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Metal in Egypt

15 years ago Egyptian metal-heads were indicted with Satanism and accordingly controlled – since then little has been heard from Egypt’s metal scene. Ralph Kronauer and Luca Tommasini have been talking with protagonists from Alexandria and Cairo. Following Philip Vlahos’ documentation on Cairo’s electro scene, as well as Thomas Burkhalter’s podcast on music and Islam – yet more blank spots are erased from Egypt’s musical map. Insight into a scene that is stranded somewhere midst assimilation and throw-off.

«…meet me on the next riff…» says Samadie. He is laughing while he tries to pull the scenario of what would happen if the drums screwed up during a concert. We are in Alexandria meeting Worm, one of the «older» bands in Egypt’s metal scene. Samadie is one of the three members of the band. The fourth member is a sequencer triggering drum patterns that Samadie had programmed. Tarek and Samadie are sitting in Samadie’s bedroom, which is also Worm’s studio. They are playing along a playback sequence of the computer. The drums are battering along in a merciless pace. «So far we haven’t come across a drummer who is able to play the pace we want our drums to have.» Worm is the only metal band in Egypt without a real drummer. The synthetic feel of the heavily compressed drum lines add to the spooky feeling of their songs.

Tarek from Worm

Worn sofas, a dusty bookshelf, heavy carpets and a cat jumping onto a table full of musical tools. An old television shows a black and white Arab movie from the 50s. Samadie’s apartment feels like visiting your old bird. From the narrow hallway, a door covered with written messages, opens towards Samadie’s bedroom. There are two beds, a bass, an electric guitar, a desk, a computer and a monitor, plus a few effect devices. «Marzaban left to Cairo» is written on the door. Marzaban is a member of Scarab, a band from Cairo. Their first album «Blinding the masses» was mastered in Samadie’s bedroom.

It is the end of May. The first round in Egypt’s presidential electoral campaign has ended with either Morsi or Shafik becoming the future president. Tahrir Square in Cairo is filling up again with people protesting. Some evenings a million people take to the streets. There is an air of uncertainty about what is next, in a process, marked by the events more than a year ago. Is it going to be Morsi? Or Shafik? And then? Noor (Dark Philosophy) says: «Shafik is the old regime. Let Morsi win and we’ll see what he’ll do. If he sucks, we’ll be back in the streets.» Sherif (Enraged, Scarab): «If Morsi wins, I’ll chuck my keyboard away and leave the country.» Wael, the founder of Enraged: «Morsi is the brotherhood, Shafik the military – both want to impose their ways. We’ve always been confronted with attempts of intimidation. I’ve been scared at times, but even more, what it causes inside me is: You don’t want to hear what I’m saying? Then I say it even louder.»

Mursi on the streets of Cairo

Marzaban from Scarab jamming

Resitant as a Scarab

Marzaban is devoted to his music. «I am not political», he says, while honkingly navigating his car through crowds of protesters bordering Tahrir Square. «I just want to play guitar». We are on the way to a downtown bar for an interview. His answers are blunt. He makes sure we understand his approach to music and the philosophy of the band. Scarab was chosen for the animal’s resilience to hostile environments. Marzaban says determination is the bottom line for everyone in the band. This year, to be able to go and play a concert in Lithuania, Marzaban skipped the final exams and lost a year in college.

«All our friends basically consider us wasting time», says Bombust. «It sure motivates us to give it a good try.» Everyone in Scarab has certain duties. Bombust plays bass and is responsible for public relations. He points out the importance of personal contacts with the fans. «When fans ordered CDs from our website, I used to call them and ask whether they’d like the CD to come by mail or personally delivered. One day I came to the door of a fifteen year old kid. … I will never forget his excitement, when he realized someone from the band had actually brought him the CD.»

Bombust, Scarab‘s bassist

Sherine recording «World Is Rising»

Studio Nights

Scarab is rehearsing and getting ready for their gig Lithuania. We meet them in Vibe, a studio they came to by the recommendation of Sherine. Sherine is the singer, guitarist and founding member of Massive Scar Era [1]. Or shorter: Mascara. When Mascara was still based in Alexandria, it was a girl-band. Sherine’s mother did not want her to play in a band together with boys. This was in Sherine’s adolescence. She says those days were troubled days. «For me the music didn’t work as something lifting me up when I was down. It allowed me to go even deeper into the feeling and allowed me to explore why I was feeling as I was. The music corresponded to something inside me. It was more like having a friend sharing the same emotions, it was not an easy thing, but I liked it. … In the end, it made it more clear what I wanted to do and it has had a strong influence on the way I took.»

