Egyptian Beats for the Global Apocalypse




FOR MUCH OF 2017, I lived on a houseboat in Cairo, the capital of Egypt. My three-bedroom apartment was on the second floor of a wooden building berthed on the banks of the Nile. Resting on floaters, the structure often creaked and swayed to the currents, while the balcony offered a front-row view to passing party boats. The scrappy vessels were fitted with outboard motors, decorated in LED lights and Egyptian and Saudi flags (all the better to attract tourists from the Gulf). Couples, teenagers, and tourists would hire the boats out by the hour, and captains would provide onboard entertainment by blasting music at top volume from scratchy speakers. All day and night, interspersed between calls to prayer over mosque PAs, I could hear the driving rhythms and Autotuned hooks of local artists like Figo, Sadat, and Oka wi Ortega. The kooky keyboard pitch-bends and synth-flute riffs of Mohamed Abdel Salam’s instrumental hit “Mizmar Abdel Salam” were always audible somewhere in the near distance.

I think of my time on the houseboat when I listen to Doomsday Survival Kit (Akuphone, 2018), the new album by Praed, a duo from Beirut. Over four tracks, musicians Raed Yassin and Paed Conca merge elements of contemporary classical composition — in the style of composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich — with the pulsing keyboards and driving percussion of Egyptian shaabi (“popular”) music. The songs feature samples of Egyptian keyboardists and artists, playing the same style of music that I often heard booming out over the Nile, and the album captures the same dizzying effect I became familiar with in Cairo. On every track, the beat drives and the melodic parts cycle in and out, creating hypnotic atmospheres and eerie dissonances. It’s an album of perpetual motion, always slightly off balance, seemingly ready to combust at any moment.

Shaabi comes from the Arabic word for “people,” and the term refers to the culture of the common man and the street. Shaabi songs are sung in colloquial Arabic — the everyday spoken language, not the classical Arabic mastered by Egypt’s great midcentury diva Oum Kalthoum. In Cairo, you can hear a syncopated shaabi rhythm called the maqsoom thumping out of microbuses, taxi cabs, tuk-tuks, and Nile party boats. The songs play a central role in wedding celebrations, where friends and family will gather to fête a newlywed couple over an ecstatic night of feasting and dancing. The songs are also common at cabarets, after-hours haunts for bellydancing and drinking, patronized only by the most formidable party animals and debauched souls in this predominantly Muslim country.

Today, the most popular shaabi music in Cairo is a style called mahraganat, which means “festivals.” (The music is also sometimes referred to as “electro shaabi.”) First emerging in the mid-to-late 2000s, mahraganat tracks are made on the computer, featuring pounding maqsoom beats and melodic Autotuned raps. Pioneering producers and singers like Amr Haha, Sadat, Alaa Fifty, and Oka wi Ortega come from Cairo’s poorest areas, and their music is often dismissed as sexist, vulgar, and unfashionable, especially by middle- and upper-class Egyptian audiences. Yet the music has also been hailed by critics as a creative breakthrough, celebrated for its raw energy and innovative approach to production and style.

The rise of mahraganat, and the growing international popularity of other forms of Arabic shaabi music — like the dabke of Syrian singer Omar Souleyman — has inspired many underground and experimental artists from across the Middle East and North Africa. In Cairo, the record label 100Copies began as an experimental outlet, but in recent years has transformed into a production and promotion company fully devoted to mahraganat. One of the members of label, the raucous keyboardist Islam Chipsy, has followed in the footsteps of Souleyman, marshalling his raw energy and shaabi credentials to reach a new audience on international tours. Meanwhile, projects like Maurice Louca’s 2015 album Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot) and the album Lekhfa (a collaboration between Louca and fellow Cairo artists Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Maryam Saleh) brilliantly incorporate shaabi elements, like modal synthesizer riffs, maqsoom rhythms, and colloquial poetry.

In many ways, Praed grows out of this context, and on Doomsday Survival Kit, Arabic percussion and Egyptian shaabi rhythms serve as the driving pulse to infinity loops of synthesizer, clarinet, saxophone, and guitar. Middle Eastern maqam modes weave in alongside major-key, Western phrasings. Members Yassin and Conca are not Egyptian, and neither come from a shaabi background. But as they capture the energy and rhythm of shaabi music, it raises the question: has Praed created a fresh and genuine sound through their repurposing of Egyptian street music, or are they forcing a combination of ideas that will never reconcile?

