Borsa is a triangle made of streets and alleys in Cairo-s downtown which during the evenings is always crowded with thousands of youth spending their night having conversations, between a water pipe and a cup of Egyptian tea or Turkish coffee. The Borsa becomes a jungle of Europeans and Africans which in somehow recalls Alexandria’s splendours at the beginning of last century.
Farouk Ibrahim walks along the narrow Olowi Street as he would smash the world; Gad follows him walking in a clumsy way. Ibrahim wears shorts kaki colour, like an explorer, All Stars shoes and a T-shirt; Gad a pair of jeans and a grey T-shirt, Ray Ban sunglasses and a full beard that reminds blacks of America. They live in Cairo since they were born, in Nasr City, the neighbourhood of the “Victory” built by Gamal Adbel Nasser.
The way they act seems like youth thoughtless, even when answer questions using irony and jokes, but how often happens, this is just a mask to hide a more complex and deep mind.
“First question …”
“First answer …”, Ibrahim makes fun of me, but in the span of a second become serious again.
“… what do you exactly sing?”
“Bism Allah Ramhan Ibrahim …” (in piety and benevolence of God is …), the typical sentence, you start with any formal speech, also used by any Imam to open the religious ceremony on Friday pray, “the answer is … Tunisia”. Both are laughing, is one of the most popular jokes currently among the youth of Cairo. “No, I am joking. We sing what happens in the street, which is why we named Asfalt. We observe the community, what happens between people, social behaviour: how people learn and relate from/to each other and, as they talk to each other … mostly all the things that belong to streets of Cairo”, said Ibrahim.
“Do you also talk about relationships between girls and boys in the streets, if so, how exactly?”
“We talk about serious issues, using irony and sarcasm to avoid becoming boring. Normally our songs are not only focused on girls … there may be some parts related to them, but it is not the main subject, the latter is the community as a whole”
“Is the audience to …”
“Is this the third question?”, Ibrahim asked me point blank as he is intimidating me.
“Yes, your third question, third answer then?”. He laughs again. “Who is your audience? Is it made by youth?”
Gad: “Mostly they are teenagers, aged 14 to 20 years …”
“Yes,” carry on Ibrahim. “In a sample of 1000 people, 50% are adolescents, 20% from 20 to 25 years, 10% from 25 to 29, the rest over 30”
“How old are you?”
“Gad is 27, I am 29, but I look smaller, do I?”
“Yes, about ninety years ….” In Arabic, pronouncing an A instead of I can completely change the meaning of a word!
“Ninety?”, surprisingly reply Ibrahim. “How ninety?”, he pointes out my pronunciation mistake. “Ninety, I’d be bigger than Mubarak!”. Laughs again … if they did not have this hilarious humour, they could not sing hip hop and use the irony in their lyrics to describe Egypt today.
“Why hip hop? What did this music impress you? Do you have influences from Arabic melodies? ”
“These are two questions in one? Just because I don’t want to lose their number … We used to listen hip hop already when we were teenagers, in 1995; we used to stay at home listening hip hop, because its message is different from that one contained in the typical Egyptian songs, which are only “habibi” (my love) song, all have the same melodies and lyrics: I love you, I miss you, where you are, forgive me … No one speaks about people, roads, social problems. Rather than saying Arabic influences, I would say contaminations. In Hat’ayar Feat Jasmine, we used the typical oriental flute with an Arabic melody; in a song with Fredwreck we used the piano; while in Fakkar the clarinet … yes, I’d say we try to combine Eastern music with hip-hop”
Gad breaks into the conversation. “Many musicians record many love songs and then some regarding the social, we do the opposite: twenty-five songs on people, then we make one with love”
“When did you start having concerts in Egypt? Do you also cooperate with other Egyptian bands?”
“We play since early 2005. In general, there are bands which just think to make concerts and festivals, others that focus to record albums; we are part of the first category. We cooperate with different groups: West El Balad, Zulu, Salelim, Taxi Band, Zap Tharwat … either in concerts then in festivals, singing with them our songs and improvising”, says Gad.
“Are there groups which inspire you?”
“All the things we do are one hundred percent from Egypt: songs and melodies”
“But no inspiration or influence from none else?”
“Our inspiration is the street; all words come from there, from the sensations that the people give to us”, Ibrahim adds.
“Ok ok, maybe we have something in common with the group “The Roots”, which is one of my favourite bands along with Common Sense”, adds Gad.
“As Gad, I listen The Roots, also Ahmed Munib, Biggie Smalls, 2Pac … and Asfalt of course”, Ibrahim says hilariously.
“How is the production and distribution of your CDs?”
“Both are made by Mustafa Nigma. But also we did different things with Taki, component of the Egyptian hip hop band MTM, and Magdi El Husseni, a pianist who had worked with the famous musicians Abdel El Halim”, replied Ibrahim.
“El Husseni plays mainly classical Arabic music; he worked with Fairuz and Um Kalthum. We have also produced with Farid Nassar, known as Fredwreck, who lives in Los Angeles and collaborated with Eminem, Snoop Dogg’s, Boogie, 50 Cent, Britney Spears and … Asfalt”, smiles proudly Gad when he finishes to talk.
“Do you listen to these groups?”
“Sure, we listen everything from hip hop, either foreign or Egyptian, but especially the latter because we must be aware of what’s going on around, to stay updated with the market: which new groups and which are good ones”, says Ibrahim.
Gad: “We need to listen to everything to avoid that a new song we compose can be similar to one already in the market, to do something original, only ours, only Asfalt”
Ibrahim: “Basically our goal is to make quality music, so we concentrate on concerts rather than on the distribution and production, not to be dependent on sales and marketing rules”
“What is the audience reaction to your music?”
