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May 2008  Volume # 29  Issue 05 
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Conscious of its community reputation, Sawy Cultur
December 2007
We Will Rock You
A decade after being attacked for “worshipping Satan” (to say nothing of general delinquency), hard rock and heavy metal fans are taking steps back into the mainstream
By Ali El-Bahnasawy

A mid red and blue swirling lights, fast riffs and pounding drums tear out of the speakers. Hit songs are delivered at an eardrum-tearing volume, but it is the crowd’s enthusiastic roars that seem to shake the place to its foundations.

It’s a metal concert and everyone here is a fan. Metal fans are not a fickle crowd: They tend to be loyal to the bands and to the genre itself for their whole lives. At a Deep Purple, Metallica or Slayer concert, don’t be surprised to find yourself crammed among students and those who were in school 20 years ago, all banging heads and pumping fists together.

Loud music is back in Egypt, trying this time to maintain a cleaner image. After all, this is the genre that not so long ago was publicly vilified as violent, drug-related and anti-religious. Is the local music scene ready for a rock revival? Can metalheads still fill the concert venues?

Flashback to the 1990s, the glory days of heavy metal music. “In some concerts we exceeded 15,000 fans in a single night,” 28-year-old Mahmoud Hussein metal fan and owner of a small computer software company, reminisces. “Those were Marlboro’s Monsters of Rock concerts, when we had 10 bands in a row playing all day long. But it all ended by 1997, after seven years of loud-music heaven.”

In the late 90s, the independent weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef published photos of teenagers wearing black outfits and standing on an inverted cross drawn in blood. Thereafter, a number of other local newspapers published pictures taken at a hard rock concert along with assertions that the audience was listening to satanic worship in the songs — which, the media claimed, glorified death, murder and anti-religious sentiments. The government then laid siege to the loud-music scene, arresting anyone attending or organizing metal or hard rock concerts.

“Thirty or more of our friends were arrested and later released without charges,” says Tarek Fahmy, a former member of the band Osiris. The 28-year old metalhead now works as a regional sales supervisor for an overseas company. “No concerts were held after that; metal music became a curse for any sponsor and no one was willing to risk his image. Of course that ended the career of a whole generation of rock and metal musicians — they had no chance of survival in such a hostile climate.

Conscious of its community reputation, Sawy Culture Wheel carefully vets the heavy metal bands it books.

“But I assure you that it was not true that anyone in Egypt was worshipping Satan or involved in what they were writing in their newspaper, it was a media [stunt].”

It is not clear why society was so harsh in its judgments of hard rock and metal fans as anti-religious. It could be the ‘look,’ that gothic facade, all black outfits, copious body piercings and tattoos. To critics, the goth look just feeds the public perception that fans belong to a questionable, underground group.

Amira Khaled is a 22-year-old psychologist and a fan of loud music. She doesn’t fit that visual stereotype of a metalhead: She wears clothes with color, no obvious tattoos, no skull or pentagram jewelry. Khaled says that it’s not the look that makes a metal fan. “We don’t try to be different, because we are different in the way we approach music. For us, music is not only the lyrics or the dance, it is a part of our life, definitely a huge part. I think it helped [in] shaping my character. It made me unafraid of being different.”

But being different has a price. When she was a teenaged psychology major at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Khaled proudly wore black T-shirts with her favorite bands’ logos — and felt the stigma. “Some of my colleagues were cautious dealing with me in university,” she admits, “but for us, the fans, it is a [matter of] loyalty [to] the band. If you admire a band that much you will try to look like they look and wear their T-shirts, it’s that simple. Fans of different types of music do that. They put up posters for Amr Diab or wear ‘Ministry of Sound’ T-shirts, so why we can’t do the same? Do you expect me to go to a metal concert wearing a pink t-shirt? Of course I won’t.”

Making the Big Break

In the past, metal fans heading out to a concert had to put something over that beloved band shirt. Five years ago, hard rock or metal bands trying to organize a party had to go underground: They’d rent a deserted villa, spread the word among fans and pray that a decent number would show up to cover their expenses. Not much has changed. Fans still head out to the show under cover, the T-shirts concealed until they arrive at the concert site. As more venues open around the capital, however, the de facto ban on loud music is being subtly breached.

Mainstream venues like El-Sawy Culture Wheel (aka El-Saqia) and Cairo Jazz Club have opened their doors, albeit cautiously, to hard rock bands, allowing them to stage a concert and communicate publicly with their fans. But the musicians had to win them over.

Sief El-Din Moussa, a 29-year-old drummer for the band Wyvern, tells of the time they tried to organize their first concert in a public place. “I went to meet El-Saqia’s owner. When I told him that it [would] be a metal / hard rock concert, he was concerned about the crowd. However, we gave him assurances that we will bring private security men to search the crowd at the doors for drugs and alcohol. We maintained the clean environment of the place and had a great party. Afterwards, they asked us to schedule another one, and we had another successful concert.”

