Phases Shifting: Inside Egypt and Tunisia’s Experimental Underground
Alex Siber
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Catalog
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November 21st, 2022

A growing scene of Arab electronic, hip-hop, and experimental artists is redefining genres and upending expectations to make room for something new. Written by Peter Holslin. Edited by Siber. Featuring original music from ZULI, Nadah El Shazly, 3Phaz, and Ratchopper. Collection curated by Sarah El Miniawy. Learn more about Catalog’s Curation Cycles program here.

“I personally hate to be put in a box, but being an Egyptian called Ahmed, others are tempted to only see me through that lens,” ZULI laments in an email interview with Catalog.

The Cairo-based electronic producer (real name: Ahmed El Ghazoly) hits on a frustration that’s common among some of his music-making peers in the Arab world. In the United States these days, plenty of artists wear their identity on their sleeve, explicitly weaving it through IG bios and press releases. It’s key to their story, their positioning, and their personal brand. While stateside power dynamics (domestic racism, for example) are constant, marking such disclosures with a degree of bravery and justified pride, identity often carries additional baggage beyond American borders. Consider the outdated labels of “worldbeat” and “fusion” promoted in the West, which flatten the cultural works of billions into one umbrella term. Or notions of heritage and nostalgia, imposed by cultural authorities like Egypt’s Musicians Syndicate to undermine unsanctioned and experimental musical approaches.

So, what is an artist to do? In Egypt and Tunisia, many born in the ’80s and ’90s draw from a wide range of material — unsurprising, given their second-nature use of online sources like YouTube, file sharing, and pirated CDs. In recordings and releases, it’s common to see artists explore specific niches and nodes, drawing from overseas influences as well as ones from home. The instruments and rhythms of local weddings get plugged into Ableton and FruityLoops. Iconoclastic divas from the early 20th century offer a roadmap to new explorations in avant-garde jazz. The beats and attitude of hip-hop have grown especially influential, aligning perfectly with massive youth culture and the endlessly rhyme-able complexity of the Arabic language.

Here are four artists from Egypt and Tunisia who are navigating musical paths both traditional and contemporary to advance a fresh set of ideas.

ZULI: BEYOND CLASSIFICATION

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As one of Egypt’s most prominent electronic artists, ZULI specializes in the unpredictable. Since dropping his debut Bionic Ahmed EP in 2016, he’s used his releases to play with perspective, veering radically between techno, breakcore, sound design, and Arabic rap, freely turning idioms inside out. Nothing is conventional in ZULI’s merciless blender of shape-shifting beats and processed vocal tracks. At the heart of it all, you can sense an emotional sincerity and deep-rooted passion for the power and texture of sound itself. His craftwork radiates in the stunning title track of his Trigger Finger EP from 2018, which traverses back and forth between a clanging jungle breakbeat and a murky smear of ambient electronics and sampled voices. Or in his track “Nari” from his full-length album Terminal — an inverted hip-hop banger, it features the voices of rappers cut into glitchy ribbons against a slithering trap backbone.

ZULI’s alchemical songwriting process stems from his daily experiments in his Cairo studio, where he tinkers with sampled sounds, digital instruments and loops. His latest track, the Catalog genesis record “Mushballs,” blossomed out of a preexisting snippet he made last year, conjuring up a subtle interplay between a polyrhythm and an unstable BPM. A non-club creation, from an artist often found in the club.

Cairo, the sprawling, noisy capital of Egypt, has a rich nightlife scene. Many people stay up till the early morning hours, and the venues for night owls range from outdoor cafes to dodgy cabarets to classy clubs guarded by arms-crossed doormen. Oases for the alcohol-seekers reside in nondescript locations, providing respite from the government’s restrictive morality laws and Islamic rules against drinking. As you pass from the honking taxis and harried streets outside to the deconstructed beats and chilled Stella beers within, attending an electronic music event can sometimes feel like crossing between dimensions. That’s especially so in the underground scene that ZULI has helped foster, as co-founder of clubs/events like VENT and irsh.

VENT is a roving club night that began as a brick-and-mortar club, which many artists in Cairo credit as an initial incubator of the city’s small-but-thriving underground electronic scene. In 2013, ZULI and some friends took over a 250-capacity restaurant space near Tahrir Square, the downtown roundabout that, just two years earlier, served as the central gathering place of the Egyptian revolution. The club — and other events hosted under the VENT name — have offered a crucial platform for local DJs and producers like ABADIR and El Kontessa while also bringing in offbeat artists from Europe, the United States, and elsewhere overseas. Other forward-thinking events like JellyZone have since risen to prominence, and a new generation of artists have come to the fore as well. ZULI shouts out members of the MOSHTRQ crew in particular for rejuvenating the scene. “They can all DJ better than 99% of the global population,” ZULI says. “They're doing wonders for the scene and have succeeded in building an actual fan base for the area of music in which we operate.”

