Louder than life
Maybe Egyptians know how to party after all: Salonaz Sami meets a new generation of DJs
Other than a few well-known bands, Egyptian night life depends mainly on DJs. A few clubs in Cairo have live entertainment on their programmes. But the rest use the right combination of music and disk jockey to draw in the crowd. And deejaying - the term originated in the radio, to describe announcers who introduced music, but has since been taken over by clubs - can be a fairly complicated art, what with techniques like cueing, equalisation and beat-mixing. According to Khaled Darwish, an Egyptian who has been deejaying in the United States for years, "The number, frequency, and complexity of those techniques depends on the setting in which a DJ is working." A radio DJ is less likely to focus on beat mixing than a club DJ, for example, who will depend on it for the seamless tranisition between tracks controlling the mood of the crowd.
As Hip Hop and reggae DJ Kaboo (Mohamed Surour), 22, explains, a Hip Hop DJ works in a special way, using turntable-ism, the art of manipulating sound using a phonograph turntable together with the mixer, far more than others. DJ Babu, pioneer turntable-ist, defined his role as that of "one who has the ability to improvise on a phonograph turntable... who uses the turntable in the spirit of a musical instrument". And that, Kaboo added, takes talent. Kaboo has been in the business for four years, but his awareness of the profession extends far further. Hip Hop, which emerged in the 1970s among African Americans and Latinos in New York City, is made up of four elements, he explains: rapping, deejaying, break-dancing and street art - mainly graffiti. It was a way for the city's minorities to assert themselves under persecution - a spirit that informerd the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, inventor of the break-beat technique, and the former Black Spade gang member Afrika Bambaataa, "the father of Hip Hop" who created the first Hip Hop track featuring synthesizers, Planet Rock and played an instrumental role in the growth of Hip Hop out of the South Bronx.
Deejaying had flourished for some time, having accmpanied the development of sound systems and the emergence of house music in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica and Chicago in the late 1950s. Parties began to take place on the streets, in parks and stadiums, with DJs using the loudest possible speakers. As Kaboo goes on to point out, "These parties quickly became profitable because their organisors would sell food and alcohol as well as admission tickets, which in turn led to fierce competition among DJs for the biggest sound systems and the newest records." Some became obsessive about what they played, going the extra mile to ensure that no one knew what they were spinning. All through the 1960s and 1970s the phenomenon gained popularity in Europe and America, where neighbourhood block parties came to be modelled on them, giving the deejaying business the ultimate thrust. But it was the rave scene that transformed both dance and deejaying, as Darwish points out: it was then that, thanks to innovative marketing DJs started to become superstars. But since the day of DJ Frankie Knuckles, who mixed disco classics with European pop in the Warehouse Club in Chicago, names like Tiesto, Paul Okenfold, Paul Van Dyk, and Nadia Ali from IIO have emerged.
Among the factors that tell DJs apart from each other, Darwish explains, are the setting, the preferred medium and the development of sound manipulation techniques. In Egyptian dance music circles, the likes of Khaled Abdel-Rahman, Tamer Fouda and Khaled Hussien have managed to make it, touring the world to play with such big names as Hernan Cattaneo, Sonique and Anthony Pappa. Hussien received first place in the DJ Mixing Competition and was named Egypt's most popular DJ on yallabina.com. "What punctuates Hussien's skills as a DJ is his capacity to not only incorporate diverse genres and styles, but to transcend them by infusing his music with pure emotions," says the web site of the International DJs List. "It is without a doubt that Hussien has altered the Egyptian dance scene and taken his crowds to new heights."
But the fact remains that the business is looked down on in Egypt, as Kaboo complains: "People haven't learned to take our profession seriously yet. They always assume that we're in it for the girls and the alcohol." Kaboo insisted that he was neither a drinker nor a smoker, adding that, to be a good DJ, you need attitude, talent, knowledge, and a lot of practice, but most of all "you've got to have the sense to create seamless transitions between back to back tracks" - i.e., beat matching - because if people don't stay for long enough on the dance floor that means the DJ is no good. You must be able to spontaneously manipulate or restructure an existing recording, using a mixer, to create new compositions. It is a matter of talent and, even more importantly, of passio - the passion to share music with others. "Deejaying is a form of expression, a way of life and a means to getting a message across, but it could also be a way of creating a living," he laughed.