Cairokee: one Cairo band becomes a revolutionary discovery


When the rock band Cairokee agreed to perform last September in Mansoura, a conservative, agricultural city in the Nile Delta region, they expected to find few fans. Instead, they took to the stage to loud cheers from a packed audience.

"Everyone was singing along - I was so surprised," said Tamer Hashem, the band's drummer and manager. "They were there because they wanted to see us."

After seven years of performing in relative obscurity, the members of Cairokee still seem dazed with their new-found fame. Two weeks ago, the band released its latest song Ya, el Midan (Oh You, the Square), a touching duet about Egypt's awakening political consciousness. The duet, along with a three-track release, marks singer Aida Al Ayouba's return to music after retiring in the mid-1990s. Frontman Amir Eid's voice has a resonant, melancholy timbre, lacking in range but heaped with sincerity. His voice meshes with Al Ayouba's lilting, powerful refrains to create a stark, emotionally intense song.

In the first two days of its internet release, the song ranked number one on Facebook worldwide for downloads, number six on Twitter and number eight on YouTube; to date, it's been viewed more than half a million times on the video channel.

"It was such a strange feeling," said bassist Adam El Alfy, who, with a background in marketing, speaks with the poise of a spin doctor, quick to jump in when the others pause for thought. "Our song was number six, and ranked down below were Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, and I thought: 'How can that be happening?'"

The success of Ya, el Midan illustrates a shift in Egypt's music world, where megastars, local and international, have long monopolised the airwaves. In the past 10 months, however, a new space has emerged for artists in Cairo's underground scene.

Before Hosni Mubarak's ousting, producers and broadcasters shied away from bands with political and social messages, instead favouring government-approved pop stars such as Tamer Hosny. Indie bands rarely got TV play and were unlikely to be offered spots in major music festivals.

Now, the landscape has drastically altered: satellite channels' cultural programmes regularly showcase underground bands popularised during the revolution; artists openly criticise the government and major international bands - who have sometimes co-opted indie songs for commercials - are taking new notice.

After spending almost a decade performing without enough support to release an album, Cairokee released its first album Leaders Wanted in June, with sponsorship from Coca-Cola.

The title track, Matloob Za3eem, is a refrainless song; its lyrics are an employment advertisement, laying out the criteria for the country's next leader. It was an instant hit. At concerts, fans sing along to every word.

"Before the revolution, it was frustrating because we were playing alone, for friends, or in the studio, but after the revolution people wanted to change the standards. It didn't have to be singing love songs or making a video with a bunch of girls," said Eid, the strong-willed frontman and songwriter.

Bassist Sherif Hawary added: "Or having to really sing in the traditional Arabic way."

"Or have a nice body," said El Alfy. "You had to be a really good singer, or a really hot girl, and we don't really fit into these categories."

Friends since childhood, members of the group have a habit of speaking for, and over, each other. They are all comfortable, middle-class kids, from the prosperous, leafy suburb of Maadi. The keyboardist Sherif Mostafa joined the band only four years ago, and as the youngest and quietest is often the butt of the others' jokes. But really, they delight in belittling themselves and their music.