Interview – Cairokee & Zap Tharwat (March 2016)

If the names Cairokee and Zap Tharwat don’t ring any bells it’s probably because you’re a) not Egyptian b) don’t have Egyptians friends c) are not interested in Egyptian music or d) are not up-to-date with the North African country’s current events. Those artists personify and the last five years of Egyptian history, setting to music the 2011 Revolution, Tahrir Square and the post-Revolution period to become the most representative new acts in their country.

We got the proof of their significance a few days ago when they performed at the Student Union in London, part of MARSM’s Music from Egypt and Sudan during their U.K. tour. The venue was packed, rumbling with yells and intoning every song by heart – but we had already verified their relevance a few hours before when we met and chatted with some of the band members.

Considering how influential the musicians are on the Egyptian music scene, we began our interview by asking Adam El-Alfy (bass player and founder member of Cairokee) what the current cultural and musical atmosphere is like in his country.

Egyptian music has considerably evolved during the last years. What’s really awesome is that a lot of underground bands are becoming recognised and aim to reach a wider audience. People don’t only listen to old artists, but also independent ones – and they’re becoming the majority in the music scene. I think that after the Revolution there was a big boost for people (and music listeners) to try something new. That was a big change and people wanted change in everything. So before the revolution if you asked people about underground or indie bands nobody knew them. You can find only 200/300 people at their gigs. Today they want to discover new music: as well as the important bands they want to listen to little known artists too”.

We discovered that it was the audiences (music listeners and gig goers) who played a crucial part in this change.

Before the Revolution messages in the music were repetitive  – and the subjects too. So people didn’t actually listen to music. Music was simply considered as background. Now they are interested in the lyrics of the songs. They want to know what they are talking about and their messages. Eventually they come to feel the lyrics more than the music”.

Zap Tharwat, one of the most inspired Middle-Eastern MCs added value to the Cairokee project. He continued saying:

There’s something like an ongoing music war in Egypt, between old and new artists and we’re almost stuck in the middle. There are the old musicians who still play habibi music, and who are backed by money. They made a lot of money in the past. Even if they play different styles they’re all are done in a commercial way. The subject of their songs is always love and romance. The main reason is because love can relate to everyone, so it doesn’t cause problems – that’s why the government was supporting it. Meanwhile, the new wave of artists has interesting ideas. They talk about everything, but they have no money and no financial resources”.

When we introduced the topic of censorship and asked whether music is subjected to it in Egypt, Hawary (guitar player and one of the architect of Cairokee) joined in the conversation:

I don’t know if there’s a real censorship, but there’s surely a sense of it. There’s something subtle and hidden. We have never faced anything like censorship, but you have a sense that some subjects are taboo. You can’t openly talk about them because it might get someone angry – in the Government or somewhere else”.

Cairokee and Zap Tharwat’s success coincided with the days of Tahrir Square and the 2011 Revolution. Their songs were the soundtrack and gave voice to those days. People indelibly link those events to their music. So we asked Adam to explain us what happened to their careers during that February five years ago.

I think that you get one opportunity, a real one, in your life or career once. And no matter when it happens you need to seize it because it won’t come again. Luckily, when it happened to us we seized the moment. We had already been playing music for nine years before 2011, and that particular opportunity wasn’t something we were seeking. It was a unique time because you could really feel the change, and as artists we had to do something with and about that feeling. It was deeply affecting our music. Big changes always affect your music and lyrics, and they affected us so much that the music came out naturally in a straightforward way. People liked the songs we wrote and saw us for what we were and eventually recognised us. We are from the people and we always sing what people feel, so the people in the Square could easily identify themselves in our music and lyrics. Everyone was going through the same emotions and we were able to express them, to be their amplifier”.

Hawary brought into focus another aspect of this change.

