Drawn to music

Listening to incredibly loud music outdoors in a residential area is always intensely pleasurable, not only because music seems to sound better in the open but because of the staying-up-on-a-school-night-naughtiness of being allowed to deafen the neighbours within a half mile radius.

Dokki’s Goethe Institute was the stage for such splendid anti-social behaviour on Friday night, when it played host to the 100 Live electronic music festival which showcased artists signed to the Egyptian-based electronic music label, 100 Copies (so named because only one hundred copies of each release are available abroad). Live performances by individuals and groups such as Ramsi Lehner, Omar Kamel and Bikya were accompanied by visuals beamed onto three giant screens. The music, the visuals and copious amounts of alcohol were consumed by the festival’s punters as they reclined on the grass (grass! In Cairo!) in the Goethe’s gorgeous palm tree-filled garden.

I arrived after dark just before Bikya’s set, and in the interim the audience were entertained with visuals including jerky overhead images of taxis roaming the streets of Alexandria…close-ups on women’s posteriors as they walked forwards, and then backwards and then forwards again…a man sitting on a bench, pondering…a duck’s brisket, and so on. Aesthetically these images were mildly engaging in rather the same way that it is sometimes interesting to watch scenery change from a train window: in both cases it is pointless to ask what the meaning of anything is; best just to bathe your eyes in it all.

Meanwhile on the other side of the lawn another giant screen had been set up in front of an overhead projector and members of the audience invited to let their imaginations elope with a pen – with predictably erratic results. Watching them I was reminded of a 1980s British television show called ‘Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time.’ Rolf, an Australian cartoonist, would draw a picture as we, the mesmerised kids at home, watched Daffy Duck or Tom or Jerry materialise before our very eyes. Rolf’s catchphrase was ‘can you see what it is yet..?’ and mostly at the Goethe alas I could not. At one point someone replaced doodling with a series of earnest questions such as, ‘what is an experience?…If “this” is an experience, does it matter? This maybe [sic] experimental art, a bridge between two points. Artists and experiences. Do you care?’ Indeed.

Ducks and doodling gave way for the no-nonsense excellence of Bikya, a three-piece ensemble composed of 100 Copies owner Mahmoud Refat on drums and electronics, Mahmoud Waly on bass and Maurice Louca on guitar, keyboard and a sampler reminiscent of an air raid siren. It is difficult to find a superlative adequate to describe the excellence of this group, who harness the intensity of electronic sound and combine it with soulful, melodious guitar to create really beautiful music – even the aforementioned air raid siren device was utilised to stunningly plaintive effect on their opening song ‘Betrayal.’ There is arguably a certain emotional inaccessibility about electronic music of this kind – at least for the uninitiated – which Bikya successfully avoid and then some: their compositions are soulful, fresh and haunting.

Bikya gave way to a brief interlude featuring Ramzy Lehner when I began to see the point of the visuals: the critical flaw in live electronic music is that there is almost zero audience interest in watching a man sitting behind his laptop nodding his head slightly. Turning back to the overhead projector the audience were offered a picture of a ship with ‘Titanic’ written above it before the pen was appropriated by a small child who spent the rest of the night drawing Superman. The idea of audience participation is commendable but unfortunately did not on this occasion draw (boom boom) many interesting results.

Omar Kamel, the evening’s final performer, played electronic with an oriental slant complete with qanoun and violin. The music was upbeat and the group gave a tight performance but the material did not add anything new to the beats/Arabic music formula – although the group of dancers in the audience who went from voguing to body popping to dabke during his performance clearly enjoyed it immensely. He was in any case forced to conclude his set early because the powers that be decided that it was past everyone’s bedtime. The group finished with a song of frenetic energy over which Kamel read aloud something vaguely political. He stated before starting that this was the first occasion on which he had tried this idea, and the general consensus within my immediate circle was that it would be best if it was the last.

