This year, at least one of the nights at the kaleidoscopic city park festival Feeërieën will be as enchanting as One Thousand and One Nights. That is thanks to the Egyptian sound creator Maurice Louca, who will be joined by an international group of musicians to make the Arab maqams glimmer like glow-worms on a hot summer night.
Beeping cars, twittering birds, a buzz on the radiating paving stones: when we call Maurice Louca on Skype at his house in downtown Cairo on a warm summer afternoon, we hear a wonderful a cosmopolitan symphony in the background. “This is what it is like every day,” the Egyptian musician laughs. “Cairo is a lively city.” That has been especially true for the past decade, in the wake of the revolution that turned the Arab world on its head in 2011. There was a drastic change immediately after the Arab Spring, Louca says.
There was a boost in the music scene; the number of people who listened to music grew significantly, especially thanks to the rise of the internet and social media. But since then, everything has changed again, he says. “Things are not great at the moment. It is hard. But that’s Cairo. This part of the world is always fucked up in a way, but also always vibrant. It’s home. I travel a lot, but when I am here, I am happy.”
Louca is one of the key figures in the experimental Egyptian music scene. He collaborated with the Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh and the young experimental singer-songwriter Nadah El Shazly, one of the pioneers of Cairo new wave, and he is a member of the free jazz trio The Dwarfs of East Agouza. But Louca also releases albums under his own name. Musically, he dabbles in diverse styles and genres, both from the East and the West. Elephantine, his album that was released this year, which he came to present at the BRDCST festival at the Ancienne Belgique, seemed to be sprinkled with the same stardust as the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra.
That is actually quite meta: Sun Ra was inspired by Egyptian sun kings and also liked to wear spacey pharaoh outfits.
Maurice Louca: Yeah. A lot of cosmic jazz, and jazz in general, is influenced by Arab music. It is well documented, for example, that John Coltrane loved eastern music. His forty-minute version of “My Favourite Things” was apparently genuinely inspired by traditional Arab compositions, in which there is a theme to which you constantly return. It is quite bizarre because jazz never really caught on in Egypt. There is a lot of pop, hip hop, rock, traditional music, and chaabi of course. And metal – there is a metal scene everywhere, I think it must be the most popular genre in the world. (Laughs) But jazz never really took off. I don’t know why. There is oriental jazz, but I find it very watered down. Our only jazz musician of any significance is the drummer Salah Ragab, who recorded an album with Sun Ra when he visited Egypt in the early 1970s.
So how did you discover jazz?
Louca: It took a long time. Initially, I wasn’t interested at all. And I am still not interested in bebop, for example. Free jazz opened my mind when I was already in my thirties. I felt very blessed. It is a language and once you understand that language, an incredible new world opens up to you. “Coltrane sounds fucking great!” I would tell my jazz friends, which must have sounded completely stupid to guys who had been listening to jazz for years. (Laughs) From there I discovered Ornette Coleman, and then on and on.
You started on guitar. Was that an obvious instrument to choose in Egypt in the 1980s?
Louca: As a child, I loved Western rock bands like Aerosmith. I had a cool guitar teacher who learned me the chords of Guns N’ Roses songs. Later on, I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Grunge music was exploding here too. But at a certain point in the 1990s, an Egyptian magazine started saying that rock, and especially metal, was satanic. The state got word of it, and playing live rock music was pretty much forbidden. That was of course a diversionary tactic to avoid bigger problems that were brewing. Rock went underground. In those years, it was easier to go to a club than to a concert. We saw the rise of techno. Now, everything has changed again, and pop and rock are very popular.
Your music is an intersection of roads that lead to the East and to the West.
Louca: Maybe, but that’s not how I think about it. What I do happens organically, not based on a preconceived plan. I try to write and to compose every day. When I feel that something is developing, I pursue it. When I was making Elephantine, I heard a lot of wind instruments and a vibraphone in my head. The result turned into something that people call jazz.
You are presenting new work at the Feeërieën festival. Will people also call that jazz?
Louca: No, I don’t think so. It is one big composition that is closer to experimental music than to jazz or traditional Arab music. People will probably associate it mostly with contemporary classical music. I’d like to think that my music is very contemporary.
You wrote this composition on the suggestion of the Brussels-based organization Mophradat, which creates opportunities for artists in the Arab world. How did that happen?
Louca: Mophradat knew my work because they had once invited The Dwarfs of East Agouza to a festival. About a year ago, they asked me to develop a concept. I wanted to do something with maqams, Arab melodies and scales that work with quarter tones and microtonality. This requires adaptations to the instruments that we normally use. You can play imitations on a keyboard, but I am particularly partial to melodic percussions. I was primarily interested in playing that music and not so much in the instruments themselves.
I am not an instrument builder. But it took some time to find the right way to approach it. It turned out to be difficult to play that kind of music, even here in Cairo. I found an opening when somebody suggested that I go to Indonesia. While I was there, I managed to tune a saron, a kind of percussion instrument that is used in gamelan, traditional Indonesian music. From then on, it took off. A Turkish string instrument builder helped me to adapt the fretboard of my guitar. I was very happy.
The second piece of the puzzle fell into place thanks to the A Trio, an improvisational group from Lebanon who use Western instruments like the cello, guitar, and trumpet as prepared instruments. I had wanted to collaborate with them for a long time, and I already had a composition that I wanted to develop with them. That composition became ever more ambitious and it has now become a piece for seven musicians. In addition to A Trio, there is the Australian sound artist Anthea Caddy on cello and Christine Kazaryan on harp. The darbouka player Khaled Yassine will go wild on the saron and I will play my special guitar. It’s a strange piece. To a lot of people, it will sound out of tune most of the time. (Laughs)
It sounds like a unique project.
Louca: It is. We are going to rehearse and record for five days at the Ancienne Belgique. After Brussels, we will perform the piece one more time at the London Institute of Contemporary Art. It will probably also be my next album.
You recorded Elephantine with a twelve-member Egyptian-Swedish-Italian ensemble. The new composition is another collaboration with an international company. While there is increasing divisiveness in the world, you are building bridges.
Louca: That is the privilege of being a musician. For Elephantine I made music that you cannot find anywhere else. So I didn’t necessarily have to work with Egyptian musicians. Not that it was intentional either way. I just look for the right people to play the instruments I wanted to work with. This time, I composed the music more with the musicians in mind. But it is not rigid sheet music; a lot happens in the moment itself. When I collaborate with other people, I am particularly interested in the approach to music and how you think about music.
That mix of East and West has always been very organic for me because I grew up with it in Cairo. In that sense, music does indeed go in the opposite direction to politics. I notice that in the places where we perform. We used to play mostly at events that focused on Eastern cultures. Now we play at normal festivals. People come to listen because they like our music, not because we are some kind of curiosity.