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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