From the electronic noise of the Goethe to the tranquillity of Zamalek’s Gallery Extra, currently exhibiting Said Abou Seada who uses a variety of media to explore the theme of depth. He uses alternatively broad and thin tightly-packed pencil strokes to form stunning three-dimensional shapes which almost appear to move and morph into each other as you look at them. His innovative use of glass stained yellow and red and combined with melted lead on leather create textually-rich images the vibrancy of whose colours contrast strikingly with the black and white images of the pencil drawings. I profited from Abou Seada’s presence in the gallery to ask him about one piece in particular, a stunning collage which uses newspaper clippings on a black background. The newspaper clippings refer to the public and private sectors – was this deliberate, I wondered. Abou Seada informed me that it wasn’t, and that the newspaper print happened to fit the particular aesthetic vision he had at the time he crafted the piece. How the observer interprets it however, he told me with a smile, is up to them.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

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14 Responses to Drawn to music

  1. Amnesiac says:

    Omar thanks for pointing out the error regarding label signings. I will let the editor know.

    I wanted to give readers an idea of your music in particular its Arab (Arabic? Never know which one is more correct) feel. I therefore didn’t feel the need to specifically refer to the sax player. He is excellent, as you say.

    I make no claim to ‘cover’ the entire event – that’s not my brief, and I’m not allocated enough wordspace to do so! I went along to see two or three acts and get a general feel.

    Thanks for giving me your feedback.

  2. PRAGMATIC says:

    I think there is no flaw in live electronic music performers. Many prefer to use laptops such as mahmoud refaat and adham hafez…while some have a wide array of equipment set up in front of them such as hassan khan and others. My performances vary. If it’s hard head bobbing and flashy personalities that audience members are looking for they MAY be in the wrong place. I think it is completely unfair to judge live electronic music as flawed. A live electronic group played two shows at the same time in two different countries…fooling the audience in one country making them believe they were on stage as they tend to move very little. They were replaced with robots that occasionally move and back lit to create a silhouette. The audience loved the show…it was playback the whole time. The band was simply trying to make a point.
    The flaw is not the genre. the flaw is in the people’s need for eye candy and pretty things. Such a shame to condone people’s loss for pure musical appreciation without the distractions that we’ve tossed into it.

  3. Forsoothsayer says:

    man up, both of you. not everyone is going to like your music, and people are entitled to have opinions on your performance, and state them.

  4. Amnesiac says:

    Hi Pragmatic. While eye candy is always welcome it is not of course a prerequisite for enjoyment of a performance – not sure how you inferred from my review that it was.

    Nobody is saying that band members must perform synchronised dances, or matching outfits or firework effects, the point I was making is that visually, I found Ramzy Lehner’s performance dull. Perhaps if the music had been really outstanding the audience reaction would have been better, but it was formulaic and and I noted that the audience were far less focused during his slot than during the performances by Bikya and Omar Kamel.

    Absolutely you can put a plant on stage and call it a performance – whatever floats your boat. But I maintain that the music has to be good enough for this to work if it is to keep the audience happy.

    A a teenager I went to tonnes of indie concerts, and quite frequently stood and watched four blokes stand as still as statues for an hour and a half, not moving, not talking to the audience between songs in fact not in any way acknowledging our presence. They weren’t making a point I don’t think, they just chose to perform like that, and the majority of these concerts were still great – because of the music.

  5. fully_polynomial says:

    perhaps everyone who writes a review of the shows they’ve been to should check them first with the performers for approval?

    lighten up guys, you play electronic music; even people who perform real music are not that anal about it.

  6. Kaiser says:

    That “Ducks” show is a part of a project called ” Ultra-Sounds of a city” based on the unnoticeable sounds & scenes of Alexandria as a first step exploring some depth.
    This performance’s essential features are the sampled sounds and REAL-TIME Video editing. we only got raw footage & sounds then we edit everything LIVE on stage using multi-layers video editing software and a virtual Audio Studio software.
    This performance can be described as a unlimited audio visual improvisations sealed with a theme.
    & BTW: THERE WAS NOT A SINGLE SHOT FROM THE TRAIN

  7. Amnesiac says:

    Omar

    How the bloody hell are numbers 2 & 3 ‘inaccuracies’ as you term them? Not mentioning a saxophone player is an inaccuracy??? Gimme a break.

