Waiting for the show to start at Rawabet Theater Sunday night, I struck up a conversation with two members of El-Kahwa, a fresh-faced group trying to break into Cairo’s modern Oriental rock scene.
Lead guitarist Weka, 18, and vocalist Moustafa, the band’s grandfather at 21, were excited to take the stage with Dima Band, a well-established favorite on the small venue circuit. More than their biographical information – which at their age could fit on a post-it note – I was curious to hear the young musicians’ sentiments about the scene they’re trying to crack.
“The scene’s not bad, said Weka. “You’re not going to get a lot of money from this business. It’s more like a hobby. There are amazing festivals, but they work out because of invitations. Nobody pays anything.
Moustafa was less ambiguous: “People here just want singles. They don’t take music seriously. It’s very hard to find a producer, and without a producer there’s no one to market our music.
How did Wust El-Balad make it to the major league, I wondered. Moustafa was quick to clarify: “Wust El-Balad made it because they have a producer. But his statement begged the question; should every upstart band expect to walk right into a production contract after a handful of amateur concerts?
I’ve frequented shows at places like Rawabet and the Culture Wheel recently, and I’ve seen a range of talent. Some groups barely know how to hold their instruments, while others – like El-Dor El-Awal – practically tear the house down. Most groups fall somewhere in between, all too often leaning toward the hobbyist side of the scale.
The fact that total hacks can book the same stages as internationally recognized artists says much for the inclusive attitude of Cairo’s small venues, all of which should be commended for their efforts to foster community arts initiatives.
At the same time, the accessibility of venues to totally unproven musicians makes it difficult for talented groups to rise above the din. When a group of high schoolers and college freshmen like El-Kahwa take the stage at the Cairo Jazz Club – which happened a few weeks ago -the Jazz Club can no longer claim to host the city’s best musicians, at least not with a straight face.
Venues with strong, selective lineups have a trickle-down effect on any given music scene – they give new groups a goal to shoot for, and they give established groups a degree of recognition. A solid venue’s lineup also influences the public’s idea of what’s good and what’s garbage. Such venues are distinctly lacking in Cairo, and I’m beginning to wonder what effect that has on the quality of the scene as a whole, and on the development of aspiring Egyptian musicians.
Take Dima Band as an example. Dima’s fan base is substantial – they regularly fill the benches at Rawabet, and they’re on the tip of every scenester’s tongue – but when it comes to musical cohesion, they’re a wreck. Wissam Sultan’s acid rock-inspired wanderings jive with Dima’s traditional percussion section about as effectively as Amy Winehouse jives with Jack Daniels. It’s not a pretty picture. During an hour-long set, Dima scrambled together one or two keepers, but only when they stuck to their skill level, only when they kept it short and simple. Whenever they ventured from the sing-a-long, they were quickly lost in a tangle of confused transitions, rushed solos and unnecessary complexity.
I had never seen Dima before, but I had heard so much about them that I was destined to be disappointed – and that’s exactly what happened.
It was nearly 11 pm by the time El-Kahwa took the stage, and I was not thinking generous thoughts. To my surprise, El-Kahwa – younger than Dima by as much as a decade – delivered a fluid set of tightly composed originals, no small feat for a group that has only been together for a few months.
Contrary to Dima, whose compositions were crowded and sloppy, El-Kahwa succeeded because there was ample space for each instrument and because they kept it simple. Weka – black-clad, pony-tailed, and all of a hundred pounds – resisted the urge to let loose his creeping Van Halen tendencies. He stood back and allowed the other instruments to be heard.
When he finally gets over his addiction to the distortion pedal, Weka will be a remarkable young lead guitarist.
Whereas Dima never quite laid a foundation under Sultan’s raspy solos, El-Kahwa’s sound was full and focused throughout. If they keep it up, El-Kahwa could join the ranks of Cairo bands that actually deserve their reputations. But the Cairo music scene where they are cutting their teeth is a revolving door, and the odds aren’t in their favor.
El-Kahwa will play the Nokia Festival in Cairo this coming Friday, Dec. 19. Headliners include El-Dor El-Awal and EFD Cassette. The festival could be a feather in El-Kahwa’s hat, but other less promising bands will be there too. One of them rhymes with the capital of Peru.