play the music that we couldn’t hear elsewhere at the time,” Alamy says. “We were just digging through Soulseek folders and dragging whatever you could define as club music — anything with a Baltimore club kick pattern, ‘Ha’ samples, juke, footwork, lots of hip-hop.”

The two organizers have since thrown parties across the city. They’ve held public events at venues like Underground and Zigzag, and also put on underground gatherings at a friend’s garage space in his family’s villa in Haram. Wherever it may be, stepping into the JellyZone is a bit like entering an alternative universe — a space devoid of elitism and sexism, where men and women can dress how they like, dance how they want and just be their weird, diverse selves.

“JellyZone parties are way more open and friendly to different genders, friendlier to women,” says Nawara Belal, a regular JellyZone attendee and longtime friend of Shohdy. Before starting the parties, she says, Shohdy and her friends often discussed gender and class dynamics in Cairo’s club scene, and what measures were necessary to make it more welcoming to diversity. “It made it feel like the club is for more than just straight men — it’s not necessarily hierarchical in that sense.”

In posts on JellyZone’s Facebook event pages, Shohdy can be quite blunt about the ground rules for those wishing to attend a party. The dance floor is for dancing, not for “talking about your latest art projects and stuff,” she declares in one message advertising a JellyZone event earlier this year. Men coming to JellyZone by themselves need to RSVP in advance, so their Facebook pages can be screened for creepy or sexist comments and later put on a pre-approved list. Men who don’t get on the list or don’t come with a mixed group of friends risk being turned away at the door.

“We need to make sure that any man who enters the place alone knows the party,” she says. “For example, he can’t be a random guy who’s walking across the street and suddenly hears music so decides to come in. He has to know about the party and be coming for the party.”

Shohdy acknowledges that this can come across as judgmental. Indeed, one of the main impulses behind JellyZone is to push against the elitist vibe at other clubs, where doormen automatically turn away men who don’t come with women at their side. Shohdy says men are indeed welcome at JellyZone, but people who attend have to understand that it’s a safe space for everyone.

Cover art designed by Shohdy for a JellyZone event in December 2017

The club night has faced challenges over the months in finding a stable home. Earlier this year, JellyZone held a series of parties at Zigzag, but Shohdy says some partygoers had mixed feelings about patronizing the club because they were bitter over the way it had replaced VENT. While VENT had regular programming of international underground touring acts and experimental local artists, Zigzag is better known for swanky DJ events on the weekends where people dress up and listen to repetitive house and tech-house.

JellyZone broke ties with Zigzag in March over frustrations that one of their parties had gotten changed to another date, as well as other issues, Shohdy says. At their last show there, they switched up Zigzag’s usual door policy and barred anyone who looked too fancy from entering, preferring JellyZone’s regulars over the usual Zigzag clientele.

“We didn’t want these people at the party, so that day we created the opposite selection policy: If someone looked fancy and rich, or like a spoiled kid — like if they were wearing full make-up or came in a fancy car — they wouldn’t be let in,” she says.

The vibe has been more laid-back at underground JellyZone events, which aren’t advertised publicly. But those events have also posed a challenge, because the spaces are usually far from the city center and the organizers have to deal with added logistics, like renting equipment, setting up the bar and making sure nothing gets broken. Moreover, Shohdy has often had to pay for alcohol and other party favors herself before the events — sometimes even borrowing from friends if she doesn’t have enough money — before covering the costs later from ticket revenues. The party at the Virginian in July was called “Bo2s El Paradox Vol. 4” (The Misery of the Paradox) — a nod to JellyZone’s dilemma as a dance party constantly caught between logistic and creative challenges.

Cover art designed by Shohdy for Bo2s El Paradox Vol. 4 at the Virginian in July 2018

It was the first event that Shohdy had hosted in months, after the Zigzag show in March. It was also the first she’d organized herself, without the involvement of Alamy. Things got off to a shaky start, songs starting and stopping in the minutes before Shohdy’s set began in earnest.

It was well after 1 am when the party reached full effect. Someone made his way through the modest crowd, handing out complimentary jello shots on a tray, while Jordan-based Palestinian artist Bashar Suleiman and Freya Edmondes — an artist visiting from England — delivered a blistering performance of auto-tuned noise-punk and distorted dancehall. Amid the twisted synth riffs, blown-out drums and Edmondes’ yelping voice, at one point you could just barely make out the chords to “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. Later, local producer Mostafa Onsy closed out the night with a set of muscular minimalist techno.

Despite the challenges, the club night seems to be expanding, with the 14th event in total and first in Alexandria coming up on September 7, featuring a lineup that includes RAMA, El Kontessa, and, of course, A7ba-L-Jelly.

JellyZone’s esoteric soundtrack might come off as a bit aggressive at times, but there’s also a sense of catharsis in it — DJs like Shohdy break the mold of typical dance music conventions, exploring unexpected connections between genres and styles, diving into the furthest possibilities of electronic expression, but then always bringing it back to a beat that keeps you moving. JellyZone is a party for people who are made to feel like outsiders at the usual nightclub events. This is a way to stake their claim on the dancefloor, to take over and do their vital, freaky thing.

Peter Holslin 

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