Noisey

How Revolution Galvanized Egypt's Electronic Underground

We spent a few nights at Sandbox festival, surveying the scene in a country wracked by political upheaval.

by Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
Jun 12 2017, 2:48pm

This post appeared originally on THUMP UK.

It's around 7PM on another warm evening just beyond the resort town of El Gouna, on Egypt's Red Sea coast. The setting sun is casting orange hues across a jaw-dropping desert horizon that's punctuated by distant mountains. Clanks and kicks roll through and reverberate against the towering dunes. Such is Sandbox Festival, an event catering to Egypt's dedicated band of hedonists that took place last month May 4-6.

If one thing is immediately clear, it's that Cairo-based promoters Nacelle, the crew responsible for the three day bash, know how to build a proper place to party. With a large main rig acting as a focal point, there are also hillside observation spots and quiet corners for that all-important downtime slump, replete with swings, deck chairs, and some very, very trippy visual installations.

Walking around the site you could easily forget you weren't in Europe, Saharan locale aside. Cosmic space cadets dance like freaks, caught in starry-eyed moments. Hipsters shuffle feet with purposefully projected style. Veteran ravers fuel the vibe. Meanwhile, we stand and watch with embarrassed surprise.

This isn't what a country half the world considers dangerous should look or sound like, but then ignorant assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups, as the saying goes. It's a point that quickly springs to mind when considering one key factor; since arriving we have only felt safe, experienced nothing but warm welcomes, and witnessed preconceptions vanish into the ether.

To put it into context, though, Egypt's recent history has been chaos on an unprecedented scale. One of six North African and Middle Eastern nations involved in the Arab Spring, protests resulted in full scale revolution in 2011, toppling former-president Mubarak, whose rule began in 1981.

His replacement, Morsi, made it little over 12 months before a military coup then saw yet another change in government. The incumbent Sisi has been in office since, and the nation's tourist economy has continued to suffer from widespread concerns. Church bombings, downed airliners, and security concerns at major historic sights are just three of the factors behind plummeting visitor numbers.

Given that, and numerous other problems facing the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of Trump's election and you'd be forgiven for assuming that the house and techno scenes aren't of primary concern to many Egyptians. Yet against a troubled backdrop, there's been a growing appetite for the kind of escapism dance music offers, centered largely around the efforts of Cairo's liberal youth. I wanted to check out this emerging interest for myself and Sandbox, the largest event of it's kind in the country, provided the perfect opportunity to do it.

The festival's second night saw us spending several hours bouncing around to music provided by Jen Ferrer, an LA-based one-to-watch, revered live stalwart The Mole, and one of the best DJs on the circuit round now, Mike Servito. During the course of the evening, a local real estate worker became a comrade in arms. We met up with Ahmed the next afternoon by the festival's picturesque shoreline to talk about the stereotypes people carry around about conservative Muslim countries.

"To be honest, there are conservative people in Egypt. It's not like that doesn't exist," Ahmed says. "But then there are people like us—free minded, who like to travel abroad, go to festivals, Ibiza, Amsterdam, Barcelona, party with other people. And we learn from what we see and bring some of that home from Europe and America."

The revolution, Ahmed tells us, saw people "partying like crazy." Unsure of what to expect from the near future, young Egyptians were going all out, creating a kind of resistance through partying and pleasure. He says that despite this, Sisi's government are no more tolerant and accepting of said culture than the predecessors. "It's just the same—there are lots of restrictions," he notes, before going on to add that things in "third world countries take longer," when it comes to creating a climate in which clubbing is allowed to flourish and thrive. "There's more bureaucracy, really tough rules so it's not as easy as in the UK or Spain, where you want a party and someone gives you a license." It isn't that easy here, as we've seen time and time again, but the point still stands.

Alaim is one of the people taking a risk, squaring up to the bureaucrats in an attempt to seek a kind of musical freedom. He promotes parties in the capitals, booking both homegrown acts and international talent on a monthly basis. Like most of the people I spoke to during my stay, he believes that Egypt's electronic moment has arrived—and it's here to stay.

"Things started off quite slow, back in like 2001 to 2005," he says. "The scene got quite big after that and then kind of shut down a little, or at least it wasn't that available." Alaim notes that after the revolution occurred, things picked up again, different genres were being discovered, and parties became more focused on music than they'd been in the recent past.