It’s one thing to win over the venue owners; winning over the listening public is something entirely different. The music scene has changed dramatically since the late 90s. We are witnessing the rise of an increasingly commercial music, with significantly less substance, pouring into the ears of the young audience. Despite the substantial changes in society in the last decade, popular music remains fixated on love and relationships

“It hasn’t changed in spite of the other problems that we have — the political, the social and the economic,” says Madiha El Safty, an AUC professor of sociology. “We expected to see our songs directed toward something more constructive.

Underground no more: Crowds gather ready to rock.

“Denial is part of our culture. If you hear what the politicians, the economists and what everybody has to say, [it’s] that we are a paradise on earth,” says El Safty. “Because we deny, we turn away from our problems. That is a part of our culture, unfortunately, and we copy that to our songs and TV shows. Nothing can be better than what we are in now. It’s the perfect thing. It’s Utopia.”

Loud music bands don’t buy into mainstream music’s version of Utopia. So how does a group that mainly sings about issues like war, political affairs and social issues, find a place in a scene dominated by saccharine love songs?

“[Part] of [our message] is to talk about society’s drawbacks and criticize those who make music ‘sex for sale,’ Wyvern’s Moussa says. “It is the title of one of our songs, which describes how a lot of video clips and songs nowadays are only provoking youth’s desires with a lost meaning between the naked bodies on the display. Our ‘message’ is to perform our favorite type of music and deliver our point of view through our lyrics. This is what the music is about.”

Moussa, who holds an MBA and works as a marketing researcher, admits that band members aren’t quite ready to give up their day jobs. “It is hard to earn your living from music here in Egypt and still play the music you only like. You will have to play anything in order to have a decent income. That’s why I’m a member in two bands, Wyvern and Screwdriver. The latter is softer than Wyvern; we play at Cairo Jazz Club, embassy parties and many other occasions.”

The drummer / marketing researcher says there are a number of obstacles on the road to success. “We want to go international. We know that we have the talent required to occupy the stages out there, but we’re lacking both music production and financial production. We don’t have music producers here who can help us to manage our activities, keep an eye on what’s needed in the market and how we should present ourselves. In terms of music production we are way behind. And of course we need sponsorship from the music production companies to finance our projects and organize our tours.

“In few words, we lack the music industry as it is known abroad.”

Odious Success

It takes a long time, a creative approach and apparently an oud to break out of metal’s deserted villa circuit. Formed nearly 10 years ago, the black metal band Odious achieved international exposure this year with their first album Mirror of Vibrations, released in April.

Black metal is an extreme heavy metal subgenre characterized by heavily-distorted guitars and a distinct, harsh vocal style. It’s definitely not the mainstream taste in Egypt, even among metal fans.

“Our approach is to mix our oriental influence with the black metal music,” says Mohamed Salah, Odious’ guitarist. “We play oud and darabokka in the songs, and the result is something very unique and tremendously attractive to the listeners abroad. We wanted to break local boundaries and aim higher.”

The musical fusion piqued the interest of a Greek friend visiting Alexandria, who then pointed the band in the direction of Sleaszy Rider Records, a Greek independent label. “We contacted the record label and sent them three originals as a demo. They liked the oriental / black metal twist very much and asked for more samples,” Salah says. “A few weeks later, we were in business.”

Odious has signed a three-year contract based on a revenue-share model, with two albums to be produced within the contract interval; Sleaszy Rider is handling the production and distribution. “And now if you walk into any music store anywhere in Europe or the States, you will find our album side-by-side with the legendary bands across the globe,” Salah says.

The oudist declined to talk about financial specifics, citing confidentiality, but did note that as the band has spent a lot to set up their own studio and record their album, they have a long road ahead before recouping the initial cost. The first Egyptian-international “oriental-black-metal” band is heading down that road enthusiastically.

“We are writing songs for our second album and planning for a tour in Alex and Cairo to promote the first one,” Salah says. “We were invited to open for Samael, the famous Swiss black metal band who was going to play here in Egypt. Although the concert was cancelled for organizational reasons, it gave us huge coverage — the fans here in Egypt and abroad were asking about the Egyptian band that will open for Samael. We are so proud to be [] the first band emerging from Egypt with eastern melodies to reach international exposure.”

Banging Their Heads Against a Wall

The fans are just now coming out of the shadows, the bands out of the deserted villas. No matter how much society opens up toward loud music, though, you can’t have a concert without someone to organize the show, sell the tickets and collect the money. This, perhaps, is the hardest part about the music scene.