In 2015, writing for the Arabic music magazine Ma3azef, the musician and writer Rami Abadir invoked Steve Reich in a thoughtful analysis of mahraganat. Abadir points out that as Reich sought to develop a new framework for minimalist composition, he drew from his studies of foreign musical traditions, namely Ghanaian drumming and Indonesian gamelan. Abadir argues that mahraganat artists do something similar when they appropriate the digital tools and musical techniques of American hip-hop to create their own genre of music.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “world music” stars like Paul Simon would pay African or Middle Eastern artists top dollar in order to leverage local sounds that they knew nothing about in order to make global hits. Other artists would hitch Western rock together with genres like Algerian raï in what would turn out to be clumsy, clichéd, and borderline offensive “East-West” fusions. One glaring example is Cheikha Rimitti’s 1994 album Sidi Mansour, in which the legendary Algerian singer’s powerfully husky voice and the woody tones of the gasba flute become submerged in a confusing mess of prog-rock guitar and slap bass, courtesy Robert Fripp and Flea.

By contrast, Abadir argues that mahraganat is an innately and authentically Egyptian sound. It’s full of local street slang, driven by local rhythms. The use of Autotune comes directly from the influence of T-Pain and Kanye West, sure, but the digital voice-correction tool’s fundamental purpose is to give untrained singers from the street a chance to brighten their personalities and hit the right notes, to let them be tough and in tune at the same time. As Abadir writes:

[Mahraganat artists] could have simply fused rap with colloquial Egyptian Arabic over a background of pop music or US hip-hop, but in a rationale similar to that of Reich, they only externally borrowed from hip-hop, such as in the employment of audio samples, rhythmic interludes, sound effects and a digital recording program. The result was not an Arabic hip-hop fusion, but a new kind of music that appropriated elements of hip-hop and moved pop or shaabi music to a new area with a new voice.

Discussions over heritage, authenticity, and appropriation have long been a part of Arabic music. Abadir’s argument centers on the idea that a sound that’s authentic in its originality must have something solid and fundamental at its core. It’s a crucial demand, especially in a region like the Middle East, where art and culture has suffered greatly, and traditions have been erased in the violent upheavals of colonialism, displacement, occupation, and Orientalist misrepresentation.

Praed, however, seems to have little interest in hewing to notions of authenticity or heritage. The title of Doomsday Survival Kit was inspired by online conspiracy theorists, who advertise gear to protect against the apocalypse. In their music, Yassin and Conca assemble their own survival kit of sorts, drawing from disparate ideas and inspirations as they poke fun at sacred cows and recreate the pop culture landscape in their own image. Their solid core operates more like a blender: “We pull many things through the grinder: audio tracks of old Egyptian or Japanese movies, speeches of Arabian dictators, propaganda music, field recordings from the Lebanese civil war, and many other things,” Conca said in a 2010 interview with Norient.

Raed and Paed first started playing together in 2006. Yassin is a visual artist and musician born in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. He’s the founder of the record label Annihaya and one of the organizers of Irtijal, an annual festival of experimental music in Beirut. Conca, originally from Switzerland, is a musician and composer who often writes for theater, film, and dance. They first met when Conca played at Irtijal as a member of a Dutch jazz band, and they decided to form their own duo on a lark. “Originally he’s a bass player. I’m originally a double-bass player — I play the contrabass. Our name is Paed and Raed, so as a joke we said we should do a duo and call it Praed. It can be a bass duo,” Yassin said in a talk at the Sharjah Art Foundation, an arts organization in the United Arab Emirates, where the two musicians performed in November as part of a 13-piece ensemble dubbed the Praed Orchestra!.

Praed’s first two albums, 2008’s The Muesli Man and 2011’s Made in Japan, find them experimenting wildly with methods, forms, and source materials. Later, on 2016’s Fabrication of Silver Dreams, they crank up the intensity of their own Technicolor street rhythms, Yassin’s synths and beats pounding through sidewinding rhythms and clashing against Conca’s squeaky clarinet.

Yassin has traveled to Egypt many times over the years. Cairo, the capital, is one of the great hubs for music and culture in the Arab world, and their fascination with Egyptian street music first took root when he spent a summer living in the city’s famously hectic downtown for an artist residency in 2008. Though he never heard any shaabi songs get played on the radio, countless speaker systems and car stereos were outfitted with USB ports, so drivers and other wannabe DJs could simply plug in a USB key full of MP3s and crank up the volume. “There’s this open-air cabaret in the city somehow, and it creates this kind of trance,” Yassin recalled.

Praed has toured internationally over the years, playing in Europe, Japan, and Canada. They’ve also performed in “big band” versions of the group, adding on other collaborators to fill out their live sound. But their irreverent vision of contrasts and contradictions came into its most ambitious form when they played as the Praed Orchestra! in November. There, they truly became a shaabi band of their own sublimely bizarre creation.