    1. I made clear my error in my first comment which presumably others have read. I don’t think that their comments concern this issue.

    2. My job is not to list every single musician in your group. I am baffled by your comment that you are hurt, since this implies some sort of pre-existing obligation which I have failed to fulfil. Bonkers. I don’t mention Bikya’s saxophonist either. I don’t not like saxophonists or anything, I simply chose not to mention them on this occasion. Jeez.

    3.Proper vs full – I see we’re taking our high heels off now in preparation for a catfight. I’ll say it again: there is not need to cover every single goddam minute of a festival in order to review it. Must a journalist attend all three days of the Glastonbury festival in order to give the two bands he reviews ‘proper’ coverage?

    *I did not claim to cover the entireeeee festivallll ya Omar, and neither do I need to in order to review individual performerssss*

    Give me some concrete criticisms that I can work with. I have an idea. Take a look at what I wrote about Bikya. Do you have a problem with that? Is my review compromised by my failure to be there from the start? By my failure to mention the saxophonist?

  8. Amnesiac says:

    Kaiser:

    “Aesthetically these images were mildly engaging in rather the same way that it is sometimes interesting to watch scenery change from a train window: in both cases it is pointless to ask what the meaning of anything is; best just to bathe your eyes in it all.”

    Erm…I don’t actually say that there was a shot from the train.
    Take off your caps lock and read the above again.

  9. Basil Fawlty says:

    Wow, these musicians can be pretty thin-skinned, can’t they? Rock n’ roll ain’t what it used to be: Mick, Marianne and the Mars Bar must be rolling in their graves.

    Also, I think the point of Omar’s comments appears to be exposure, not (merely) setting the record straight about who was there and who got ommited. Really, there were more plugs in his comments, than in an electrician’s shop.

    Also, and this could just be my impression, but if the sax isn’t that memorable, a girl’s entitled to try and forget all about it:)

  10. fully_polynomial says:

    “It’s obvious that simple feedback is taken very, very badly.”

    On that point you are completely correct.

    You may not have spelt out your displeasure, but I did find your third comment to be unnecessarily condescending and your second one did not make any sense. And that was just me, the reviewer did not even seem to take it that way, so the ‘defensive’ charge is misplaced. And it is most certainly not the reviewer’s job to list everyone who played and their mother. Nor is it a requirement that one should sit through every act to write about one/some of them. I’d back you all the way on your first point, which is an error on the reviewer’s part, but other than that you should take it easy man. arent the electronic music people supposed to be chilled-out or something? or is this just a myth perpetuated in the singer/songwriter crowd?

    Kaiser, having that line at the very end of your post was an unexpected laugh bomb. nothing better than a good jone except an unintentional good joke that you do not see coming, especially when the punchline is delvered with such passion.

  11. Amnesiac says:

    Just for the record it was Omar himself and not me who removed Omar’s comments.

  12. Kaiser says:

    I confess that the way visuals was mentioned at the article as if it’s been streamed or broadcast via satellite by anonymous person and the only feature it had was ” before Bikya’s set” really pushed me to be aggressive a bit.
    this train line was meant to be a highlight for the concept of the performance that it’s not musical visualization like what you have in your iTunes or WinAmp.
    Before writing an article, I guess author needs to check some points with the targeted people specially when we are all at the same place in the same time

  13. Amnesiac says:

    Kaiser, I respectfully suggest that I do not need to ‘check some points.’

    You seem to have understood ‘beamed’ as being synonymous with satellite transmission, when in fact it does not mean this exclusively.

    I have no problem with criticism and in fact anticipate it: I accept that my slightly scathing style can be provocative. But it’s annoying when accusations are made on the basis of a failure to read what I have said properly, and exhausting to have to constantly explain the error.

  14. kaiser says:

    DEAD-END

    Thanks anyway

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