ZULI’s own music is impossible to pin down. On “Bro! (Love It)” from his 2021 All Caps EP, ZULI serves up a breakcore fusillade of rhythmic assaults, punctuating them with mocking vocal samples of American- and European-sounding fans gushing about “Arabic fusion” — a satire of his experience as a DJ who has found himself pigeonholed in awkward ways during gigs he plays abroad.

“I've been booked a lot of times with expectations to play an all-jungle set based on Trigger Finger, or an all-hip-hop set based on my work in the [Egyptian] rap scene over the past decade, or an Arabic-sounding (often referred to as ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnic’) set based on my name/ethnicity,” ZULI explains. “These shows end up not being fun for anyone and I can imagine they aren't great for my reputation either when people’s expectations aren't met. This is what I poke fun at.”

At the end of the day, ZULI reserves the right to follow his instincts, wherever they may lead. “I just want to make whatever music I feel like making in the moment,” he says, “Be it Arabic or not.”

NADAH EL SHAZLY: THE FUTURE IS THE PAST

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Nadah El Shazly’s music drifts and swells. Her mesmerizing voice stops you in your tracks. Employing melisma techniques and clear intonation (as well as pitch-shift and delay effects), she slides between deep lows and defiant highs, packing emotion into every word. Her debut album from 2017, Ahwar, was monumental in its radical interpretations of classical Arabic repertoire, reframed through the lens of avant-garde jazz and electronic grooves.

A listener could get lost in the buzzing divan saz licks and moody electronics of “Barzakh,” a track off Ahwar minted as a special edition for Catalog. The title is the Arabic word for the afterlife concept of limbo and also refers to the geographic place “between salt water and sweet water that makes them not mix,” El Shazly says. Songs like this reflect her all-consuming approach to song-making, in which she finds transcendence through creative exploration. “Music was always the one thing that I had that helped me cope with everything in life. It was my weapon, safe space, addiction, release,” she says.

El Shazly was born and raised in Cairo, a city that enjoys a great reputation for its musical output. During the Nasser years of the 1950s and ’60s, the iconic diva Om Kolthum — who is still celebrated almost universally across the Arab world — embodied the city’s classiness and cultural dominance with her cat-eye sunglasses and marathon performances. But as El Shazly was creating the songs of Ahwar, hashing out her ideas in live performances and working with a host of collaborators, she sought inspiration from the stars of an earlier period in Arab musical history: the 1890s to the 1920s, which saw a flourishing of creative energy in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria as part of a movement referred to as the nahda (renaissance or awakening). Two of El Shazly’s favorite artists of this era are Abdellatif Al Banna and Mounira Al Mahdeya.

“Mounira Al Mahdeya is known in Egypt for being Om Kolthum’s rival. But you never really hear the full story,” El Shazly says. During Mounira Al Mahdeya’s heyday in the 1920s, the theater diva lived on the Nile in one of Cairo’s iconic houseboats. She collected dogs, cats, monkeys and even a snake as pets, and at times liked to dress as a man. Al Mahdeya’s music is just as fearless as her personality: Old 78 RPM recordings recaptured on Egyptian multi-instrumentalist Nancy Mounir’s 2022 album Nozhet El Nofous show a singer who bends her backing musicians to her will, drawing out stretches of swaying tension to underscore the passion of her voice and torrid poetry.

Sadly, Al Mahdeya and others have been written out of “official” narratives over the decades: She was not invited, for example, to participate in the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arabic Music, a historic conference that set formal standards for tuning systems and other rules of music theory that many classically trained artists still follow 90 years later. The process of deciding who does and doesn’t represent proper musical values continues today under the leadership of cultural authorities like Egypt’s Musicians Syndicate, a state-affiliated trade association that exerts its power to issue licenses and oversee other regulations.

Since Ahwar’s release, El Shazly has performed internationally and relocated to Montreal, Canada. She scored the original soundtrack for Fyzal Boulifa's 2022 film The Damned Don't Cry, landing her the Best Original Soundtrack prize at FIFIB Festival International du Film Indépendant de Bordeaux in October. She will appear early next year on the new album by Atlanta post-punk-soul band Algiers. As she continues in her career, she has come to see Al Mahdeya and Al Banna’s songs as a form of “futuristic music.” Their influence is clear on her songs, especially in the way she explores wide-open spaces and a fluid sense of movement.

