In his book Silence (1961), John Cage writes, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” At another point, he suggests that one should practice “listening to the empty space, instead of trying to fill it.”
Also contemplating boredom was philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In his 1843 iconic work, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, he speaks of boredom as a sense of emptiness of meaning, as opposed to absence of stimulation, which is why boredom is perhaps a marker of our media-saturated existence. At Mada, we often think about boredom and how working, writing and publishing become mechanisms of resisting the condition, all while living in it.
In a context like Cairo, practicing boredom and silence can be like joining an emotional gym. At least it makes one fitter to listen, especially when swimming through the torrent of stunning music releases across the region in 2018, from operatic vocals layered within a contemporary shaabi orchestration, to mahraganat’s continued synthesis with trap music, where rolling hi-hats bridge into electro-shaabi beats to push forward the limitations of genre. In many of these sounds, we experience more than the filling of space with noise and more than empty escapades from the boredom induced by an ongoing, overwhelming political crisis of inertia and uncertainty.
In the peak of these musings, I remembered a rhythm I heard in the wind, and found a familiar voice. It was Dina El Wedidi. Her sound was different — it’s as if a machine borrowed her voice to build a train whose lines journey between the conscious and unconscious, the material and the imaginary. The album at hand is called “Slumber,” and it is Dina’s first foray into the role of a electronic producer, adding to her many hats of singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. Created almost entirely by means of electronically manipulated field recordings of train sounds across Egypt, Wedidi describes the 30-minute musical work as “a short dream i have between two worlds, occurring between the conscious (the train) and the unconscious (the dream).”
I met up with Wedidi in October, ahead of her concert in New York as part of the Center Stage tour, which traveled across several cities in the US. While in the lobby of our hotel in Harlem, she positioned the train as the album’s central musical instrument, a choice that allowed her to discover “an utterly different experience about the definition of sound.”
She describes “Slumber” as being in part about overcoming the fear and boredom of sonic stagnation, whereby she changed colors again and, this time, her sonic texture, to create a body of work that punctuated her transitory state. “I’m a believer of shocks. Audience is something that’s very important to me, but it’s also important to hear myself: What’s happening to me? Is this transition? But I need to confess, too, that something is happening. I don’t care if this is right of wrong, good or bad, but what I care is to not have a sense of denial.”
Also on tour was oud player and composer, Mohamed Abozekry, performing tracks off his third recorded album, Karkade, along with works written on tour with Lotfy Abaza on violin, Mohamed Arafa on duhulla, Karim Nagy (filling in for Hany Bedair) on riqq, and Mohamed Farag on nay. As I wrote in the Norient, the music draws from the 1920s-1950s — once deemed Egypt’s “musical golden age” — both in timber and structural codes, while offering a collection of modernized tarab and takht-driven pieces that offer a contemporary take on traditional Arabic music. When hearing Karkade live, I noticed that, while much of the music is precomposed, the band offered moments of silence and space for improvised solos, adding a dynamic, engaging, and, at times, meditative listening experience within each performance.
Abozekry followed up the release of Karkade with yet another album, “Don’t replace me by a machine,” alongside drummer, Nicolas Thé, and his younger brother and saz player, Abdullah. While Abozekry admits that the music he makes might be called “old fashioned” at times, he continues to listen inwardly, instead of trying to match the sounds happening all around him. The result is the personal satisfaction of staying true to one’s own silence and noise, while simultaneously creating a body of work that continues to push the boundaries of what it means to be contemporary.
In the repetition of restrictive political rule that was briefly interrupted in 2011, boredom may be an inevitable condition in Egypt. It is also perhaps the condition inhabited by mahraganat and electro-shaabi musicians as they continue to release a multitude of tracks that both speak of that plight but also emerge outside of it somewhat to new possibilities.
This is heard particularly within collaborations between Sadat and Wegz, Marwan Pablo releases, or Abyusif and Islam Chipsy, who blur lines between mahraganat, hip-hop, and electro-shaabi, challenging the limitations of genre, while combining to create new and hooking, sonic outputs. Stand-out tracks include the earworming “Kharban,” featuring Sadat and Wegz, one of many tracks released this year where we hear a blending between Western trap music and mahraganat.
2018 was yet another year of prolific releases from rapper and producer Abyusif, chief among which were “3azama” and “Msh h2dr 7ad,” which collectively clocked over 1 million views on YouTube. This year also saw the blossoming of Generation-Z Alexandrian rapper Marwan Pablo, witnessed chiefly in his tracks “Folklore” and his collaborations with Wegz in “Daira 3almasla7a.” Also from Generation Z is Sabo, a 17-year-old rapper from Sohag, in this grittier, hyper-realist video production, where his hook plays out to a grimey trap beat and a sticky usage of sub-bass, as he raps:
“I am not that old
My family is ‘Sohag Eshrin’
I woke up to find myself a part of it
I’m proud of it
I have an old man’s brain
Lit a joint and doesn’t want to put it out
He’s high, one of the sultans
An old man from Upper Egypt
I am not that old.”
In November, Zuli dropped yet another dynamite release, “Terminal” (UIQ). In it, we find HIM accessing a hybrid language articulated through granular techno, hip-hop, and left-field electronics with rapid-fire beats that break like shrapnel flying through the air, only to land in a pile of grimey noise and after crashing into a wall of bass. The album features a pantheon of rappers, including Abyusif, Mado $am, and Abanob, as heard on skillfully sutured tracks like “Nari,” where he deconstructs the vocal lines until they become shattered fragments or building blocks, constantly moving, like a game of Jenga, where the constant changes in the track become somehow psychologically pleasing. This leads me to Rami Abadir, who released “Clattered Tell” in April, where his dexterity for deconstruction, complex rhythmic patterns, subtle melodies and glitches mark both his solo work and his collaboration with Onsy in ON4B – dots.