The 2011 Revolution is one of the best days in our lives as Egyptians, because for the first time we had the right to change things, for freedom and dignity. But as Egyptians we are also very naïve, because today we feel as if we are back at those time. As far as I can see, even if people say that the next revolution will be prompted by the grassroots and not by the middle class (as happened in 2011), we won’t end up in a better situation than in the Mubarak era”.

Returning to the topic of music we wanted to understand why, despite the lively new wave of Egyptian bands, it is so hard for them to go beyond their country’s borders and be recognised abroad. Adam had one suggestion.

That’s true, but I don’t know why. I think it’s all about the lyrics. I’m speaking for Cairokee here. In our music lyrics are really important but also ‘local’, referring to our Egyptian identity. We also use some slang.

Zap Tharwat, who face this problem to an even greater degree with regard to his rhyming, answered:

Our lyrics are very Egyptian. We sing about problems that are common for Egyptians. To me, the only music that can go all over the world is electronic music because it can be fusion and is not based on lyrics. An example is Egyptian Project. They are well known everywhere because their music has a Middle-East feeling, but it’s also a fusion of styles and has no lyrics”.

So we wondered what is going on in the Middle East music scene and if they could suggest us some names. Adam told us:

One of the artists I really like is Dhafer Youssef. He’s a Tunisian artist, I’ve seen him live and he’s amazing. He plays oud with a jazzy style and his sound and voice are magical. Then, we worked with Souad Massi – she’s Algerian but she lives in France. We have listened to her music for a long time and finally had the chance to play with her. We were really lucky because she approached us asking to do a song with us. But there are many other young musicians who are becoming popular in the Middle East right now.

However, I mainly listen to artists from Tunisia or Algeria but live in France. They usually left their country when they were young and that’s when the fusion happens. As a matter of fact, I find hard to listen to artists who are 100% Oriental, I’m too used to that sound”.

Cairokee had made a move in its first steps towards fusion. The band had started singing in English, looking to the British scene for inspiration. But then something happened in their career that turned that idea upside down. Adam, who was there since the beginning, explained to us.

We were playing a lot of covers in the beginning, but then we decided to do an experiment just for fun. We wrote an original song in Arabic. That was a long time ago, I guess 2003. Surprisingly, people loved it and encouraged us to continue in that way. That’s why we kept on doing Arabic and more Egyptian oriented songs. It was liberating, because when you start singing in your own language you can express yourself much better  – and eventually it worked really well”.

Since then, Cairokee hasn’t stopped. They have released four albums and have arguably become Egypt’s most popular act. But, as Adam revealed, they have not rested on their laurels.

We feel the need to change a bit on every album – for better or worse I’m not sure! But we need to change and move out of our comfort zone. Our latest album [entitled Naas W Naas and released few months ago] is more mature than our previous ones. This is not necessarily a good thing, because you also need to be crazy at times! But if on our latest album we find ourselves changing direction it could be down to our singer. When he’s too comfortable he gets crazy and says ‘we’re loosing it, we have to change!”

Hawary closed our interview in a telling way, proving once more the virtue of this particular bunch of musicians.

I think our latest album is the most diverse, both in music and lyrics. It also talks a lot about the social situation of the Egyptian young. Also we’re ready to publish a new single, which I reckon is a really significant song. We have already shot the video for that song, but we decided to keep it low profile because we wanted the audience to focus on the lyrics and music of the song and not the images of the video. The lyrics talk about our situation and we use bold words, which is something that not a lot of people would do today in Egypt.

In a nutshell, in the song we say that everything that is going on in Egypt is wrong. The song is called ‘Akher Oghneya’ [The Last Song]. In the lyrics, we repeat the word “hurria” [freedom], which is quite a meaningful concept at the moment. Freedom is also the last word that we pronounce in the song and we push people to save it. It’s not the government or the politicians who are wrong – everybody is wrong at the moment! Nothing has changed for the better. I’m not blaming one person in particular because the problem is in all of us. So we need to be tuned in with each other or things will continue to get worse”.