A new Arab supergroup is set to make its debut in Sharjah this Saturday.
Commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Praed Orchestra, a who's who of the Egyptian indie music scene, will put on a performance that will explore the depth of Egyptian street music, commonly referred to as Shaabi.
Multi-instrumentalist Maurice Louca is part of the ensemble, along with rising star Nadah El Shazly, who will share vocal duties and play the buzuq. Also appearing on stage will be guitarist Sam Shalabi, who lives in Canada and is the mastermind behind instrumental groups Land of Kush and Shalabi Effect. Co-leading the ensemble on the synthesiser, beat machine and vocals is Raed Yassin. The Lebanese producer and musician came across like a proud parent as he told The National about the evolution of the project.
The sound of the Egyptian underclass
Praed Orchestra is the latest development of what began as an experimental electronic music duo in 2006 alongside Swiss musician Paed Conca. "We have always been interested in new sounds and doing things differently," Yassin says. "It started when I was organising a music festival in Beirut and Paed was playing in it.
He was also a bass player and we discussed forming a bass duo. It just grew from there.”
But being multitalented freethinkers can have its setbacks, particularly when it comes to choosing a starting point to explore a shared love for electronic music and jazz. It was the re-emergence of Shaabi music in Egypt that provided the ideal platform.
Originating in the streets of Cairo in the 1970s, Shaabi music – often played at weddings and street parties – is defined by its underclass roots and its hodgepodge sound that mixes classical Arabic music with a gritty folk sensibility. For example, a track would begin with an improvisational vocal a cappella – a standard of classic Arabic compositions – before launching into rhythmic folk song sung in street vernacular with lyrics detailing the joys and struggles of those living on society's margins.
Viewed as artistically bereft and coarse, Shaabi musicians were essentially shut out of the Egyptian music industry until the late 1990s. Because record labels refused to distribute their material, Shaabi songs spread through pirated cassettes and word of mouth.
The perilous social and economic times Egypt faced over the past decade allowed Shaabi to re-emerge once again. This time around, the borderless universe of the internet allowed the songs to flourish and made stars of artists such as Sadat, Filo and Diesel.
But this version was not the sound of their musical forefathers. The heavy use of electronic elements – such as the synthesiser – and shuddering beats make Shaabi 2.0 a wilder affair. It is partly for this reason that current artists prefer to describe their music as a new genre called Mahraganat, which aptly translates to "festivals."
A new sound
Yet, where some view the latest reincarnation as hedonistic and throwaway, both Yassin and Conca recognised its musical value. “What drew us was this interference of electronica and technology into Shaabi music,” he says. “You can hear this in the use of the keyboards and synthesiser, which really allowed it to take a different shape. Something new started to happen. This energy that came from the mix of the sounds of these machines with the human voice really made it very interesting for us.”
Another feature of Shaabi music which hooked the duo was its elongated nature. The keyboard riffs swirl incessantly and the pulsating rhythms allow the songs – which can last for up to 20 minutes – to take on an almost trance-like quality.
"And that hints to other kinds of music," Yassin says. "It links you to other music genres such as psychedelia and free jazz. And we have always been interested in music that transforms and which offers a full experience."
Inspired by the material at their disposal, Praed was created with both Yassin and Conca using Shaabi tracks like musical putty to build their own sounds.
Existing vocals and grooves were chopped up and used as samples on top of new compositions and rhythms they created. The end result can be heard in their immersive 2016 debut album Fabrication of Silver Dreams. Tracks such as the stellar The Odyssey of the Blue Flies and Cut Me in Half are marked by a restless creative spirit. The former relentlessly shapeshifts from a stalking bass line to an explosion of horns and organs before it settles into a heady groove with the arrival of the synthesisers.
The album led to Praed embarking on a global tour and making hot and sweaty messes of crowds from Cairo to Tokyo.
More than a concert
However, those expecting their Sharjah show to simply be a live version of their songs are in for quite a surprise.
The ensemble was formed in light of a commission from the Sharjah Art Foundation 10 months ago with the brief being to create completely new works. Yassin said the orchestra was an ideal foil for Praed to expand their sound even further, and allow them to delve into the free-jazz form the pair are fond off – hence the quality of the musicians they enlisted for the Sharjah show. "Each person was chosen for the character of their music and what they can do," Yassin says.
"The music in the show will be varied. There are pieces with electronic samples and others without it and different members of the band will be a protagonist in certain pieces.
"It will be kind of a long show of two hours. With that kind of time the music on the stage will grow and develop rather nicely."
But more than the tantalising sounds on offer, Praed Orchestra’s performance acts as another example of how the indie-Arabic music scene is in rude health. Yassin says this is down to the internet ushering in a new era of collaboration that was virtually impossible beforehand.
“Arab countries are not really easy to tour. For an example, as a Lebanese national, I need a visa to tour wherever I play in the Arab world. So the internet has made it easier for Arab artists to connect with each other,” he says.
“Because of that, we are living in interesting times. The less boundaries Arab musicians now have between each other means there are more collaborations happening and new kinds of projects being created. This is all a natural process.”
Praed Orchestra performs on Saturday at Heritage Area, Heart of Sharjah at 8pm. Free entry. For details go to www.sharjahart.org