“The reaction is different among young and older people. The latter does not label us as artists, only a small percentage of them supports and encourages us, perhaps because they are not used to … there is no “habibi habibi”; by opposite, teenagers love us, and this makes us happy. There are people who don’t know hip hop but like us immediately, while others with more experience might appreciate us less, of course there cannot be a common reaction”. Fans of Asfalt are around to 27,000 users on Facebook, where you can listen to most of their songs, 123000 on Myspace, where you can also buy their songs. Asfalt seems to rely on its distribution using new technology, just like their coetaneous in Tahrir during the days of the uprising.
“What do you think about the revolution?”
Gad: “We have been singing since a long time what is happening in the country. Why did the revolution happen? Because things were not going well! Hosni Mubarak did not expect all these young Egyptians would go so far. Before people were just whispering and shutting up immediately when they felt there were secret services around, they were afraid. Today, people talk, listen and act, there is communication and freedom. We made a video two days before the revolution, is called “Katiba li bokora gawab” (A letter for tomorrow) which will be released shortly. Frankly, we were afraid from the government response, because it’s a denouncing song, but luckily the revolution came. There are many people who have listened to it and appreciated very much”
“Did you participate actively in the revolution?”
Ibrahim: “I went to the streets on January 28th, the Anger Friday, and days after that one; the day of Mubarak’s resignation I was in Tahrir. We participated in the square and we recorded video posted on Facebook, we read poems to support our friends in the street. After the revolution we did many concerts and we will continue to make them, more or less every two weeks … In two days we’ll record a new song with the impressions of revolution, entitled “Min el Massot?” (Who is the target?). We didn’t want to do it immediately during the revolution, like other people did just for selling, for us it’s different. We wanted to wait, but now we feel we can do it”
“We are not like singer Tamer Hosny”, says disgusted Gad. “He came to Tahrir telling people to go home, of course, the old regime suited him. Rightly the people in Tahrir kicked him out … and you know what he’s done a week later? He recorded a song for the revolution, all usual lyrics: Egypt is my country, I love you … the same metric of “habibi songs”, where the protagonist was not the usual girl, but Egypt. Instead Amr Waqaa, who starred in Syriana with George Clooney, has been in Tahrir since the first day; the famous Adel Imam was against the revolution at the beginning, subsequently he paid a lots money to get a false advertising that he was with the revolution since the beginning, but it is a lie”
“What are your plans for the future apart from those mentioned?”
“For the moment we are focused on concerts and festivals, especially in Egypt, but we went also to the Dubai’s festival for MTV Arabia. It was thanks to Fredwreck who has discovered and invited us to participate”. To be precise it was in 2007, that program has been seen from about 180 million people worldwide.
“Would you like to participate to festivals in Europe or America in the future? Language can be a barrier?”
Gad: “Yes, if we are invited, we’ll go. Language is not a problem; music can communicate without understanding the words”
“What do you think could be the next developments of the revolution?”
“The situation is static at this point, there is not great expectation, as there was not before the revolution, but it happened. People concern about the missing work, tourists don’t come to Egypt anymore at this stage, money is not enough for the whole family … we hope that things will improve soon. The current prime minister is more interested to the country’s benefits than was his predecessor; even common people are more interested in politics, I hope that in future there will be more justice and greater interest to the real problems of the country. Also, not getting the streets dirty is a gesture of respect. Unfortunately there is still so much corruption, bribes have not disappeared, people pay illegally for everything: to open a shop, to park the car, to pay less taxes, to ask permission to build … I sincerely hope this system will change”, Ibrahim is serious this time, he sees another Egypt, but still far away.
“Which one of your songs you like most?”
Gad. “The last song: Min Massot. It speaks about Muslims, Arabs, that they are not all terrorists as described by Western media, neither the rich ones from the Persian Gulf, nor people in the street, nor Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. The song talks about Hosni Mubarak who was an unjust man … but the solution is not Barack Obama. The most important thing is solidarity and work together, treating each other like brothers; this may be a solution or beginning one”
Ibrahim. “The song I like most is called Shabab fi el awahi (Boys at the cafes). The idea is focused on unemployment; many younger come out from the university but cannot find work, then what do they do? They sit at the bar. They have been spending most of their young age studying, making masters, PhDs … to find themselves at home with their parents, without a car, without job… and spending time in cafes drinking tea and smoking water pipe. Even if the whole song has a negative rhythmic, at the end there is a positive message: never lose your hope and continue to seek, because we, the youth of today, we’ll be the works of tomorrow”
A letter for tomorrow
A carpet rolled out, thousands are sleeping over there
Wealthy, tell me I’m a liar
Fear of pain, the belt of the soldier leaves the mark in the mind
Exist and not exist. Living without a voice
Laughing can listen to, buy my death
A country that never listens
So my point is my coffin
Write a letter to the fear and tomorrow never comes
Because words in our country never get
Fear that you will not understand and do not tell
I will walk away
Wear a mystery that can not be washed
A cotton in my country that does not fix any
Write a letter for tomorrow, fear will never be finished
Life in God’s hands can not be guaranteed
Life is ending, because not mind?
The dirty money is in the stomach, can not be digested
Hunger is about the rocks
Walking with your feet while someone next to you strip,
Should I listen and laugh
No offense when I say ugly in the face of “ugly”
Deceit in secret
They say that intelligence has happened
Country of sandals. Doors that refuse to open
Look how many countries are close to being canceled
Write a letter for tomorrow, will not matter whether or not
Because I’m leaving anyway
If the prophet Job were here, would not be patient, do not endure
If they told me to stay one day, I would not be
While the love for our country continues to grow, it is still
Even when I’m in my country, I miss
I burned myself in the fire, but the flames did not burn
And after all, they say that Egypt laughs at me …
I have to stay in my country as a hostage
Or should I leave?