Sherine has spent a lot of time and communication efforts, to open doors to get a chance to perform outside Egypt. When it eventually came, she grabbed it. In the past years Mascara has played in Dubai, Sweden and the US. This summer they played in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. «This tour has really strengthened the feeling of unity and our own perception of us as a band», she says looking back. «It is something I hope we can build up on.» Before going abroad, Mascara recorded an EP. Since everybody was either working or studying during the day, they recorded in the evenings and nights. Nancy falling asleep on the couch, next to her violin, Karim moving his fingers along his bass’ fret, absent minded, sleepwalkingly. Time was scarce and they wanted to have the CD ready to take to Europe.

Nancy recording «Comes Around You»

Mascara is not only one of the few gender mixed bands in the Egypt metal field, but also religiously mixed: two members are Muslim, two are Christian. Nancy and Karim have the same family name, but religion doesn’t go by the names. Sherine managed to use this feature to raise additional interest amongst organisers in Europe and the US. There’s no link to music in it. Mascara are not considered to be a «real» metal band by most metal bands in Egypt. They got the growl, they got the double kick drum and they’ve got lots of pop elements. What gets the band respect among the community of fellow musicians, is their musical skills, personality and their persistency in sticking to what kicks them most.

Some years ago Alan felt he needed a break from the band scene in the UK. He decided to come to Egypt and ended up staying. Originally a guitarist, he is now playing drums with Brutus. In Egypt he has become a sound engineer, «something I didn’t really think it could be my thing. Lately I discovered, that I enjoy just as much working on other people’s music as creating my own.» Brutus don’t care much about playing abroad, popularity or money coming from music. «We‘re playing music because it makes us feel good» says Timur, one of the two guitarists in the band. «It’s a necessity to us. Some people go down to Tahrir and get their arse beaten. We play music.» He hands out Brutus’ latest CD. «In case you need a coaster or something to block the door.»

Alan from Brutus

The Satanic Issue

Two years ago, in a talk show on Egyptian TV, metal related and non-related people were sitting around a table. Bassam, Brutus’ singer, was one of the metal-related people. When Tuhami Muntasir, a former advisor of the mufti in Egypt, started with «it has become clear that this is most certainly a sponsored and organized Zionist activity. They get money from … maybe from Cyprus, maybe from Israel…» followed by the usual satanic sermon, instead of cutting things short with expressing his Palestinian heritage, he waited for Muntasir to go through and replied «metal music is a form of art, just like cinema. … to hell with Satan!» The dramaturgy of this «discussion» is rather the rule than the exception. It concerns other, smaller subjects, just the same.

Bassam and Timur have both a lot of tattoos. For metal fans and musicians over the globe, this is quite a common thing. For many believing Muslims in Egypt, tattoos are wrong as they are forbidden by Islamic law. Bassam covers his tattoos when walking the streets. On an average June day in Cairo he wears a woollen cap, long sleeves and trousers. Timur shows his tattoos openly. It is not a question of courage. Bassam prefers not to justify himself. He prefers his quiet. At least for some time.

Bassam, Brutus’ singer during a jam session

The satanic issue came up, when in 1997, during a pre-electoral period, an anonymous letter was published by a major newspaper. The letter accused metal bands and fans alike to be part of a dubious movement spreading satanic messages and practising heathen rituals in dark places, drinking cat blood and similar things alike. As ridiculous as it may sound, the impact of the spread message was strong. During a concert in 1997 police stormed the venue and took a large number of musicians and fans into custody. Most of the imprisoned were released again soon after, but the fear, of being related to something considered evil by many in the Egyptian society, remained.

Fear, Friendship and Elivis

At this time Noor was eleven years old. He was proud to own metal records, tapes and CDs. His first impulse, he says, was, «to get rid of everything». Not to leave any traces that could cause trouble to him and his family; so he got rid of everything. Timur puts it this way: «When you’re a grown man, it’s up to you to take a stand. It’s different though, when you’re an adolescent or even a kid.»

We are visiting Shang in his apartment in Giza. Giza is a huge, heavily populated part of Cairo. It feels like a city of its own. Shang’s neighbourhood is a small part of Giza. It is a working class neighbourhood and the houses are basic. Shang talks about the consequences of the satanic letter that was published. He says the fear of being related to a movement that might be conceived as anti-religious – whether in Muslim or Christian interpretations – quite literally devastated the metal scene. Shang has been a guitarist in various bands over the years. He is in the scene long enough to have witnessed the late 90s’ happenings. «If you don’t know anyone who can get you out of prison, you are lost. I don’t know anyone. I am not a privileged person. I was afraid to go to a concert. I was aware of the consequences waiting for me. I went anyway and it gave me confidence.»