Ahmed Gamal has been in the business for more than three years now, organizing a number of metal and hard rock concerts in Egypt, including Metal Gates and Metal Accord Festivals. It’s passion that drives this 23-year-old architecture student, who also helps his father in his private vegetable export business. “I’ve been into this music for years, I’m a big fan and I play drums myself in the band Vivid,” he enthuses. “I thought, though, that I [could] do more than that for the music I love.”

As an organizer, Gamal has a lot to do. “The problem is not in finding a place or having good equipment. No, it is how to get the needed permissions from authorities and breaking a revenue [at] the same time.”

There is a lot of red tape and routine involved, and Gamal starts working months before the concert in order to cover all aspects. He has to find the right promotion mix from publishing and distributing thousands of flyers to posting the event on social network websites like Facebook and MySpace. The biggest headache, he says, is the security presence during the event. Ambulances, fire trucks, and of course, policemen cost him thousands. Add a bit of padding for corruption here and there and one can imagine how much Ahmed is paying.

“We have to feed them all the day from early morning until the party is over late at night. We are talking about more than 50 persons here with their food, drinks, and cigarettes. Of course, we have to pay some tips here and there to guarantee a smooth day.”

Gamal claims that it is hard to turn a profit, pointing out that in addition to security, good quality sound and light equipment rental, the audiences are not usually very large. “I broke even few times and made two or three thousand out of each party, but in many events I end up paying from my own money.”

When it comes to loud music, sponsors are not lining up with their cash. Gamal quotes from a meeting with a well-known athletic wear supplier: “‘Which event do you think I should sponsor: A hard rock concert or a concert for Amr Diab? Of course Amr Diab!’ We didn’t stop there, we tried with Vodafone, Nike, Adidas and BMW, but no one wants to sponsor a hard rock concert.”

Still, Gamal doesn’t think it’s hard rock and metal music’s bad reputation as violent and drug-related that turns the sponsors off. “Lets face it, it is part of youth culture here in Egypt to get high in parties,” the concert organizer says bluntly. “Check the back rows in any party and you will know what I’m talking about. It is not something specifically attached to rock or metal music. Go to any House music party and count the sober people.

“We make our arrangements to guarantee clean parties. We hire more than 20 bodyguards to search the crowd and monitor any violent moves or fights during the events. We bring specialized bodyguards from Haram Street nightclubs — they have experience and know how to deal with riots in a professional way. They cost us a lot of money, but it is worth it. I hope that after all this effort one of the big names in business would dare to sponsor any of our events.”

Gamal is not discouraged by the lack of sponsors. “I will not quit organizing rock concerts. I made a change in the scene and that’s more than enough for me.”

In addition to being a venue for new bands, El-Saqia also gives new bands a hand with the concert logistics and mentoring. “We usually accept any band to come and perform here, though we have to make them audition,” Esam Nasr, an events organizer at El-Saqia, explains. “We ask them if they have any videos from previous events they participated in. If not, we invite them for a rehearsal. [Myself] and two more music experts evaluate them according to the music performance, harmony, and their style on stage. Even if they have drawbacks, we give them guidelines and even in some cases trainings on how to improve their final skills.”

It’s a good deal for the amateur band. “We are a non-profit organization, so we take care of everything, giving the band a fully equipped theater with lighting system, sound equipment and sound engineer without any fees,” Nasr notes. “In addition, we do all the promotional activities from sending SMSes to all of El-Saqia’s members, printing flyers and distributing them in cafés to posting outdoor advertising around El-Saqia and across the city. This costs us a lot. And after the party ends, we split the tickets’ revenue with the band 50/50.”

Of course, Nasr is not talking about a huge amount of money. Most of the bands will hardly pull in a 300-person audience. Bands that have established a solid fan base, such as the popular Oriental-jazz fusion band Wust El-Balad, might draw more than 2,000 attendees per show. At an average of LE 25 per ticket, it seems they’re able to have a professional musical career.

Hard rock and metal bands booked by El-Saqia go through the same vetting process, but with a little extra attention from the organizers. “We are extra careful with the lyrics of the hard rock and metal bands,” Nasr admits. “We are very clear about that because we are a cultural center after all, so we don’t allow any offensive expressions against religions or races. They have to follow our house rules with no drugs, alcohol or smoking, so we can maintain our ‘clean circle’ approach. But so far, I don’t see any differences in the behavior of the hard rock or metal crowd and that of any other crowd. Of course, some of them look different, but that does not reflect on their conduct inside their parties.”

It may seem we’re starting a whole new chapter in the hard rock and metal scene, but society is still reading from the same pages. On his talk show Bein El Nas this past Ramadan, Hussein Fahmy revived the loud music debate, bringing in stereotypically dressed metal fans to be interrogated, with the same accusations of violence and satanic worship. That might not be a bad thing: healthy debate can lead to more space for various art forms and styles to awaken people to new experiences. Until that happens, however, loud music bands must continue to tread softly. et

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