“I was fascinated with how musicians of that time play together, and the details of their interactions. The dynamics of what it means to play together, and what holds the group intact without the necessity to obliterate individual fantasies was a great discovery for me,” she says. On Ahwar, El Shazly’s voice floats alongside a variety of instruments, moving slowly and organically, as if they were all drifting in a dream. “With the utmost respect towards the musicians you are playing with, you can indulge in what you are playing and drift off as far as you could, knowing that another player, or the singer, will lure you back in.”

3PHAZ: STREET MUSIC REWIRED

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Cairo is a place of constant sound. The ancient city’s metropolitan area is home to 21.3 million people, and these residents are surrounded on a daily basis by honking taxi cabs, blaring music, street hawkers, and calls to prayer. It’s a city where public bus drivers outfit their steering wheels with double-tap triggers so they can use their car horns to blast rapid-fire paradiddles at motorists who get in their way. Even in the most serene coffee shop on a lovely avenue in the upscale island neighborhood of Zamalek, you might just find yourself confronted by a screeching alarm going off in the next room, and no employee would bat an eye. Some may find the dawsha (noise) maddening, but it also contributes to Cairo’s addictive energy, sparking excitement and humor in everyday life.

Out of this atmosphere comes 3Phaz, a hooded mystery man who harnesses distortion, velocity, and subsonic oscillations to create electronic beats for the dance floor. Inspired by Egyptian street music and dance genres like techno and footwork, he revels in raw texture while plying grim moods and gloomy atmospheres. “Red Signal,” his genesis track pressed on Catalog, unfolds in layers of distortion and feedback, setting an almost meditative tone with cavernous bass kicks and rippling keyboards. It’s a slower take on his usual bruising style, but still enthralling for its raw power.

“There is a certain satisfaction that I get from working on darker, heavier stuff that I don’t get from anything else,” says 3Phaz, who prefers to remain anonymous in press photos and media interviews. “I think it’s just what my ear likes. I don’t put too much thought into it to be honest — I just do what I feel I need to do at the time.”

A close listener will notice that 3Phaz (whose name is pronounced “Three Phase” in English) often incorporates sampled sounds of a popular style of Egyptian street music called mahraganat into his skittering drums, minimalist synth riffs, and trunk-rattling bass. Mahraganat (which literally means “festivals”) is the stuff of wedding parties and microbus rides: exciting but also everyday, greeted by the Egyptian public with equal measures of adoration and disdain. The music is a part of a shaabi (meaning popular or lower class) tradition that goes back decades. It has risen to global prominence even as government censors have sought to silence and sideline many of its biggest stars; in October, new Musicians Syndicate head Mostafa Kamel imposed restrictions on live performances and lyrics and even sought to change the name of the genre itself.

Although he acknowledges their influence, 3Phaz wouldn’t consider himself a mahraganat or shaabi artist. Mahraganat artists primarily perform for an Arabic-speaking audience and the biggest names have risen to mainstream prominence in Egypt — although they have also faced setbacks in the last few years because of bans imposed by the Musicians Syndicate and moral panics over “vulgar” lyrics full of street slang and references to illicit substances. 3Phaz comes from a different scene: He grew up exploring trance and techno and works in a tight-knit underground electronic community. He’s currently touring Europe, where his music and DJ sets connect with strains of UK and European club music. While mahraganat artists have an industry of their own, many prominent indie and underground artists in the Arab world look overseas to build audiences and get support in ways that aren’t as easy to come by in the region, such as through record labels, tour opportunities and artist residencies.

When 3Phaz creates beats, he spends much of his time chopping up samples and recordings to his liking. “The audio is either collected from recording sessions, or sampling random stuff. I'm mostly focusing on working with different transients to create interesting grooves that are made with the dance floor in mind,” he says. “It's really just me staring at my laptop slicing and messing around with different audio files.”

He’s drawn to mahraganat’s rowdy intensity and unvarnished production values. The tinny drum fills and space-age keyboards of 3Phaz’s album Three Phase — released on Cairo experimental label 100Copies in 2020 — are reminiscent of the frenzied street performances common at weddings and other celebrations in poor neighborhoods like Imbaba. You can also hear hints of a familiar synth tone employed by shaabi and indie artists alike and modeled on the mizmar, a folksy reed instrument that the musicians Johnny Farraj and Sami Abu Shumays once described as “one of the loudest acoustic instruments ever invented by humankind.” Indeed, in his search for volume and distortion, 3Phaz finds plenty of source material right at home.