Noor from Dark Philosophy digging the archive of his band

«Are you on your way to meet Noor?» From behind we hear a dark voice with a slight American accent. It belongs to a guy with black curly hair and a waggish smile. «Hi, I’m Troll.» We meet in the staircase of a dusty building in Zamalek what might have been a small modern mall right after it was built. That was some time ago. Some shops still exist, others no more. It is 8 p.m. and there’s hardly anyone around. We are on our way to meet Noor in his studio. «On the first floor» he said. Troll shows us the way. «I saw Noor play some weeks ago and wanted to visit him and tell him my appreciation.» Noor opens the door to a small vestibule. Someone comes to ask if we want some tea and Noor orders tea. Some teas later he opens the door to the studio and shows us around with pride. It is a small studio with decent acoustics, the gear is not high-end but there’s everything metal musicians would need to jam. On the wall towards the vestibule is a picture of Elvis next to a sign saying «No smoking! No alcohol! No drugs!» We hear drums sound from a neighbouring booth. It is Tarek practising. Tarek and Noor both play in Dark Philosophy [2], a band formed in 2004.

For the moment the band is incomplete because one of the members went to study in Finland. Dark Philosophy is the only dark metal band in Egypt. Noor says «I wanted to create a place for all metal bands to be able to jam at an affordable price. It should also be a place for friends to meet, because in our situation friendship is very important.» Troll nods and without being asked, the two go directly to telling us about the adversity metal is facing in Egypt.

Troll iin the studio

We enter a studio room, where a jam session is about to start. Everybody is busy with getting ready – instruments are plugged. They look at each other, a nod, a change in the eyes, a change in the expression of their faces, once they start playing there is something between them, something that has its roots not only in each one of them, but it has something to do with their individual and mutual relationship with music, their music and with what this music means to them. It has thrilled the whole group, it has become part of them, binds them together and keeps them going.

The worries of everyday life and the anxiety about trying to make sense of their lives are gone. It faded into feeling part of something worthy getting lost in, the nature of music and musical communication have taken over. Bass-lines, rhythm-guitar, solo-guitar, growl, berserk drums and an immensely loud carpet of entangled sounds. All of them engrossed in playing together, focused and wild, they allow the music to rinse through the skills they achieved along the way. Focused and hypnotized, legs apart, upper parts of the bodies circling, heads shaking, completely gone, and then, when the loudness finally dies, faces come from far.

Troll talks about metal in Egypt. After a few sentences we realize how truly metal Troll is. Everything he says is drenched with his connection to the music. In the weeks to come we will realize everybody in the scene knows Troll. For his devotion and sincerity. As a musician and a fan. Troll is singing in Ahl Sina [3], his band project in which he inserts Egyptian flavours as he believes the experience and skills of local metal musicians are there to offer something special oriental to metal-heads elsewhere. On stage Ahl Sina may consist of fifteen people, some of them playing traditional instruments. The music may be long trips through traditional stories or chants and then shifts to metal which moments ago seemed a remote idea. Troll has been through everything metal has been confronted with in the past twenty years. He is very realistic about the perspectives. Yet he has a clear vision on what and how he wants to communicate his music. He is encouraging and supportive to anybody he thinks gives it a real try. He’s a true fan trying to use any possibility to meet fans in other countries, no matter the hassle around getting a visa or lacking money. In May he spent three weeks on bureaucracy and sold half of his musical gear, to be able to travel to a festival in Croatia early June, which, in the end, he did.

Some days later we return to Noor’s studio. There’s six or seven musicians from different bands gathered around the small entrance room. After a while everybody falls for a spontaneous session. Sakr, the singer of Worm, is growling with closed eyes. Behind him Elvis is looking the way he sometimes did. If one compares the circumstances for metal bands in Europe, to the ones in Egypt, the differences are striking. There is no way to one day live the life of a professional musician in Egypt. This perspective doesn’t exist. Not in Metal. It never did. Many things need to change for it to happen.

People in the scene of course are aware of what steps need to be taken. The limiting factors can easily be pointed at, but knowing about the problems doesn’t necessarily lead to getting rid of them. Not in short term. There are too many shortcomings in the industry.

Sakr from Worm during a session in Noor‘s studio

High Barriers for Metal

Vibe is a studio opened a year ago. Bands from all kind of musical genres rehearse here. Ahmad has run other studios before. He wanted this one not only to be professional but also to be offering a homely atmosphere. Musicians find a place to socialize here, and they do. Most metal bands come here. There is a fair amount of good quality studios in Cairo while metal bands only have access to four or five. It is an unwritten policy of the studios to not allow metal musicians. Among the few that do, most are based in Doqi. As huge as Cairo appears on the map, most metal bands do jam in this little neighbourhood. There aren’t any alternatives.

