The last thing that comes to mind when you hear about the small town of Tilberg in the Netherlands is Egyptian Cha’bi music. But much to the surprise of many, Tilberg is the hometown of Yannick, Joep and Joost, the three members of Cairo Liberation Front – an electro-cha’bi group that hopes to take the music world by storm.
It all started when, one day, Joost was casually surfing music blogs on the Internet and randomly came across what appeared to be street Arabic music. Immediately drawn to its vibrant energy and vibe, Joost was determined to discover more. He felt that it strangely resembled the energy that punk rock and rave music had and wanted to explore it further.
He also happened to be reading a book about the slums of Mumbai that inspired him to think about the notion of understanding different cultures through unconventional mediums. He felt that perhaps, listening to the sound of the streets would help him better understand cultures beyond what is portrayed through the media. He found this to be most relevant to the case of Egypt. By listening to music coming out of areas like Dar El Salam, he could see that there was more to Egypt than what was popularly believed. This music showed him just how much Egyptians like to party, and how they have the same energy that would typically be associated with punk rock shows and raves in the west.
Joost says that this reminded him of a quote by Chuck D, front man of the rap group “Public Enemy” that said ““Rap is black America’s CNN.” Joost says that this is exactly how he saw cha’bi music – as the CNN of the Arab world. He felt that music this raw and unfiltered truly spoke of the streets of Cairo, and showed a side completely ignored by the media. Hungry for more, Joost sought out more cha’bi tracks – a task made immensely difficult by the language barrier. When he contacted people in Egypt to assist him, many urged him not to play this music because it was “low quality and had no class.” They also told him that there was far better Arabic music to be heard and played. Joost, however, continued to be drawn to how raw and uncensored cha’bi music was, and chose to continue his search for more.
In December 2012, he introduced Yannick, an intern at Incubate – a multidisciplinary annual indie music festival in their hometown Tilburg – to this music. No stranger to music himself, Yannick was a bass guitar player who had grown tired of the conventional rock music he played with his band. Eager to venture out into new and more exciting musical genres, Yannick was immediately hooked to cha’bi music. He recalls that Joost had shown him footage of Islam Chipsy, one of the most prominent cha’bi music artists in Egypt today. That footage was all it took to get Yannick on board to play their first gig in January 2013 at Incubate.
It was also at Incubate that they met Joep, a drummer who played with several rock bands as well. They told him to come check out their show at Incubate, not expecting what would happen next. Instead of just watching the show, Joep grabbed a microphone and jumped on stage with Joost and Yannick. Although it was the first time he had heard cha’bi, he says that its energy felt familiar to him in the way that it worked the crowds just like punk music. It was then that the Joost, Joep and Yannick decided to join forces to form what is now known as the Cairo Liberation Front (CLA).
Taking the World by Storm
With Joost (35 years old) as the manager and initiator, Yannick (24 years old) as the DJ and Joep (23 years old) as the MC, CLA was ready to take the world by storm. The name was inspired by the “Kopyright Liberation Front” – a 90s acid house British band. While CLA don’t claim to be liberating Egypt in any way, they feel that their name resonates with what they hope to do to the Egyptian cha’bi scene.
Their vision is to expose this undiscovered musical genre to western audiences in an effort to bridge cultural gaps and show that there is in fact more to the Middle East than what people see on the news everyday. This vision was expectedly met with its fair share of challenges. One of the earliest challenges they had faced was their inability to actually acquire tracks. Egyptian cha’bi music was not that readily available online and even if it was, it was always in Arabic – a language none of them spoke or understood. They recall spending days translating music blogs, which enabled them to reach out to some Egyptian cha’bi artists who were thrilled to supply them with their tracks.
Two of these local cha’bi artists were Sadat and Fifty – who CLA brought to the Netherlands for a gig. During September of 2013, CLA along with Sadat and Fifty played two simultaneous shows in the Netherlands and in Egypt that were live streamed with the aim of showing how both cultures react to music and how cha’bi music is, in fact, universal. They said that this was most evident in the energy of the crowds they have had in the many cities in which they’ve performed. Whether it is in a club in a posh Parisian neighborhood or an indie music festival, CLA found that people react with the same energy and excitement to their music everywhere they go. Their motto is to create the feeling of an Egyptian wedding anywhere in the world.
While the world tends to perceive the Arab world as a museum that is viewed from a distance, CLA see it as an open culture that is rich in what it has to offer. In a way, they play their music to change that vision and make it more accessible to Western and Middle Eastern audiences alike – especially those who have long frowned upon this genre of music.
So far, CLA have played for audiences in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, England and Belguim. With more shows lined up in cities like Moscow and Brussels, they hope to perform in Egypt and work directly with more local artists. CLA see themselves as the ambassadors of cha’bi music across Europe. They hope to continue producing their own cha’bi tracks and mixing them with other musical genres to create a platform where different cultures can meet.