Raging in the street

The Egyptian band Cairokee, who shot to fame during the protests in Tahrir Square, have changed along with the revolution, from singing songs of freedom to tunes borne of frustration, Nadine Marroushi writes

Cairokee, clockwise, from top left: Amir Eid, Adam El Alfy, Sherif Hawary, Sherif Mostafa and Tamer Hashem. Courtesy Hatem Saleh
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Egyptian pop rock band Cairokee made their name in the wake of the 2011 revolution with songs such as Sout El Horeya (The Voice of Freedom), Matloob Zaeem (A Leader Is Wanted), Yalmidan (Oh You, The Square) and Ethbet Makanak (Stand Your Ground), all songs from their first album.

For many, these became anthems of the revolution and the success of the album literally placed them among the protesters of Tahrir Square. Amateur videos can be found on YouTube of Cairokee playing on a podium in the square as hundreds of people clap and sing along to their songs. The videos date to the days when tents erected by protesters still filled the square, even after Hosni Mubarak fell.

Three years later, the band have released their third album, El Sekka Shemal (The Wrong Turn). Thousands of young fans, screaming with excitement, filled the halls of El Sawy Cultural Wheel, a performance space in the upmarket neighbourhood of Zamalek in Cairo on February 7, to watch the band perform songs from their first two albums and from their new album, where it was also being sold for the first time.

When I meet with the band the next day in the green, leafy middle class neighbourhood of Maadi, where most of the band members have lived since their childhood, Amir Eid, the band’s 30-year-old lead singer and songwriter, explains that the title of the album (also the name of the fourth track) is appropriate because “everything around us is taking a wrong turn”.

He gives an example: “If you work in television and talk objectively and with principles, no one will watch you. But, if you spread lies, your viewership will skyrocket. Or, if you try and get your driving licence in the right way, you won’t get it, but if you pay a bribe, it’ll take five minutes.”

Like many people who took to the streets three years ago to bring down a corrupt dictatorship and replace it with a system that would bring “bread, freedom and social justice” – one of the slogans of the revolution – Amir and his bandmates sound just as disappointed and angry that those demands and others have not yet materialised.

Their third album and a new single reflect this; not with the broad themes discussed in their first album, but through personal frustrations and the difficulties of everyday life in Egypt. The album opens with the song Eaadet Nazar (Reconsideration), which Eid says was written when he was studying in the US and noticed that no one had their own identity; they were always trying to become “more American”.

“Through your clothing, or the way you look, you realise you don’t have your own signature. Even the guitar I play is western. So it’s about someone who realises he needs to reconsider himself,” Eid says. The song that best encapsulates the frustrations of the Egyptian street is the catchy and sarcastic Nefsy Afagar (I Wish I Could Explode), which contains the chorus: “I wish I could explode the streets and the roads. Every day, my blood boils.”

The band is conscious that the title could be misinterpreted at a time when bombs really are going off in Egypt, as jihadist militants target security forces and economic targets. But, in reality, the song is about the crowded streets, the traffic jams (and the resulting fights that sometimes erupt) that anyone who has spent any time in Egypt will be familiar with, including the sexual harassment that women face on the street, drugs, poor education and lawlessness. “We were very inspired by the streets of Cairo and the chaos,” says bass guitarist Adam El Alfy.

A song that further captures the angry mood of the band is a self-funded single they released outside of the third album that can be heard on the band’s YouTube page. It’s called Nas Betoros W Nas Betmoot (People Dance and People Die): “You tried to say freedom or social justice, you tried to say equality or human dignity, you tried to say human rights or to disagree with the regime, don’t dare believe your thinking is a red line.

“At the end of the day, you’ll be able to get bread, so they can silence you, not so you can live. And if you insist on walking in the opposite direction of people, the response will be with bullets,” Eid sings as he forms his hand into the shape of a gun.

It’s one of two songs Eid performed with Cairokee on the Bassem Youssef show, which was aired for the first time on the night before we meet. Youssef is considered Egypt’s top satirist and rose to fame after the 2011 uprising.

“[The song] is about the last year,” Eid says. “Our rights still haven’t been achieved, there’s no security, and yet people still celebrate.”

With this new album, the band says it has tried to achieve a more “Oriental and authentic sound”. To this end, it has included a remixed shaabi version of a ballad that appeared on their first album, the song Ghareeb Fi Belad Ghareeba (Stranger in a Strange Country) with an introduction by the popular shaabi singer Ahmed Adaweyah. Shaabi literally means “of the people” and is a popular, working-class music genre in Egypt.

After the 2011 revolution, electro-shaabi, also known as mahragan music, which is the Arabic word for festival, flooded the underground music scene. It is a mixture of synthesisers, chanting and rapping about street culture with traditional Arabic rhythms and Egyptian humour. Cairokee also included two songs with lyrics written by Ahmed Fouad Negm, known as Egypt’s “Poet of the People”. Negm’s use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic endeared him to his countrymen, who saw in his verse an unvarnished reflection of how they felt about milestones in their nation’s history.

Eid says that as the band’s music progresses, they’d like to reach a broader audience than the middle-class student support base they have now. “Our dream is to reach people that we speak about. Not just people that are like us, who like our songs, because we speak about other people. We want to reach the microbus and taxi drivers, but not in a fake way. It won’t come easily, and we’re still trying to understand how to do this.”

Cairokee would also like to reach other North African countries. “They’ve experimented with new ways of playing music, and I’d like to learn from them,” says Eid. On this album, they’ve included a duo with the female Algerian singer, songwriter and guitarist Souad Massi.

While the band does have a popular following in Egypt and have gained recognition abroad by performing in Europe and the Middle East, not everyone is a fan of their music. Eid has been criticised for having a weak voice and some consider Cairokee’s music monotonal and unconventional. Their sound tends to be repetitive, and that is noticeable on their latest album, which is also their longest, at 13 tracks.

Maha ElNabawi, an Egyptian cultural journalist and writer, tells me that Cairokee were “one of the first alternative mainstream bands to do something different from Tamer Hosny and Amr Diab [Egyptian pop musicians who sing mainly about love]. But they lost their hype after the first album because they didn’t continue with their political voice.”

Cairokee is made up of a keyboardist, two guitarists, a drummer and the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. They’re childhood friends who started the band in their mid-teens and came up with the band’s name when they were 18. “The idea is that it’s Cairo we’re singing along to, as you would in karaoke,” says Eid. For their fans, who cheered and sang along to their songs at the Cairo concert in Zamalek, Cairokee’s appeal is that they express how they feel. They also give voice to the narrative of some of the revolutionary youth, one that is often not ubiquitous.

Three female Egyptian teenage fans who have been communicating with the band online for over a year met for the first time at Cairokee’s concert on February 7 in Cairo. One of the fans came from Kuwait just to attend the concert.

“Anything we feel like we want to say, Amir says it for us,” Noura Atef, 16, from Abbasseya in Cairo, tells me. “When we come to talk about politics with our family, they think we don’t understand. When Cairokee put out the song Nas Betoros W Nas Betmoot, they said everything we felt on January 25. During this period, people were dying, and this year people came to the square to dance and celebrate.”

“I first got to know Cairokee through their song Matloob Zaeem,” says Farah Fathi, 15, from Kuwait. “They voiced all the characteristics we’d want in a leader: someone who is just, someone who is good and that hasn’t happened yet.”

“There’s still hope,” says Atef. “As long as Amir is still writing and singing, and the people are singing their songs, there’s hope.”

Nadine Marroushi is a Cairo-based freelance journalist who also writes for the Financial Times, Bloomberg and the London Review Of Books.