This year also saw the debut release of Dirty Backseat’s “GooBad” EP, featuring Noha Amin on vocals, guitars and keys, Mo Hani on vocals, bass, guitar and keys, alongside Marwan Wahid on drums and backing vocals. The EP pulls from lo-fi synth pop to indie punk, while mixing Arabic and English lyrics set to dizzying guitar lines, heady rock rhythms and relentless keys.
In traveling beyond Egypt, and toward the year’s end, Tunisian musician Deena Abdelwahed released her debut album, “Khonnar”, a 45-minute contemporary electronic work where identity becomes a central theme played out through deconstructed basslines, techno and experimental music. The album is haunting and unyielding, but layers of repetition used in dance-evoking tracks like “Ababab,” or, conversely, the hyper-atmospheric sound design deployed in “Tawa,” offer welcome moments of jarring unpredictability within an amorphous sonic environment that emerges out of a cosmic echo chamber.
Earlier in the year, there was Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s (as Jerusalem in My Heart) “Daqa’iq Tuqaiq.” As I wrote in my review for the Wire, the album emerges through languid, amorphous Eastern scales with granular vocals, electronics, buzuk, riqq, derbuka, qanun and other instrumental contributions. The album is dizzying and contemplative, suggesting Moumneh’s unbridled inventiveness in composition, songwriting, and collaboration.
A few months later, I met Moumneh in person as part of the PRAED Orchestra commissioning by the Sharjah Art Foundation in the Emirates. Led by Raed Yassin and Paed Conca, the orchestra pulls from the Arab and global avant garde with 13 musicians, including Maurice Louca on keys, Nadah El Shazly on keys and vocals, Khalid Yassin and his rich percussions, Alan Bishop and Sam Shalaby, among others.
In other significant collaborations, oud virtuoso, composer and a beacon for the Arab avant garde, Kamilya Jubran assembled several leading alternative musicians within the region to create Sodassi. The band features Wedidi, Sama Abdulhadi, Youmna Saba, and Ayed Fadal, Rasha Nahas and Maya Khaldi. While I’m still eagerly anticipating a recording of this project, the band is currently touring through France. Along the way, we heard dynamite works from the individual components, as heard through Youmna Saba and Nour Sokhon in “Corridors.” Meanwhile, producer Abdulhadi continues to rattle dance floors across Palestine and France with DJ sets and remixes, as heard in the recently released track, “El Hilwatu.”
Along with new music, there continues to be a slight expansion of infrastructure, with new labels and projects emerging around the alternative music landscape. The region saw the launch of the Bala Feesh music conference in Jordan, while the Sharjah Art Foundation is slated to launch a music festival early next year. In Egypt, audio visual project, Mapping Possibilities delivered its 7th iteration, with audio by Karim El Ghazoly and Ihab El Shazly on visuals, while the JellyZone experiment between Cairo and Alexandria lives on.
Meanwhile, Spotify officially launched in the Middle East, adding to the mix of Anghamy and Deezer, while Egypt also saw the emergence of the nascent indie label, residency and record store HIZZ. Operating between Detroit and Cairo, Hizz released several off-kilter works, including “Pink Tape” by Bashar Suliman and Drummer B, as well as compilation album, “Kombile 001” and Youssef Abouzeid’s (of PanSTARRS) solo debut, Captain Solo. The album is perhaps Abouzeid’s most sophisticated body of work yet, where his tracks travel through an amalgamation of genres, including post-punk, art-rock and unruly electronics.
Regarding reissues, the Habibi Funk Records unearthed two gems this year: Habibi Funk 008: Muslims and Christians, followed by Habibi Funk 009: Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. The Berlin-based label boasts a rich portfolio of of Arabic and Afro funk, jazz, and other music from 1970s and 1980s. Personal favorites include al-Massrieen’s compilation under “Modern Music,” a disco and funkadelic timewarp composed by Hany Shenoda in the 1970s, in addition to the cinematic, synth-ladened jazz works of Ahmed Malek, and the plethora of Sudanese cassette tapes.
Sometimes, boredom and silence are forced upon us. In August, Rami Essam released his controversial track, “Balaha,” directed at Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, resulting in a sweep arrest of artists, including the author of the lyrics, Galal al-Behairy, and oddly, musician Ramy Sidky, who is neither featured on the track nor took part in its creation. Sidky remains incarcerated, and his friends tell me there is no clarity around his case, why he’s behind bars, or when he might be released.
I often wonder about him, and what being forced into boredom and silence will do to the music he makes when released. Last year, Sidky released an anthemic indie-pop rock EP ladened with cunning social commentary, alongside his band “Jimi and the Saint,” where he is featured as co-composer and lead guitarist. In the band’s video of “Mohkak Ra7 Fein,” we witness a collage of millennials stuffing their minds with all sorts of media input — sucking emoticons out of a smartphone like vapor from an e-cigarette, or compulsively snorting lines of cut-up newspaper shards — making the video a case-in-point of the precarity found in the information overload and overstimulation of our times.
In a day and age where media is more easily consumed than water, I’m starting to realize the importance of not only listening to the music, but also the silence that follows it — even if that silence is not always my own, but that of musicians like Ramy Sidky.