Not everyone enjoyed this new-found artistic freedom, though. "They're not really supportive of it, that's not the right word," he says of the authorities. "But they know it's happening. The government can be quite picky and try to interfere with events. If they have a chance they will try to screw you around, shut off a venue. They can do that. But it's like ups and downs, good cop-bad cop."

Sandbox might have attracted DJs from foreign fields but there was a strong emphasis on homegrown selectors. Hassan Abou Alam was one of them. When we asked him about how much of a network there was in the country for budding DJs and producers, he was keen to mention labels like Electrum Records and Bestworks, the former being "possibly the first in Egypt for real electronic music."

He name-checks Vent, a series of live events and club nights mostly taking place in Cairo, as a promoter to keep an eye on. "The best party I've been to in Cairo was hosted by those guys, I think it was like Patricia and Cloudface playing," he says. "Everything was analogue, very experimental music, something very new to the city." For Hassan, this is as close as Cairo gets to a genuine underground.

"Basically, it's not got to where it wants to be, but the country is going somewhere with this," he adds. "Something is happening here. This is not where it stops, things are evolving, the last three or four years have been amazing and we're still not peaking. It's great to see Sandbox gaining exposure for that."

Western analysis of the Middle East often focuses on women's rights. For many looking in at the region from so-called "progressive" countries, the fight against misogyny is a defining characteristic of many Arab nations. Horror stories emerge from the strictest administrations, say Dubai or Saudi Arabia, on a regular basis. With that in mind, we were keen to track down Zeina, another Egyptian DJ gracing the decks at Sandbox.

For Zeina, who runs Unfamiliar, an all-female party that takes place in Cairo and Berlin, living in Egypt as a woman in a creative industry is about accepting that the celebration of small victories is kept at bay by backward steps. "The word 'change,'" she tells me, "is difficult to feel, and quantify."

She points to the limited pool of female of DJs in the city as an example how things aren't changing as rapidly as people would like. She started Unfamiliar to break up "the boys club," but stresses that the line-ups are considered and curated carefully. "I'm really not interested in throwing a bunch of women that are unrelated sound-wise into a line-up just for the sake of making a statement—so it's more about a great night of music that happens to have women in control." she says.

As she points out, Egypt isn't an easy place for anyone to decipher—especially an outsider like myself. "It's really difficult to unpack," says Zeina. "Beyond considerations of gender, a cluster of factors like deep class divisions, amongst other things, are potential barriers to going out to hear electronic music or being a DJ in general." Despite those complications, Zeina believes that pursuing a career as a female DJ or producer is possible. Patience and a "willingness to create your own opportunities when they don't exist," are two key factors she cites.

Again, she backs up the theory that upheaval and uncertainty helped the scene.

"I was not in Egypt during the revolution—but when I visited shortly afterwards there seemed to be a moment of magic for DIY spaces and concepts for art and music," she says. "Some of these still exist now, some had a good run and then eventually gave in to either financial or bureaucratic struggles."

The stories expressed by those in this article show how the most populous country in the Arab world could never be understood through Western news reports alone, and other people we spoke to during our stay, who preferred to keep their conversations off the record, gave further evidence of this. If religion and politics, resolutely sensitive subjects, were strictly off-limits for pretty much everyone we spoke to, that was largely because they're seen as separate to the escapism offered by events like Sandbox, and parties throughout the nation. As in so many countries, young Egyptians are using dancing as a way of losing themselves.

Narrow-minded at best, we landed in Egypt expecting to find a movement at odds with the powers that be. Instead discovering that faith and belief systems, or indeed anything other than a shared love for music, are irrelevant, at least in the eyes of the attendees we met. The important thing is—as obvious as it sounds—unity through good times and great tunes.

"What I do know is there is a captive audience here ready to love this shit with all their heart. I don't want to think we are bigger or smaller than what we are—a group of people trying to celebrate a culture, and trying to push the production standards," explains Tito El Kachab, chief spokesperson for Nacelle. "We're just trying to do our thing, and don't want to relate it... the only relation politics would have to us is if they shut down our permit. For us it's just a bunch of fun-loving people, the same as anywhere else and any other scene in the world."