There is nothing particularly aggressive or hostile about this masked marauder, as dark as his tracks may be. At weddings in Egypt, the volumes get pumped to ear-splitting levels to maximize the excitement and joy. Likewise, the noise and intensity of 3Phaz seems geared not towards provocation but to catharsis, since there’s always a beat to keep you moving forward.

RATCHOPPER: MOUNTAIN FUNK

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Compared to the manic energy of Cairo, the Tunisian capital of Tunis keeps calm.

Taxi drivers take you to your destination without inventing new speed limits or using hacked meters that jack up the price. Stores close earlier in the evening. Every cafe, at any time of day, seems to feature an espresso machine and relaxed patrons. But Egypt and Tunisia share similar challenges when it comes to the music business. Resources and opportunities are limited, especially for independent artists, forcing them to make do with what they have even when they rise beyond a local level.

Despite these obstacles, Souhayl Guesmi — a Tunis-based producer, songwriter, and keyboardist who goes by the name Ratchopper — has leveraged his skills to become one of the most innovative hip-hop and pop producers in North Africa. In 2020 and 2021, he produced a string of viral hits by Tunisian star JenJoon, serving up hypnotizing hip-hop beats full of smoky keyboard chords and R&B flourishes. Ratchopper has cultivated emerging talents through his label [BLOC] C, and in recent months he’s also been collaborating with Ghali, an Italian rap icon of Tunisian descent.

When Ratchopper makes beats for other artists, he usually focuses on a soulful, keyboard- and piano-driven style that works well for stream counts and radio play. But he takes a more adventurous approach in his own solo work, which he also releases under the Ratchopper name. “Babaseeyayeh,” Ratchopper’s genesis record on Catalog, is a phantasmic slice of syncopated synth-funk anchored by trancelike, filter-swept chants.

Ratchopper’s beats invoke the imaginative futurism of the Neptunes and the psychedelic jazz constellations of Flying Lotus and Thundercat. But he also brings in Arabic nay flutes, Tunisian violins and mesmerizing vocal chants in a modal style called rakroki, native to the mountainous northwest region where he grew up.

The 29-year-old musician grew up in Jendouba, an agricultural hub near Tunisia’s border with Algeria. During his teens, the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali blocked YouTube and censored countless hip-hop artists. (Protesters overthrew Ben Ali’s government in the 2011 revolution.) Undeterred, Guesbi’s cousin managed to smuggle him CDs from Mary J. Blige, Ashanti, and Algerian rapper Lotfi Double Kanon. When that same cousin introduced Guesmi to a cracked version of FruityLoops, he became enthralled with making beats and learning the keys. The popular music-making program (now called FL Studio) was easy to come by, on sale at local CD stores as part of burnable DVD packages containing TV shows, movies, software, and other internet goodies.

Soon enough, Guesmi’s parents rewarded his drive with a new keyboard. Over the next several years, he produced and wrote music constantly, even studying Western classical piano at a local summer camp before attending a workshop in New York organized by the American concert pianist Kimball Gallagher. While his training centered on the harmonic principles you’d expect in an Ivy League liberal arts college, his solo music embraces the sounds of his youth: flourishes of classical Arabic music, and the folk and tribal sounds emerging out of the mountain ranges and shepherd communities of Tunisia and Algeria’s border region.

“The tribal stuff is rooted in me,” Ratchopper says as he describes the music he would often hear at local weddings: mesmerizing rakroki chants and improvisations, set to the deep, rhythmic playing of the gasba flute and the bagpipe-like tones of an instrument called the zukra. “Wedding culture in Tunisia, it’s very out there — you play as loud as you can. So all summer, you’d be hearing all those songs being played wherever you go. You grew up with that.”

As Ratchopper sketches out new ideas and takes more personal musical explorations on his solo recordings, he thinks back often to this region. His song “Rakroki Man” from his 2020 EP, Esh Sar, mixes a stunning rakroki vocal into meditative organs and freewheeling funk bass. On a new album he’s assembling , Phases, he plans to double down on the sounds that raised him, balancing festive folk sounds with mournful and reflective rakroki poetry. Ideally, a larger chunk of his creative bandwidth would belong to his own solo creations. Production work pays the bills, but his own transmissions are what keep him going.“I can truly express myself,” he says. “Put my intellect to the maximum.”

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