How Egypt's Cairokee found stardom: 'Step by step, you begin depending on yourself'

The quintet are currently working on their new album

From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena, Egyptian pop-rock group Cairokee are going from strength to strength.

The five-piece emerged during the 2011 Egyptian revolution with Ya El Medan and the song's rousing chorus became a rallying cry used by protesters in Tahrir Square. The band have since gone on to fashion a distinct sound and approach of their own.

Their searching and often romantic lyrics, coupled with evocative and expansive production, have led segments of the regional music press to dub them the Arab world’s answer to Coldplay.

The boys certainly have the ambition.

Their Coca-Cola Arena show, which takes place on Thursday, comes on the back of their well-received concert with the Cairo Celebration Choir.

In the live-streamed affair held on July 9 at the Cairo Citadel, the group followed the likes of rock behemoths Metallica and Scorpions in being backed by a full classical music orchestra.

Cairokee keyboardist and producer Sherif Mostafa tells The National that the concert was a creative breakthrough for the group. “It was a great experience,” he says.

“It was also quite different because it required us to express the emotions of the songs in a different way.”

Mostafa can’t confirm if the full concert, currently not available online, will form the basis of a future live album or film. “Maybe yes, maybe no. I cannot claim that we will be doing that.

“Because of the pandemic, the people started appreciating live streaming, yet we hope that the music world doesn’t turn into virtual reality. We really appreciate actual concerts and the interaction with thousands of people singing our songs.”

A sound fit for arenas

Cairokee fans know what Mostafa is talking about.

While the orchestral collaboration was a triumph of production, it doesn’t fully capture the power and brooding intimacy of a physical performance by the band.

The group's elevation to arena status in Egypt – and now the UAE – is a testament to their hard work, with six quality albums released in the span of a decade, but it is within such venues that their songs truly shine.

The group's most recent release, 2019 album The Ugly Ducklings, is full of shimmering rock and bruising ballads carried by the fragile vocals of guitarist Amir Eid.

Tracks such as Benkhaf (We Are Afraid) and Ya Abyad Ya Eswed (Either Black or White) also exhibit a deft melange of spacey electronica and traditional Egyptian folk music that should reverberate pristinely within the Coca-Cola Arena's speakers.

A non-revolutionary start

The Ugly Ducklings' success, in addition to its 2017 predecessor Noaata Beida, is more satisfying for Cairokee in that it shed any remaining conceptions that they are a protest group.

Mostafa says Cairokee began as early as 2004 and always had songs discussing various topics relating to Egyptian life.

“We got known after the revolution because of the internet exposure and how people started trusting the internet more than the media,” he recalls.

“This allowed us to shine on social media platforms and the media then started using our songs, which gave us the chance to grow.”

That global spotlight, Mostafa says, resulted in Cairokee being viewed as a leader in Egypt’s independent music scene.

However, not only does Mostafa disagree with this label, he says a broader understanding is needed within the Egyptian music industry for it to really have an indie music scene of its own.

“This is why we have our own production company,” he says.

“It wasn’t only for creative control but our experience found that many record label companies wanted to change our identity into something that is not remotely like ours.

“They didn’t have enough knowledge of how to make an artist succeed.”

A new album on the way

The advance of technology, Mostafa says, has allowed a new generation of artists to call their own shots.

“We also noticed that technology is developing every day and through minimal use of technology at home, you can produce good quality music and step by step you begin depending on yourself and not rely on companies.”

During the pandemic, Cairokee is using the online space as an opportunity to stretch out creatively.

In their regular Cairokee Studio Sessions, streamed on social media, the group plays stripped-down versions of fan favourites, including Edhak and Nas W Nas.

Mostafa says their Dubai show is happening while they record their seventh album. “We are still working on it but we are promising the audience that they will really like the output.”

Cairokee will perform with Hassan Shakosh at Coca-Cola Arena on Thursday. Doors open at 9pm and tickets are available from Dh149 at coca-cola-arena.com

Updated: July 21st 2021, 1:52 PM