Before we begin, can we all just agree that word ‘alternative’ is a lazy and essentially meaningless word to attach to music or any other art. Cool? Great, because I’m sick of pseudo-intellectual hipster types pointing out that to refer to music as ‘alternative’ is to betray the very boundless and fluid nature that made it so.
When I use alternative in this context, it’s with its most basic of meanings: ‘available as another possibility’. I won’t go into how house music continues to be the most crowd-pleasing and lucrative genre for the bigger venues across Cairo to chase – that awful, vague concept of Oriental-fusion comes in at a close second – but there are venues across the city that are tapping into the more underground, alternative left-field musical goldmines…
Procession Towards the Unknown @ ROOM Art Space, Feb. 2016 (Photo: ROOM Art Space on Facebook)
Giving off a vibe of some kind of university rec room, Garden City’s ROOM Art Space has become one of the best places to catch alternative music during its relatively short existence. As well as live music, ROOM Art Space has gathered a cult following for popular events such as its weekly drum circles – where attendees are encouraged to take part – it’s recently launched karaoke nights and its regular film screenings. When it comes to gigs, though, ROOM has become a favourite among acts that aren’t quite commercially appealing enough for other venues, with everyone from accordionist and singer-songwriter, Youssra El Hawary, and Arabic jazz fusion instrumental group, Maktoub, to experimental post-rock band, Telepoetic, and electro-artist, Machine Eat Man, having performed there this year.
Ramsi @ Balcon, Feb. 2015 (Photo: Balcon on Facebook)
There was span of time recently when Balcon seemed to have gone quiet; but 2016 has seen the venue return to form with a series of very good events – so good that it almost convinced me to leave my slovenly life in 6th of October to trek it across the whole city to Heliopolis. Almost. Though there are more film screenings than gigs these days, those live music events that do pop up at Balcon expose attendees to a variety of different off-the-grid acts. Some of the highlight gigs this year have seen the likes of singer-songwriter, Rafif, innovator of alternative, Hassan Khan, and Egypt’s answer to Atoms For Peace, Finrod, perform.
Mazaher @ Makan, Oct. 2012 (Photo: Makan on Facebook)
Though it was only founded in 2002, Makan has this ethereal importance to it – it feels old, it feels epic, it feels like the walls have plenty of stories to tell. Now, the Downtown Cairo venue’s place on this most esteemed of lists is questionable, as it focuses very specifically on maintaining and reviving the traditional musics of Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the acts that do perform there are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the city – the Zar-led music of Mazaher, Sudanese folk singer, Asia, and the Nubian musical stylings of Aragide.
Shady Ahmed @ 3elbt Alwan, Jan. 2016 (Photo: 3elbt Alwan on Facebook)
There’ much more to this unassuming Zamalek cafe-come-growing-cultural-hub than meets the eye. When it comes to live music, there are no gimmicks, no stunts – just good, alternative acts in front of a crowd. As a space, 3elbt Alwan has fostered an atmosphere that borrows from a traditional ahwa (see chairs and tables) and an air of over-the-top old Egypt chic (see chandeliers and other light fixtures), making it a quirky and apt live music venue (see random antique and retro knickknacks). Among the acts that it has hosted this year are experimental group, Procession Towards the Unknown, medieval Mediterranean folk-inspired band, NAR, and Portuguese-Mauritanian singer-songwriter, Aïcha Makeba.
Procession Toward the Unknown @ Darb 1718, Jan. 2016 (Photo: Ahmed Atef/Darb 1718 on Facebook)
A giant on the local arts and culture scene, Darb 1718 needs no introduction. Many bemoan its location, but 1) get over it because Mar Girgis Metro Station a two-minute walk from the venue and 2) it’s definitely worth it. Though gigs aren’t as regular as they once were, Darb’s recently launched Mazzika X El Sat7 series has been gathering momentum over the last few month thanks to its unique, intimate rooftop setting and a string of top acts, including the Invisible Hands and psychedelic-rockers, Radio Acid, as well as the likes of AfroNoubia, Bahiyya and Hany Mustafa-led band, EgoZ.__________
By Haisam Awad