9 October 2015
Cairo’s challenge to Glasgow audiences
“Crowds at gigs in Cairo are loud and intrusive – in a good way, it’s like the city,” Maurice Louca is explaining down Skype as, bang on cue, a loud motorbike zooms past with a high buzz. “If they like something, they’ll show it. There isn’t that kind of highbrow thing here; it’s quite the opposite actually. They’re very appreciative.”
Louca, an experimental musician born and based in Cairo, talks about a Danish DJ friend who played a club in his hometown not long ago. “The crowd had no alcohol, it was a Saturday about 7pm, and they listened! They went crazy. He couldn’t believe it. Not even drunk, not 4am, just really into it.”
It’s fairly easy to imagine a Glasgow crowd, maybe not 100% sober, but definitely losing their cool for Louca’s upcoming live set at the CCA. His music, and in particular his latest album, Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), is by turns a multi-coloured, caffeinated, polyrhythmic frenzy, or a droning, rolling, hypnotic daze. He bends looping Middle Eastern percussion and psychedelic samples around addictive Egyptian shaabi melodies and metallic Arabic vocals, creating an exhilarating blur. Just please, don’t call it “fusion”.
“I hate that term – I don’t want to be associated with it, and always try to steer away from it!” he protests, laughing. “Often it just means, ‘Take metal music, then add some tabla’. I hope that’s not how I approach music. I’m not conscious or calculated about combining styles, it’s much more natural than that.”
Louca’s music mixes shaabi (an Egyptian genre of street, working class, wedding and political music that’s so broad, he says, the umbrella label pins down the style about as well as the term “world” music does) with the myriad musical influences he’s grown up around. He’s played in various bands (Bikya, and Dwarves of East Agouza with Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi) dabbling in psych-rock covers, free jazz, techno, drum and bass, and this month [September 2015] released an exhilarating debut album of cosmic-Arabic sounds with Alif, an alternative Iraqi-Palestinian-Lebanese-Egyptian ensemble.
Although he’s been composing and performing music for years, the timing is perfect for Louca’s first Scottish appearance, and he’s glad to see a growing Western interest in Arabic music. Artists like Syrian wedding-rave wizard Omar Souleyman, hyperactive Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy and high-energy Dutch collective Cairo Liberation Front have paved the way for him, taking the sounds of shaabi, and it’s dancier “electro-shaabi” offshoot mahraganat, into the crossover territory of European clubs and festivals.
“Those signature sounds – the polyrhythms, the scales, the textures and instrumentation – probably stand out more for Western audiences, which I am pleased about, but for me they’re just part of my musical make-up.”
Some have made a connection between the Arab Spring uprisings which began in 2010 and a gradual galvanisation of the Arabic underground music scene, but as far as Louca is concerned, the energy and creativity was there long before.
“For sure there’s a growing momentum. But things started getting interesting in Egypt back around 2005. There was definitely this feeling like, ‘we own the streets’, and it affected music, with people putting on shows and loud music in cafes, the streets and their homes. There was a bit more freedom of speech, and things got politically very interesting.”
Although he describes the current mood in Egypt as, “like living under a dark cloud”, with several of his friends in jail, and increased attempts to crackdown on youth culture and suppress artistic expression through censorship, the grim backdrop doesn’t affect him, or his music.
“No-one is stopping me on a day to day basis from making music. I don’t ever set out to make uplifting or sad music anyway. That’s not how I work. I’ve always just written music that sounds good to me.”
Although his album title, Salute the Parrot might conjure up tropical, exotic images, and he’s excited at the idea that it does, that wasn’t necessarily what Louca was aiming for.
“My intention was to leave it very open. I suppose it sounds a bit surreal, which I like, plus there are political connotations. In Cairo, a parrot is someone who repeats something that he doesn’t understand. A parrot is also the master of ceremonies at weddings who shouts out names, and that ties in with the shaabi music, so I like all the interpretations.”
As for his live show in Glasgow, he hopes the crowd get into it. “A great audience is one that likes to clap and dance, and doesn’t stay cold. I’ve heard Glasgow has a very vibrant scene, and audiences are already pretty aware of the Arab music scene over there. I don’t expect them to be as chaotic and insane as a crowd in Cairo, but it’ll be looking forward to see how carried away we get.”
Maurice Louca plays the CCA, Glasgow, tomorrow.
Read online at The Herald here.