Backward baseball caps bobbed, hands spinning at imaginary discs and mouths sputtering rhythmic beats. At Sawy Culture Wheel’s Beatbox festival on Tuesday night, teenage enthusiasm swelled and spilled over the River Hall.
“Beatbox” is an electronic device that imitates percussion sounds. Vocal imitation of these percussion and drum sounds, along with some brass sounds, started as a phenomenon in hip-hop circles in the 80s. Beatboxing is said to be pioneered by American rapper Doug E. Fresh, also known as the “Human Beatboxer.”
The first Beatbox festival in Egypt premiered last year at Sawy featuring 18 contestants. This year too, the same number of contestants participated — many of them returning from last year’s contest.
The contest was preceded by a one-man guitar-and-vocals concert by Mohamed “Mado” Abdel-Aal, a member of the Taxi band. While the singing and music may not always have been in sync, Mado’s witty and original lyrics were often on the mark.
A few rounds of improv beatboxing took place onstage before judge Yehia Khalil arrived to join Mohamed El-Sawy. Each participant was allotted roughly two minutes for their performance in the contest, although the rule was frequently bent.
Tunes of former chart-toppers like “I Like to Move It” by Reel 2 Real and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” (or as one sang it, “Billy Shane”) were popular at the fest along with an imitation of the local tabla percussions.
Contestants included high-schoolers as young as 14-year-old Shady Sherif from Port Said School, who had learned beatboxing through YouTube videos.
Farah “Beatbox” Abdellatif had a strong fan following. Being the only female contestant distinguished her from her competition, a fact she beatboxed to her advantage by chiming in with “I represent all the girls over here” and “VIP cos I know I gotta shine.”
While VIP status among fans may have added pressure to the jury to extend her stage time, it is likely that her insistence on an additional two minutes may have cost her the judges’ favor. Farah, who has been beatboxing for eight years and won third-prize at the festival last year, had no laurels to take home this year.
Loai Walid won third prize by blending together some well-known tunes. Starting with the instrumental of Mission Impossible, he added percussions of “I Like to Move It” and ended with softer beats of “Stand By Me.” He ended his act by enacting the sounds of pouring a drink of water, and drinking it up in one swoop.
The second prize went to the harmonica-and-beatbox performance of Mohamed El-Baih. Judge Yehia Khalil said that they looked for a consistency in beat and energy in contestants. “The beat dropped for him,” Khalil said of El-Baih’s performance, “but he picked it up again.”
The first prize went to the dance and beatbox act of “Shorty Beatbox” and his partner in the act KatoJa. While Shorty beatboxed the sound of mechanical movements the other performed them in a breakdance routine. The act progressed into — but of course — a Michael Jackson impersonation to the sounds of “Billy Jean.”
“They had an act,” said an impressed Khalil, “They had power, and had beat.”
Director of the Culture Wheel Mohamed El-Sawy said there was visible progress in this year’s performances. After the acts, El-Sawy promised to hold opportunities for a monthly beatbox meet-up.
As September 21 was also International Peace Day, the night ended with a peace message from young visitors from Japan warning against dangers of nuclear proliferation.
The night started with cynical lyrics, consisted of the bravado of booming sounds, and ended with idealism about the future. Much like the baseball caps at the beatboxing fest, it seemed time and aging too had gone backwards.
Mohamed “Mado” Abdel-Aal from the Taxi band. (Photo courtesy of Sawy Culture Wheel/Mohamed Hesham)
From right: Judges Yehia Khalil and Mohamed El-Sawy sporting white on Peace Day. (Photo courtesy of Sawy Culture Wheel/Mohamed Hesham)