By Maha ElNabawi
Egypt’s repressed musical community is about to see the value of its creative ambitions grow significantly, enabled by groundbreaking networking and music-discover tools for musicians, fans, venues and the entertainment industry, all available on the country’s first website dedicated solely to underground music.
The site, called Underground Music Federation (UMF-LIVE.COM), is the brainchild of Cairo-based Mohamed El-Ayat. It aims to change the local music community paradigm by empowering musicians and fans with user-friendly tools to help spread music virally across the internet, and hopefully, within the country.
“It all came about due to my own obstacles as a musician,” El-Ayat told Daily News Egypt. “It was always difficult finding available venues and getting gigs. More importantly, I realized there is not a lot of support for local underground bands. Everything is skewed towards commercial artists.
“The people who really have talent, like the ones making great new-age, progressive fusions, were always overlooked. I wanted to find a way to bring these musicians to life, to give them a platform to showcase their talent in a professional way.”
The website officially launched in June 2011, offering an array of tools for musicians including professional online portfolios comprised of the band’s biography, pictures, videos, social networking links, events, a credibility ranking and, most importantly, online distribution and sampling of their music.
“When UMF first launched, we only had about 15 bands,” El-Ayat said.
“Now there are around 42 and I’m continuing to get more requests [to be added to the site]. After we finish adding some more components, the site will host close to 70 musicians and bands.”
Almost fully user-generated, the site features a diverse collection of original songs and compositions, in both Arabic and English. Viewers have access to a range of untapped talents like solo artist Omar Kafafi, rock-band Faking It, and spreading to more widely known groups such as CairoKee.
Another notable feature on the site is the Talent Scout component, which connects groups looking to form a band with a viable pool of music created by other artists awaiting recruitment.
“Talent Scout is a crucial component in establishing a networked community of musicians,” El-Ayat said. “This feature helps us develop a network of viable musicians that can interchangeably work together to form a complete band.
“For example, if I’m in a band and I have all the elements, vocalist, guitarist, drummer, but no bass guitarist, I can simply go on the site and recruit one from UMF’s musical community. This helps build new music.”
For music lovers, the website is a way to discover new homegrown talent, while actively supporting the music they love. Visitors are privy to more than just song-samples and downloads, but are also engaged visually through The Stage function, which offers video sessions of the bands, produced by UMF.
“YouTube has become a very powerful tool for bands and online marketing,” El-Ayat said. “The Stage feature is not only for the benefit of the fans, but more so for those looking to book a band. Being able to see someone play music adds a level of credibility to the band.”
While it may be the first local website of its kind, it is still in the infancy stage compared to industry pioneers like the Cairo Jazz Club Agency, under the Cairo Jazz Club umbrella, which started nearly 10 years ago.
The Cairo Jazz Club Agency has been a major player in the evolution of the independent music scene, discovering and promoting homegrown talents such as Wust El Balad, Riff Band, and Egypt’s latest house-music sensation, SoopaLox.
Ammar Dajani, managing partner of Cairo Jazz Club Agency, told DNE, “The indie or underground music scene in Egypt has grown significantly in the past 10 years. Look at CairoKee for example, they are Arabic soft rock with a bit of pop — they are helping to bridge the gap between traditional pop by utilizing their own culture and expressing it in a way that today’s youth responds to.”
CairoKee’s revolution anthem, “Soot Al-Horreya” (The Sound of Freedom) was likely the most popular music to emerge from Tahrir. Notably, it was independently produced and distributed and has now garnered close to 2 million views on YouTube.
Viral networking has become a primary medium for emerging bands and musicians to build a fan-base. UMF simply allows more people to hear more music, the most crucial step in bridging the gap between artists and their audience.
“What is great about UMF is that it is really taking the time to incubate young talent, identifying them, nurturing them,” Dajani added. “That’s what UMF does; it puts the effort into finding new talent and exposing bands that would otherwise be unexposed.”
In October of 2011, UMF had their official launch event with a multi-band concert at El-Gezira Youth Center, featuring some of their registered bands including Salalem, SimpleXity, CairoKee, Egoz, Shady Ahmed, Fo2 El Setou7, Ahmed Haggar, and US based headliner, The Johnny Rogers band.
Arabic-funk band Salalem with their highly sarcastic, “Egyptianized” lyrics, cheeky song titles such as “Kelma Abeeha” (Nasty Word), and combative stance against state media have left the band eager to accept alternative types of media like UMF.
“In the past, our band has been highly censored, leading our albums to be rejected,” Mohamed Ali, lead vocalist for Salalem said. “Therefore we have had to find alternative means to distributing and market our music.
UMF provides us with a great channel to do so.”
In the past year, Egypt has seen a colossal shift in the socio-cultural paradigms that once existed. While the debris has yet to settle, local do-it-yourselfers like UMF suggest that sometimes, a little chaos — in music, in pop culture, in art, in the country at large — is good for cultural innovation.