It is 1:30 AM and your Al-Masry Al-Youm reporter is rubbing two bruises on the back of his skull. Too busy inspecting the collage of magazine cutouts covering the low ceiling of a cave-like recording studio (Hendrix, The Beatles, Metallica, Indigo Girls, and…Shaggy?), this reporter backed up directly into the jutting edge of a cruelly designed archway. And then, disoriented by the pain, slammed his head into it again. As a result, he welcomed the arrival of El Dor El Awal with teary eyes.
Four years ago El Dor El Awal crept onto Cairo’s independent music scene, almost immediately gaining a faithful following due to their tight, energetic live performances as well as credibility stemming from the seven members’ involvement in other equally popular bands, like Wust el-Balad. However, El Dor El Awal was not just another band desperate to fit into a rapidly growing trend; a fact made clear by the release of their debut album, Qarar Izala (Eviction Notice). As hinted at by its title, the album was a collection of deeply atmospheric instrumental pieces, fuelled by a dark energy far removed from the nostalgic sentimentality of their contemporaries. With its unusual song structures, whirling intensity and endless array or instruments, traditional and obscure, Qarar Izala was not so much a breath of fresh air, but a hurricane.
As the band members shuffle into the studio, bleary-eyed and yawning, the reporter finds it hard to believe that these tired young men could be responsible for such restlessly lively music. However, it is late and the young musicians are clearly worn out by Egypt’s expected-but-frustrating loss against England in a soccer game that ended earlier in the night. For a moment, I worry this may not be the best time to talk to them about their upcoming performance in the Cairo Jazz Festival. Yet, despite the late hour and low spirits, the members of El Dor El Awal quickly change gears once they are comfortably seated in the small but cozy studio.
El Dor El Awal:
Mohammad Samy, 29 – violin
Fady Badr, 28 – qanun, keyboards
‘Bob’, 33 – kajun, djembe, various percussions
Mizo, 28 – konga, doff, tabla, various percussions
Nour, 27 – saxophone, mizmar, didgeridoo
Ahmad Omar, 32 – electric bass
Al-Masry Al-Youm: When did you guys first come together as a band?
Nour: Bob will answer that question.
Bob (sitting up): Me? No, I don’t… Someone else should answer.
Mohammad Samy (looking around for help): I don’t know… 2002 maybe?
Ahmad Omar (nodding): 2002.
Nour: No, it was 2004. And our first album came out 2006. I came, I remember.
Bob (confused): Came from where?
(The band members laugh and continue to debate.)
Mohammad Samy: It was 2004.
Mizo: Bob, Ahmed and I were roommates. We lived in the same apartment, and we all played music, so occasionally we’d jam together.
Bob: Eventually Mohammad Samy and Naissam started coming over to jam with us.
Ahmad Omar: And Nour would come visit us from Alexandria.
Bob: Mohammad Samy was the one who introduced us to Fady.
Ahmad Omar: And Naissam (the band’s flutist) as well.
Mizo: But she’s in France now, she doesn’t live in Egypt.
Ahmad Omar: And we also have Mesheal (one of the band’s collaborators, and a guest performer on their album, playing the clarinet)—but he’s in Kuwait.
Bob: The beginning wasn’t anything specific really. Omar and Samy would be hanging out, drinking tea, messing around on their instruments, taking turns building on a simple melody. Everything else grew out of that. And then Fady would come over with his keyboard.
Mohammad Samy: And eventually these jam sessions grew until it was all seven of us.
Ahmad Omar: Those sessions lasted for about seven months.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Was that a conscious decision, seven months? Did you have a deadline in mind for when you would begin to perform live and present yourselves as a band?
Ahmad Omar: No, not really. That was just how long it took for things to really take shape, for our ideas and roles within the band to solidify.
Bob: We started taking it more seriously, there were the beginnings of a path that we started to follow.
Ahmad Omar: Until we were confident enough to play our first life performance.
Mohammad Samy: The thing is, we had kept the structure of the band very open, there weren’t any limitations set on who could do what, so it took a while for us to find our groove.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What was your first performance together like?
