Megan Detrie for The National
When the rock band Cairokee agreed to perform last September in Mansoura, a conservative, agricultural city in the Nile Delta region, they expected to find few fans. Instead, they took to the stage to loud cheers from a packed audience.
“Everyone was singing along – I was so surprised,” said Tamer Hashem, the band’s drummer and manager. “They were there because they wanted to see us.”
After seven years of performing in relative obscurity, the members of Cairokee still seem dazed with their new-found fame. Two weeks ago, the band released its latest song Ya, el Midan (Oh You, the Square), a touching duet about Egypt’s awakening political consciousness. The duet, along with a three-track release, marks singer Aida Al Ayouba’s return to music after retiring in the mid-1990s. Frontman Amir Eid’s voice has a resonant, melancholy timbre, lacking in range but heaped with sincerity. His voice meshes with Al Ayouba’s lilting, powerful refrains to create a stark, emotionally intense song.
In the first two days of its internet release, the song ranked number one on Facebook worldwide for downloads, number six on Twitter and number eight on YouTube; to date, it’s been viewed more than half a million times on the video channel.
“It was such a strange feeling,” said bassist Adam El Alfy, who, with a background in marketing, speaks with the poise of a spin doctor, quick to jump in when the others pause for thought. “Our song was number six, and ranked down below were Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, and I thought: ‘How can that be happening?'”
The success of Ya, el Midan illustrates a shift in Egypt’s music world, where megastars, local and international, have long monopolised the airwaves. In the past 10 months, however, a new space has emerged for artists in Cairo’s underground scene.
Before Hosni Mubarak’s ousting, producers and broadcasters shied away from bands with political and social messages, instead favouring government-approved pop stars such as Tamer Hosny. Indie bands rarely got TV play and were unlikely to be offered spots in major music festivals.
Now, the landscape has drastically altered: satellite channels’ cultural programmes regularly showcase underground bands popularised during the revolution; artists openly criticise the government and major international bands – who have sometimes co-opted indie songs for commercials – are taking new notice.
After spending almost a decade performing without enough support to release an album, Cairokee released its first album Leaders Wanted in June, with sponsorship from Coca-Cola.
The title track, Matloob Za3eem, is a refrainless song; its lyrics are an employment advertisement, laying out the criteria for the country’s next leader. It was an instant hit. At concerts, fans sing along to every word.
“Before the revolution, it was frustrating because we were playing alone, for friends, or in the studio, but after the revolution people wanted to change the standards. It didn’t have to be singing love songs or making a video with a bunch of girls,” said Eid, the strong-willed frontman and songwriter.
Bassist Sherif Hawary added: “Or having to really sing in the traditional Arabic way.”
“Or have a nice body,” said El Alfy. “You had to be a really good singer, or a really hot girl, and we don’t really fit into these categories.”
Friends since childhood, members of the group have a habit of speaking for, and over, each other. They are all comfortable, middle-class kids, from the prosperous, leafy suburb of Maadi. The keyboardist Sherif Mostafa joined the band only four years ago, and as the youngest and quietest is often the butt of the others’ jokes. But really, they delight in belittling themselves and their music.
“I got fired from everything – college, my work – fired from everywhere,” said Eid, who was dismissed as the manager of a satellite channel’s sales department for missing work during February’s protests.
“Music is pretty much my only option,” he added.
Before the revolution, their songs portrayed the feelings of oppression and discontent of the country, despite the lack of venues that would play the music. But it was Sout Al Horreya (Sound of Freedom), a video shot from inside Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising in January, that drew the group into the public eye.
The collaboration between Eid, Hawary and Mostafa with Wust el Balad singer Hany Adel features protesters singing Eid’s lyrics amid the festival-like atmosphere that was at times present in the square. For Cairokee, this song, and the revolution itself, was the catalyst for their rise to popularity outside of the insular indie scene in Egypt.
“The protester is good inspiration. He is spontaneous and he’s not making deals with anyone. He’s going to die now and he’s not thinking about tomorrow, but about dignity and freedom,” said Eid.
Since the video’s release, Eid has performed an acoustic set at the Cannes Film Festival, and in September the band was invited to Gdansk, Poland, to perform for the anniversary of that country’s revolution. The band played to cheering crowds during demonstrations in Tahrir Square last July.
“They like the narrative and the music, and it starts to change people’s taste in music,” said El Alfy.
The group spend their days in a small recording studio Eid had built in his home, working on their second album Wana A’ed Lewahdy (While Sitting by Myself), which was largely written by Eid during a three-year period of self-imposed exile from his well-heeled peers. Fed up with what he saw as a disconnect between his friends and the world around them, Eid cut off most social ties and instead spent his time at home, introspective and focused on songwriting.
“I would visit him daily, as if he was in the hospital,” said El Alfy, to which Eid quickly interjects: “I was trying to discover myself. It was a fun time, not sad at all.”
The result is an album due out next month, which Hawary considers “wiser”, both in its narrator and the music itself. Though the new album will deal with social issues, the band is quick to dismiss the label of “political rock”.
“[Our music] is more current now,” said Hawary. “Before the revolution, [Egypt] was just a solid state, not many events happened, so it was fine to talk about anything. Now things happen that you can’t ignore. You can’t say, ‘Ah it happened, but I’m going to do a love song tomorrow.’ You have to stop and talk about it and express how you feel.”
“We’re not really a political band,” Hashem pipes in. “We just talk about what we think is right.”