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Cairo’s alternative rock scene blossoms at Sawy

On Friday, July 30, Sawy Culturewheel treated over 700 listeners to an alternative rock battle of the bands in which 10 Egyptian bands vied for the best original alternative song of the year title. Organized to showcase the changing face of contemporary Egyptian music, the event was the first of its kind. Each group played …


On Friday, July 30, Sawy Culturewheel treated over 700 listeners to an alternative rock battle of the bands in which 10 Egyptian bands vied for the best original alternative song of the year title.

Organized to showcase the changing face of contemporary Egyptian music, the event was the first of its kind. Each group played two songs, which were assessed by a panel of judges including Ramey Reda and Wust El Balad members, Haney Adel, Adham Saeed, and Ahmad Omran.

First place went to City Band’s “Feya haga” (Something Inside Me). The band boasted catchy rhythms and engaging vocals reminiscent of Counting Crows’ upbeat pieces, and also contributed the evening’s only down-tempo piece that really worked. The band’s sound is a mix of influences as diverse as blues, funk, jazz, rock, zekr, Caribbean and reggae, said band member Ahmed Mostafa (lead guitar and vocals).

Like many of the participating bands, City Band aims to deliver a strong message through their music and at the same time to show people a good time. “Our lyrics reflect mainly the political and social issues in Egypt, and are targeted toward all layers of the society. We maintain a steady groove, and we give the audience a chance to dance and to laugh and to sing along and to cry and to light up lighters and waive them in the air,” said Mostafa.

“We try our best to give people the best we’ve got … so that they will have fun in the couple of hours they spend listening to us.”

Ashra Gharby took a surprise second place for their song “Bianolla.” Artistically, the band is open to everything, closed to nothing. They seek to reach out to listeners using simple lyrics reflecting social realities. While the group’s Caribbean-sounding beats were enough to initially pique the curiosity, the instrumentals soon fell victim to a monotony matched by equally uninspired lead vocals.

Uss We Laz2 won third place with “El-Fares” (The Knight). Indisputably one of the better performances of the night, the band offered up an engaging and mischievous sound, with outstanding female lead Mina Hussein incorporating Shakira’s sultry energy and swinging hips.

“Our music reflects our culture which is a mix between the original culture of our country as well as international culture,” said band member Mostafa Samy (bamboo flute).

A brainchild of Ismael “Soly” Suleiman five years in the making, the group leans towards stylistic diversity. The performance began with a strong Latin flavor, then detoured from Ska beats to 1980s-inspired electronic keyboard to a beatbox aside before returning to its Latin backbone.

The group’s self-defined mix of rock, jazz, reggae and funk could easily seem scattered, but coming from Uss We Laz2, it all makes sense.

The judges’ prize was awarded to Ta2feel Masry, who opened the festival with an explosive dose of crooning vocals and melodic guitar riffs reminiscent of classic rock hits such as Boston’s “More than a Feeling.”

Surprising falsetto from lead singer Mohamed Hassan paired with screaming guitars from Weka lent the group’s second piece the same epic energy and mournful sound of Guns N’ Roses circa “November Rain.” Since it was formed in 2007, the band has made various appearances at Sawy and on television, and will be featured in a TV series scheduled to air this Ramadan.

Arguably one of the best performances of the night, Kayan, failed to take a prize. With thumping drumbeat, shoegazing guitar solos and nimble lyrics, this shining star hearkens back to German band Wir Sind Helden, while bearing clear traces of Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica.

The band was founded by Mohamed Sameer (lead guitar and vocals) and Ahmed Nabil (lead vocals) in 2007 with one simple goal: improving people through music. Wholesome self-improvement may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the band’s old school metal sound rips and roars through the night, but they certainly improve one’s evening.

Taxi treated listeners to lighthearted don’t-worry-be-happy strumming and sweet-and-sour vocals recounting tales of faltering romance with a solid beat to sharpen the edge. While not overly memorable, there’s no denying that the band’s cheerful sound is catchy and has a lot of potential for development.

Tamazzik Band also showed significant creative potential, pairing energetic vocals with a persistent Ska beat and trumpet which used Harmon and other mutes to produce an interesting, dance-inspiring sound.

But with the sweet comes the sour. Several bands drove home an adage that would-be alt-rockers should remember: in this genre, ballads are the exception, not the rule. As such, they should be handled with care. The same goes for bringing unconventional instruments into the fray.

Using a plethora of instruments to produce an “interesting” sound is in vogue for a good reason: performers like the Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird have created masterpieces using this kind of acoustic creativity. When it works, it works well. To make it work, however, one needs an edge, and sharp coordination.

While there’s nothing wrong with Ala Wara2’s ballad-style harmonization per se, it belongs at a folk festival. The band’s flute solos and sentimental lyrics fell flat after inspired and energetic performances from Ta2feel Masry and Kayan. This is not to say the band is without potential: Amr El-Sawy and Dina Salam are talented vocalists and they had some very interesting moments of New Pornographers-esque sass standing on the shoulders of an edgy base guitar backdrop.

Off to a slow soprano start, Klaket Band abruptly shifted into a growling haze of bass guitars with an edge hard enough to rival AC/DC. Without warning, they dropped back into Enya territory, and then did it all over again. Purportedly a mix of rock, jazz, and other influences, these lurches in tempo and volume leave one with the feeling that the group aches to collapse into something softer, but maintains a guilty obligation to rock out, in a nod to the genre of the evening. The group should develop their strength: the strong vocals accompanied by base guitar work, the down-tempo ballads don’t.

Sudfa faces a similar choice. Skipping between plaintiff pleas to recapture lost years of life and noiserock interludes, the edgier components of this performance seemed more disruption than anchor. This is not to say that there were not interesting moments, such as antique oud acoustics paired with the grunge of Nine Inch Nails.

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Uss We Laz2 won third place with their song “El Fares” (The Knight). (Photo by Mohammed Hesham)

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