Ahmad Omar: I really don’t remember how that came together.
Mohammad Samy (to others): Akram, from the Jazz Club?
Nour: That’s right, we auditioned for him.
Bob: No, we didn’t audition. He came to our house. And there was a concert planned for that night at the Cairo Jazz Club.
Ahmad Omar: We had called the owners and told them we had recorded something and that we wanted to perform.
Mohammad Samy: And that’s when we realized we needed a name. It was because we were all living on the first floor.
Fady: The first performance doesn’t really stand out, to be honest…
Ahmad Omar: Bob, Mizo, and I were all in Wust el-Balad. Nour and Fady were both in Resala and Mohamed Samy was in Black Theama.
Mohammad Samy: We all knew each other one way or another before El Dor El Awal.
Ahmad Omar: That’s why it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact beginning to the band—we had all played with each other before, for the most part. El Dor El Awal was something that grew out of that.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: So how does El Dor El Awal rank in terms of priority? Are you more loyal to your older bands or El Dor El Awal now that it’s a considerably bigger act?
Fady: Well, there’s really no conflict. We try to give equal attention to all our projects.
Mohammad Samy: If we have two scheduled performances that might clash, we try to postpone one of them.
Ahmad Omar: This is what we do for a living, so we have to find a way to make it work.
Mohammad Samy: We’re musicians, so as long as we’re playing music, that’s all that matters. The bands that we might be performing with are interchangeable; the important part is that we’re making music.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: So then what makes El Dor El Awal an appealing project for you, as musicians? What makes it stand out from the rest of your projects?
Ahmad Omar: I think mainly in the fact that it’s an instrumental band. No vocals.
Bob: It’s something different for us.
Mohammad Samy: We were all playing in bands fronted by a singer. We weren’t going to start another band with a singer; that would have been doing the same thing.
Nour: And an instrumental band gives you more freedom.
Mohammad Samy: But it’s not just that. At the end of the day, we’re all musicians. Whether or not we’re performing in a band with a singer, we should still excel at performing music.
Ahmad Omar: It’s variety. And for us, it’s a new way to do something we love.
Mohammad Samy: I enjoy playing in bands with vocalists as much as I do bands without.
Mizo: And in either case we write or co-write all the songs. So it’s just another form of creative expression, and that’s the whole point.
Fady: It’s better than limiting yourself, which we don’t like to do.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Is your approach to composing music different when it’s not supported by vocals?
Bob: Well, even in our other bands, I think we tend to treat vocals as we would a musical instrument, which is what the larynx is.
Mohammad Samy: The main idea was that we wanted to make music that didn’t necessarily rely on lyrics or a narrative to connect with listeners. We didn’t want that kind of guide to dictate what the music would mean to people.
Fady: I think there’s more freedom in writing music without lyrics, as opposed to songs. There are far less constraints in terms of structure.
Ahmad Omar: It’s also more challenging in that you can’t necessarily say ‘I want to write a love song’, and just use a bunch of romantic words against music to make it a love song. You need to think about what you’re doing and what the finished piece sounds like and what feelings it evokes.
Fady: But it also works the other way round. Two people could listen to the same one of our tracks, and each one would get something completely different out of it. The first guy could be having a great day and, for him, the piece will sound cheerful and optimistic. Meanwhile, the other guy’s having a terrible day, and to him, things don’t sound so great.
Ahmad Omar: Some tracks are clearer though. Like "Sohba" (from Eviction Notice).
Nour: Instrumental bands are something of a rarity. There aren’t many instrumental bands in Egypt. The attention is more on the singers than it is the musicians.
Mohammad Samy: People don’t really listen to just music anymore; it’s kind of an old-fashioned concept and we wanted to help revive it, in a way.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Does that mean that most of the inspiration behind El Dor el Awal is similarly old-fashioned, or are you also influenced by contemporary music?
Fady: I’d say we listen to all kinds of music.
Mizo: It’s the same way with most of the arts—a good painter will take inspiration from a wide variety of styles and techniques, the same way a writer’s skills will improve by reading vast quantities of different books by different people. You take in as much as you can, you absorb.
