A delicate xylophone melody begins like a child's lullaby, before caressing guitar twangs and melancholic vocals kick in. This is Moga, the new album from Maii and Zeid, a collaboration between the emerging Egyptian talent Maii Waleed and the prolific underground Lebanese producer and musician Zeid Hamdan.
Waleed's emotional vocals, sung in Arabic, echo in whirling layers talking of heartache and existential crises with subtle social commentary. At times they hover over deconstructed guitar riffs and an electro-pulse; when given space to breathe they stand bare and intense, resonating over simple accompaniment with a breathy intimacy.
Not only is Moga worlds away from both artists' numerous past projects - Maii was a former drummer in the all-girl metal band Mascara and Zeid dabbled in everything from indie pop to electro and more classical Arabic music - but their Oriental dream-pop sounds like nothing else currently being produced in the region.
Meeting in Alexandria while Hamdan was working with the Egyptian artist Maryam Saleh, the duo instantly connected and recorded 10 demos in one afternoon. "She was so on time, groovy and sung beautifully, I decided I have to do an album with her," Hamdan says.
It took some time for the project to get off the ground and two years had passed before Hamdan had travelled to Egypt to rework the demos. Waleed later came to Beirut to work on the album in Hamdan's studio.
Spending a month in the studio, Hamdan began to build each track, instrument by instrument, taking direction from Maii.
"We were just having fun and exchanging ideas," Hamdan says. "On some songs we just followed Maii's groove, not adding much, on others we completely destroyed her old direction and tried something new. It was really relaxed, just two friends sharing music."
Even while playing in the metal bands Nail Polish and Mascara, Waleed felt somewhat disconnected, her taste different from her bandmates'. When her last band fell apart it gave her the room to experiment as a solo artist and she began writing more personal material with Arabic lyrics. When the opportunity came to work with Hamdan, she found in him a musical companion.
"I love Zeid's music, he's the closest to my taste," Waleed says. "I learn a lot from him. Not only the music but the self-image and not worrying too much about things. That keeps me centred."
Hamdan, who pioneered Beirut's alternative music scene alongside Yasmine Hamdan back in the 1990s with the indie electro-pop band Soap Kills, has been an unstoppable force driving the region's underground music scene. His many projects and collaborations have seen him experiment across a multitude of genres, from the Oriental electro-pop group Zeid and the Wings to a reworking of Sheikh Imam's Egyptian resistance songs with Maryam Saleh.
As a producer, he's helped many musicians hone their style and put out numerous records on his independent label, Lebanese Underground. "Each artist I've worked with has their own character, something new," Hamdan says. "Maii has her signature sound."
Although Waleed is not interested in focusing on politics, the album seems to capture the stifling atmosphere of Egypt's younger generation, unsure of their direction in a country struggling to build its future. "Egypt is a very complicated country and I still get the feeling of not knowing where to place myself in this society," she says. "Lately, this feeling that I don't really belong in Egypt has been amplified in my head."
Moga stands somewhat on the periphery of Egypt's music scene, where Arabic pop rules the commercial mainstream and the alternative maintains its own set equation. "In Cairo, I think people like to have a definite idea of your sound and build from that," Waleed says. "A lot of people are still not open to accepting new things and people are sometimes afraid to give something new to the audience." The singer points to a scene that often lacks experimentation, where every band consists of "a drummer, a bassist, two guitars and one vocalist".
Waleed, though, has had no problem finding willing collaborators outside Egypt.
Tarek Ziad Khuluki and Dani Shukri, who relocated their band Tanjaret Daghet (Pressure Pot) to Beirut after fleeing Syria, formed part of the live band at Waleed and Hamdan's recent gig in Beirut's Metro al Madina. "The musicians in this project were enjoying it so much," Hamdan says. "It's very playful; a lot of synth, tricks with the beat and emptiness. Most bands are used to filling, with Maii what we tried to do was empty."
Now the duo plan to develop the project further, reshaping the songs as an electronic formation for touring. Their next concert will take place later this month at the Dum Tak Festival in Jordan.
"Now we have this baby together, this concrete project," Waleed says. "Its perhaps the most comfortable I've been."
Moga is out now, pending release on iTunes
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