Islam Chipsy & EEK: Cairo’s Power Trio
It’s not every day you see crowd-surfing in an art gallery.
Islam Chipsy & EEK, the Cairo-based group whose roots are in open-air wedding celebrations and raucous street parties, have been gaining a reputation as one of the most intense live bands on the planet. During a show at Bristol’s Arnolfini, Islam Chipsy smiles with wild-eyed excitement as he pounds his keyboard with the palms of his hands. Meanwhile, drummers Khaled Mando and Mahmoud Refat discharge relentless volleys of rhythm, creating an effect that verges on sensory overload. The crowd react accordingly, hurling themselves around the room and up into the air.
Before the pandemonium ensues, I meet with the band backstage. Refat, who is the founder of 100 Copies, a recording studio and experimental music label in Cairo, is translating for the other two members. When I ask them to describe the scene they are a part of, they talk about music in an elemental sense, as though it emerged from the soil “like food, like water, like sun”, going on to describe it as “the most important thing where we come from”.
When the members of the band met seven years ago, Chipsy had already been playing keyboards in the streets for years. His meeting with Khaled Mando, and Islam Ta’ta, who Refat later replaced, inspired him to form a trio who could forge a large, exhilarating sound, and their growth as a band was fuelled by Cairo’s ascendant electro-chaabi scene. Chaabi, with its roots in Algerian folk music, became popular throughout North Africa in the 1970s, and has its own variants in Egypt and Morocco, providing an outlet for an increasingly urbanised population. Electro-chaabi is a digital take on this sound, developed by young producers and DJs
in working-class districts like Salam City, outside of Cairo, and played at open-air raves in the street.
For Islam Chipsy and EEK though, the electro-chaabi phenomenon is influenced as much by global developments as by local ones. “It’s like anywhere in the world now, you can produce a whole record on a laptop if you like,” Refat says, explaining that the electro-chaabi movement was built around “cracked software, very cheaply cut samples, and very roughly edited mixes”. Internet cafes were crucial: spaces where young producers could engage in “really crazy file distribution”, swapping ideas and using the cheapest available technology to build their tracks. Due to his innovational spirit, Islam Chipsy aims to evolve and deviate from the genre, rather than abide to its rules.
While last year’s Kahraba album (released via Algerian/Egyptian label Nashazphone) successfully captured their beautiful intensity, their live sets, which see them telepathically lock into a rapid groove, have to be seen to be believed. “We play a lot,” Chipsy explains. “I don’t want to exaggerate and say every day, but it’s almost like, 25 days a month we are playing. If not in Europe it’s at home. If not at home, we’re recording a track in the studio. The development is happening all the time.”
Having found a meeting point between the DIY chaabi of their peers and classical traditions of their forebears, Islam Chipsy and EEK have forged a truly distinctive sound, but where do they go from here? “For the past four months we’ve been trying to find new ideas,” Refat says, “and take in to account everything we’ve learned from of all the concerts and all the things that happened accidentally. We talk a lot about what we should do. It’s very strange because everyone is expecting a certain sound of this band.” Stylistically, Islam Chipsy and EEK may be too restless to stay still, but for the time being, their growing fanbase continues to marvel at the exhilarating sound of Cairo’s streets.
Kahraba is out now via Nashazphone