Bob: And we all have different tastes, so that feeds the variety in our music.
Mizo: Exactly. I mean Mohamed for example is really into classical music.
Ahmad Omar: Concertos and old Arabic songs.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What do you do besides music? Do any of you have day jobs?
(They all smile and shake their heads.)
Bob: I’m a Playstation coach.
(The group cracks up.)
Mohammad Samy: We all gave it a shot, at one point or another, but it just never really stuck.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Have you been pleased with people’s reactions to El Dor el Awal, and how have those reactions been different from the ones your other bands have received?
Mohammad Samy: It’s different. To be honest, we expected people to respond well and, fortunately, so far they have.
Mizo: Also, things happened quickly. Quicker than with the other bands. It was surprisingly easy.
Ahmad Omar: I mean, things did take their time to unfold, but the step from live performances to recording an album was spontaneous. After that, things progressed at a faster pace.
Mohammad Samy: We weren’t in any particular hurry. And I think the fact that we weren’t rushing to record an album made everything seem sudden.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: How did the first album come about?
Nour: We were introduced by the Culture Fund to Tony Safeer, from Incognito (a Lebanese record company). They produced our first album.
Bob: Tony was in Egypt, looking for Egyptian bands which he could possibly sign to his label. He had a list of potential candidates, several underground acts one of which was El Dor El Awal. So we met with him, we played him some of our music, and he eventually decided to produce an album for us through Incognito.
Mizo: They also produced our second album in 2008.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Was the album’s name, Qarar Izala (Eviction Notice) based on anything in particular? Was there a concept behind the album?
Ahmad Omar: Not so much a ‘concept’ as a general mood or atmosphere.
Fady: We went through a lot of names. We had a long list.
Mohammad Samy: Qarar Izala was one of the tracks on the album. And we felt like its name appropriately described the music as a whole. It conveyed the right sense of trouble, I guess.
Bob: Like a house collapsing.
Nour: People screaming…
Mohammad Samy: Dead children…
(There is a moment of silence before the group bursts out in laughter.)
Bob: It’s all for fun, you know. All for music. Nothing to take too seriously.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Your second album, Aa’tareeq (On the Road), is definitely much more accessible and nowhere near as claustrophobic or foreboding as Qara Izala. Where did that come from?
Ahmad Omar: Well, we recorded that in Lebanon so we were, you know…on the road.
Nour: This album was definitely more accessible, and intentionally so. The first one was challenging, it was more (pauses) informed, I guess. But for this one we wanted to do something different. We wanted to reach a certain type of listeners who might have had a hard time with the first one.
Mohammad Samy: The melodies are, I think, more straightforward; the hooks are clearer and more recognizable.
Bob: Some people like to listen to music for fun; that’s the level they appreciate it on. so we thought we’d make music for those people, a purely enjoyable listening experience.
Mohammad Samy: What I’m proud of the most is that both older and younger people really seem to respond well to this album in particular, which is great because we don’t ever want to limit ourselves to one particular audience or age group.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: So do you make music for yourselves, or do you only compose with the audience’s reaction in mind?
Nour: Both, really.
Bob: We make music for ourselves…
Mohammad Samy: But we also want other people to enjoy it. You can’t make music with the sole intention of pleasing listeners. You have to make the music you want to make and hope that people will enjoy it.
Nour: There are some of our pieces that people might not like, but we’ll still play them during our performances because we like them. My cousin, for example, hates the seventh track on the album, but I think it’s one of our favorites, or mine at least.
(Several other band members agree.)
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Many of your compositions have unusual titles hinting at a bigger story, like "Kitty", "Hasaballah 2000", and "Hawdag". Yet, when you talk about your work methods, it becomes clear that the titles come after the piece is finished.
Fady: The titles come a long time afterwards.
Nour: We usually meet before the album comes out, or when a collection of compositions is ready, and we listen to each track and for each one ask ourselves ‘What did that make you think of? How did it make you feel?’, and from there we make a list of names.