There is no shop selling CDs of Egyptian metal bands in Egypt. It is possible to buy CDs from metal bands from everywhere including other Middle Eastern countries in Cairo. But not from Egyptian bands. There is laws preventing the local musicians from legally selling their products and the only way left is to merchandise among friends or during concerts. Concerts… concerts?

Entrance to El Sawy Culture Wheel

There still is hardly any place to play live. In spring 2011 El Sawy Culture Wheel allowed metal bands to perform. Metal Blast, a group initially formed by two musicians to promote metal music locally, alongside with three other musicians, had an informative talk with the owner of El Sawy in fall 2010. It was agreed to start with concerts in the spring of 2011. It wasn’t a politically motivated decision. The first concert took place some weeks after the revolution. Others followed. In the average there is one metal concert each month here now. So far there is one venue and this venue is on the line.

On September 4th the Daily News Egypt wrote «… a prominent lawyer of the FJP filed a complaint against El Sawy Culture Wheel for allegedly hosting devil worshippers.» The same article quotes Wael: «I was expecting something like this could happen in the future, but I did not think it would be this soon.» Heba Ahmed, El Sawy’s media coordinator, said that «no changes will be made to the programming.» «El Sawy will host another metal concert this week.» Wael says «there is a chance that there can be violent repercussions to this story but I think the worst we could do is shy away from publicity.»

Afronting the Deficit

«We recorded Blinding the Masses here in Cairo», says Marzaban. «We paid a lot of money for the post-production and they messed it up. So we went to Samadie in Alexandria. For three months we travelled back and forth. Finally it was good. But then there is the distribution level. All metal-bands promote themselves. Until today there’s no label for metal. I do hope things can change. But in the meantime we cannot stand still and wait. We can’t. We try hard to make our music in the most professional way with the few possibilities we have.»

Amr from Crescent rehearsing

Bands do tackle the obstacles in the industry. Through developing an own style in their music. We meet Crescent in Heliopolis. Only a short distance from Cairo centre, it feels as if one was travelling in time. Heliopolis’ broad streets and colonial architecture still hold an atmosphere from the past. Crescent is one of the oldest bands still active. Ismaeel, the band’s guitarist and singer, has just turned 30 and started the band at the age of 16. The satanic «issue» (as everybody puts it) was omnipresent when the band was formed. They had an early album out, it was well perceived among insiders, Marzaban was part of the band for while, and for a while the band was an integral part of Cairo’s metal scene. Slowly though they stepped back. They kept playing, but Ismaeel says the scene appeared less vital and embracing to him, somehow more self-centred and less self-catering. «Then the web became more present.» He describes the days before the World Wide Web as the time when sharing new music «was exciting not only for listening to it, but for sharing tapes and CDs, for something in hand, something that allowed you to share it with others and enjoy direct appreciation.» «With the World Wide Web becoming a common tool in Egypt, the phase of consumption began. People were downloading, a lot, rather randomly and quantity took over…» He switches to the positive aspects coming along with it. «The young musicians that sure have no money to spend on lessons started learning their instrument through the web. They do it ever since. It’s impressing how much they learn this way.»

For eight years the band didn’t record new material. Around 2007 Ismaeel started composing a new album and just as he finished composing it, about a year later, he decided to drop it completely. «There was new elements of style in music coming to my mind, and it made me want to start all over again and so I did.» «It took a while but we all believed it was the right thing. So we gave it some time and now we feel it’s time to play and record.» Ismaeel says the ambition is back. This summer they decided to give it a proper recording and then give it to the hands of a good sound engineer. They chose Alan.

«It’s like a concert that never started.» Timur talks about last year’s revolution. He grins. «This is not to say people were not going for it. They did.» People asked for a change – no matter what it might lead to eventually. Many women, men, young and old, were demonstrating their readiness to stand up for change to take place and when political power challenged them, they did not step back. They felt that this could be a decisive time and they were ready for it.

Timur, Brutus’ second gitarrist (besides Wes)

What became a process of moral courage for a good part of the civil society in those revolution days of 2011, for metal musicians and fans it had already been their reality for a long while. From the first moment getting into metal they were stigmatized by society as weirdoes. When it comes to one kind of music, there is not much around it: you are either attracted by it or you are not. If you are, there are two choices: you either follow your attraction or you deny it. Why should you act against what you feel is your nature?