The ensemble performed on Saturday, November 3, on an outdoor stage in a public square in the city of Sharjah. The concert was commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, and the band performed near the foundation’s offices in the city’s “heritage district,” an ornate and labyrinthine complex of coral-brick museums and exhibition spaces in the heart of the city. Praed recruited a cast of friends and longtime collaborators to play with them onstage: members of the orchestra hailed from as far off as Cairo, Moscow, and Montreal. Among them were specialists in experimental rock, electronic music, free-jazz, and improvisation. Instruments included oud and buzuq (Middle Eastern lutes), saxophone, bass clarinet, laptop, live drums, and electric harp.

I was flown in to attend the show along with three other journalists, with plane tickets and hotel rooms paid for by the foundation. The concert was open to the public, and there were about 300 people in attendance, a mix of hip-looking young men and women, families with kids in tow, and curious South Asian workers who’d wandered in from the nearby souk. Embroidered cushions, sofas, and Persian carpets were laid down in front of the stage, and the smell of pizza wafted from a stand, carried along by a pleasant evening breeze.

After two announcers gave a formal introduction of the group, the Berlin singer Ute Wassermann jolted the crowd to attention with a startling operatic howl. A master of extended vocal techniques, she began the show with a blazing solo of bestial squeals, folkloric yodels, and tremulous tones reminiscent of an out-of-control Theremin. I could hear snickers and giggles in the audience, but then people went silent as her performance climaxed in an unholy eruption of dissonant keyboards. Afterward, the Montreal-based free-jazz composer Sam Shalabi stepped in to deliver a meditative, freeform oud solo.

Yassin cued up a pounding Egyptian beat on his laptop, heralding the start of “Doomsday Survival Kit,” the title track of Praed’s new album. There was a sampled maqsoom beat, crashing cymbals and riffs of saxophone and bass clarinet. The group sounded like they were following a straight, 4/4 time signature, but in fact the rhythm was alternating between 10/4 and 14/4 — a spinning top on a tilted axis. Melodic motifs kept entering the fray, and everything felt slightly askew, with no easy resolution and no indication of where it would all end.

The group built into a delirious fever pitch, and then Yassin and Alan Bishop stepped up to deliver a duet. Bishop is known for his work with the pioneering Arizona experimental band Sun City Girls and the label Sublime Frequencies; he also plays with Shalabi and Maurice Louca in the Cairo trio the Dwarfs of East Agouza. As the laptop beats pulsed, Yassin and Bishop took on the roles of two shaabi singers — kings of the party positioned at the front of the stage. But instead of giving shout-outs to the newly betrothed, or belting out the latest hits, they screeched and howled in a Dadaist language all their own.

By the time the two-hour performance was over, half the audience had cleared out. Still, poking and prodding seemed to be part of the point. “The space between me and the other is interesting, much more than if we agree on things,” Yassin explained later, at a lecture scheduled the next day to explain the Praed Orchestra!’s performance. “This also is the dynamic of the duo, Praed, because we are so different from each other. Sometimes when Paed hates a band, I like it so much. He’s vegetarian, I’m not. He always wears suits, I wear T-shirts. He’s the one sitting, reading music, and I’m just jumping around. There’s this contradiction, and I think we wanted to extend this to the orchestra, where everyone is different from the other.”

To make Doomsday Survival Kit, Yassin and Conca traveled to Cairo to record samples of shaabi keyboardists and percussionists. Back home, they cut up the recordings, rearranging them into odd-meter rhythms, over which Conca composed arrangements for woodwind and other instruments. The dissonances and odd elements come across as thoughtful and intentional: Yassin’s beats pulse and push in deceptively complex ways, always shifting their center of gravity. Conca plays clarinet more confidently than before, and his melodic phrasings produce catchy hooks but never resolve on the downbeat.

Listening to the album can feel like being spun in circles: you don’t know whether to surrender to the vortex, or get out while you still can. It’s evocative of the kind of intensity and tension that pulses daily through globalized megacities like Cairo, where massive population growth and urbanization, economic uncertainty and political repression manifest in ways big and small. “The album is a reflection of our contemporary world,” Conca explains in an email. “Wherever you look, it feels like we are heading into the apocalypse very soon, whether economically, politically, or environmentally speaking. There is a limitation of movement and freedom, a difference in possibilities depending on where you’re from.”

In that way, Doomsday Survival Kit is not a tawdry “East West” fusion at all. As they seize on the energy and rhythm of shaabi music, Praed creates a platform for deeper ruminations about a world that itself is spiraling out of control. The album isn’t a grandiose statement so much as an invitation, a plunge into an underground bunker where people have already gathered and made a home for themselves. Join us as we batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, the band seems to say. And don’t forget the drinks.

¤

Peter Holslin is a freelance journalist, music writer, and musician originally from San Diego, California.


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