Mizo: For this last album, we only decided on the names a day before we recorded.
Bob: Like "Blue Hair" (off Eviction Notice). That title came from Ahmad who said it just felt like blue hair. It put that image in his head. So that’s what we ended up calling it.
Ahmad Omar (to others): Yeah, that was a joke. I was surprised you guys took me seriously.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Which do you enjoy more, jamming together in a studio or performing on stage?
Ahmad Omar: Jamming. That’s how we started off, that’s what led to being able to perform on stage.
Nour (surprised at Omar’s answer): Concerts, definitely! The audience reaction and interaction, that’s what makes it special.
(To other band members) I don’t want to just play for you guys every day. You don’t applaud me as well as the audience does. I like playing for an audience.
Bob: Playing live is great, and it’s why we do what we do. Otherwise, what’s the point of jamming if it doesn’t lead to anything?
Mizo: But there are all the problems that go with live performances. A lot of venues have lousy speakers or just really bad acoustics. Organizational problems too. Jamming is much more enjoyable.
Mohammad Samy: Both are great fun, and they’re both equally important. Without the jam sessions, we wouldn’t have the concerts, and without the concerts it’d just be endless jamming and I think we’d go crazy.
Ahmad Omar: Jamming sessions are especially rewarding when we come up with new material, or when we put together something we’re excited about for the first time.
Bob: I really enjoy the recording sessions. And especially the jam sessions leading up to the recording sessions, when we’re finalizing the tracklist and deciding what to keep and what goes out.
Nour: Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of recording every single piece we’ve written. There’s too many of them and it’s an expensive process.
Bob: Maybe one day, when we work with Amr Diab.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Your music has a strong cinematic quality to it. Would you ever consider scoring a film, if offered to?
Mohammad Samy: That would be a dream come true.
Fady: Absolutely. I mean, I have no idea what kind of film we could possibly score, but I think we’d all love to work on something like that.
(Fady, exhausted, nods off towards the end of the sentence above, slipping in his chair and slurring his words. His voice drops to an unsettlingly low pitch.)
Bob (to Fady): We’d be scoring a horror movie, from the looks of it.
(The laughter jolts Fady awake. For a moment, he seems completely disoriented before smiling awkwardly at everyone.)
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Any plans for a music video, at least?
Nour: Amr Diab, scoring movies, making videos…this must be the fantasy segment of the interview.
Bob: Videos cost money. Sometimes, quite often actually, we’ll put on a show and end up in debt instead of making money.
Mohammad Samy: Yeah, it really isn’t about making money at all because we don’t, really. It’s much more about making music, which for the most part pays for itself without being too profitable.
Ahmad Omar: It’s still quite difficult. Of course, it was much more difficult a few years ago. This type of scene didn’t exist at all back then. Now things are getting better, slowly, but it’s still not easy.
Nour: Someday it’ll pay off.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: You recently returned from performing at the Dubai Jazz Festival—your first festival gig. How was it, and was the audience different than the ones you’re used to performing for in Egypt?
Ahmad Omar: Dubai was a great experience.
Mohammad Samy: And, being our first ever festival, it had a nice feeling to it. It made things ‘official’ in a sense—for me, at least. It was like something we had accomplished.
Ahmad Omar: The audience wasn’t that different, really. I guess over there this type of scene is bigger, or more established. This type of underground music, acts that aren’t necessarily mainstream—that whole concept is not new to them so, as a result, they didn’t think we were that different or unusual. That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy the music. On the contrary, I think they were more readily receptive to it, due to the variety of styles and genres that audience has been exposed to. In Egypt, tastes aren’t necessarily different, they’re just not developed because there isn’t as much variety. But that’s changing.
Nour: The fundamental part of performing live though, is the same. People come, listen to our music, and leave satisfied, and hopefully, that won’t change.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Finally, any news of a third album?
Nour: We’re aiming for an early 2011 release, if all goes well.
El Dor El Awal will be performing at Sawy Culture Wheel as part of the Cairo Jazz Festival on Saturday 13 March 2010. For more information, please visit www.cairojazzfest.com