The reason for being stigmatized the way metal related people were is not easy to understand. Apart from a certain dress code, metal-heads shared particularly in the 90s, something they share with many other musical genres, there isn’t much differentiating this music from any other. But the impact of prejudices, however motivated, was always strong here and it led to metal-heads perceiving themselves as outsiders, and thus also acting as such.

In Egypt most metal musicians have educational backgrounds above the average. It comes with material pre-conditioning. Playing an instrument is expensive. Instruments are more costly than in Europe or the US. Playing an instrument is literally unaffordable for anybody below middle class. That includes second hand gear. For years musicians were struggling to be able to play, fighting for a socio-cultural space for metal. The money they had they put into making and producing their music – while knowing perfectly well, it would never generate a penny in return.

The connection between material wealth and education in Egypt goes along the same lines. Educational background, once there, helped them to emancipate from society’s prejudices. Knowing where they stand made it easier to stand for something. Metal musicians put a lot into their music. Channelling so many emotions – anger and hatred, sadness and passion – through their music – they won’t easily refrain from it.

Like in a Video Clip

Troll’s connection to metal has always been very emotional. He says, metal always related to his pronounced sense of justice and personal freedom. He felt he could only share these emotions within the metal community. Troll and Shang recall the January days of 2011 in Tahrir. «Talking about revolution in Egypt, I always have Sepultura’s «Chaos A.D.» in my ears. … when I walk in the revolution I feel the place, I feel I’m fighting for something, these people know exactly what they’re talking about, they’re not talking about the White House only. …they talk about what they feel towered them… So this is what I felt when I was in the revolution. I see the army, tanks and all these things and I’m listening to «Chaos A.D.» and I’m just seeing …» «Oh god, this is true!» Shang falls in. «…the same video clip …» «There’s a tank out there, yes!» «… the same video clip of Sepultura in real, in Cairo, while the revolution was running!»

In a sense it might be easier for metal musicians to relate to the political consequences of post-revolution. There is a pronounced sense of reality among them. Most believe that there will be a period of even less freedom of any kind of cultural expression or at least a transition period. But the one thing the revolution of 2011 triggered amongst metal-heads and non-metal-heads alike, is the ineffaceable feeling when circumstances once again start to get tough, or «towering», as Troll said, people will go back to the streets. The way Troll perceived what was going on in Tahrir is a scene present on the mind of many musicians. Shang, relating to what he saw in the revolution days, remembers: «That’s another point, I like to mention it! When I listen to whatever metal music – any song – I imagine a clip for this song and this clip depends on true life! – there is no music that can give you that – but metal.»

Back to Alexandria

Tarek is driving fast along Alexandria’s nightly Corniche. Worm’s music fills the car, loud and through the staccato of the drum machine, Tarek describes the political situation in Egypt. He and his wife Nancy have been political activists since their study days. While people meet in Tahrir in Cairo there’s the same movement in the streets of Alexandria these days’ nights. We are invited to sleep in their apartment, which they share with 14 cats. Nancy is a cat lover and the place is a cat asylum. In a moment of silence we look at each other and start laughing. The drink-cat-blood story ridicules our mind. The next day Tarek takes us to Samadie. We want to learn about the background of Worm, one band mentioned by all other bands as kind of godfathers of metal in Egypt.

Nancy‘s and Tarek‘s kitchen

Samadie sucks on his electric cigarette. He is sitting on the bed in his bedroom. He and Tarek recall the story around their first concert in Alexandria. The beginning days of the band was a chain of improvisation. Tarek says: «The concert was like in a month so … whatever we could find, we …» (they both move their arms as if gathering things and Samadie continues:) «Well actually… I thought to myself – fuck – it’s a band right now. With no drummer … (they laugh) … basically I didn’t even set up anything … I was just playing guitar (Samadie plays air guitar, tenderly) and the music on my PC … now there’s a band (both laugh, again) …oookay, we’re gonna get some noise going on. … so … we just make it to the concert, … and I thought it’s gonna be a flop…» Tarek falls in: «No no, wait, remember? The first thing when we came in was a guy asking: «Are you Samadie?» (Tarek imitates Samadie, in a monotonous voice, says:) «Yeah» «Are you with Worm?» «Yeah» «Are you playing with the drum machine?» »Yeah»» (both burst into laughter and, simultaneously, say:) «God help you man.»

Samadie from Worm in his home studio

Tracks and Videos

Scarab: «Ankh» from Blinding the Masses (2009)

Massive Scar Era: «Pray»

Dark Philosophy: «The Break Down» @ Sawy Culture Wheel February 2012

Ahl Sina: Sawy Culture Wheel September 2009

Crescent: «Jerusalem»

Sepultura: «Refuse/Resist» from Chaos A.D.(1993)