Now I don’t claim to be an Egyptian electronic music expert – or anything close for that matter. In actual fact, it’s safe to say that I’m quite far out of my comfort zone at the moment.
But I know a good YouTube video when I see one. And if Islam Chipsy’s performance at French festival Rencontres Trans Musicales is anything to go by, then I thought it would be a crying shame not to go check out his most recent performance in London, at Dalston’s Café OTO.
As a bit of a preamble, I trawled through a fair few write-ups on Islam Chipsy’s music – a style actually quite difficult to pin down. Though some class his music as electro chaabi, a wave sweeping the Egyptian underground, others would more readily associate his sound with a genre called mahraganat, which translates from Arabic as ‘festival’, a form enjoyed at weddings and similarly grand occasions.
Yet if you have a look at video above, this would be some wedding. With his two forceful drummers either side, and a humble Yamaha keyboard armed with all the lofi electro sounds, Chipsy has the festival crowd in his pocket. So this performance was worth bearing in mind upon entering OTO, a venue a touch more intimate to say the least. But, once through the main doors, all those expectations evaporated when I lock eyes on the hardware setup in front of the stage.
Standing there, wide eyed for a minute or two, I stared down at a sea – better yet an ocean – of effects pedals dominating the floor area around a modestly sized synth. With a single drum kit perched next to all this gear, I figured this had to be for the support act, as Chipsy’s performances demand no less than two drummers.
And I was correct. With a brief trip to the bar and back for a half pint of whatever lager they had, nothing could prepare me for what happened next. Guttersnipe, the said support act, took to the stage in a fury of noise. Conversations ended abruptly, drinks clutched tightly in hand – the whole room became shocked into submission as a wall of near-deafening sound raged on mercilessly. Was this judgment day? Or was it just a rather noisy way to say hello to a room of unsuspecting people? I struggled to understand what exactly was happening.
Either way, when my eardrums finally adjusted to what was going on, I found myself wanting more. Weaving my way to the front of the growing crowd, I watched on helplessly as two seemingly possessed band members exerted a near-primal level of energy, complete with the odd blood-curdling scream, gurgling synths, brutish drumming and near-satanic riffs. The whole thing was akin to chucking a guitar, distortion pedal and all, into a blender and pulverising it into a fine paste.
As you slowly tune into the whole thing, it grips you like nothing else. The mood manufactured in that room wasn’t all that different from sticking on the wildest of Albert Ayler records and coming to terms with the thing. Though this music is extreme by any standards, it’s captivating all the same. Several minutes of pure and utter catharsis was followed, understandably, by both band members traipsing offstage, knackered.
After that, a trial by fire in some respects (and a quick toilet break), it was back in to see what the headliners could conjure up. Not to be outdone by the previous act, Islam Chipsy had lined up several of his own effects pedals beside his keyboard, as the trio gathered onstage and were greeted by raptures of applause from a buzzing audience.
With OTO nearly at capacity now, practically heaving, the synth sorcerer laid down a few short scales, and descended into the frenzied melodies I’d witnessed in that glorious YouTube video all those (two) nights before. Unmistakably, this was energy of a different kind. As the E.E.K. band’s two
drummers went to work, often in tandem, to provide full and crunching percussive support for Chipsy’s dynamic keyboard phrases, the group masterfully alternated between a slower, march-like pace and powerful peaks of all-out dance rhythms.
During one of the more energetic moments, crowd delirious and slightly more drunk than before, Chipsy virtually palmed the keyboard with his forearm for what felt like a full minute, then soloed at breakneck speed for many more, all 8bit electro and synthetic horns blaring. With no time to let that moment sink in, the drummers seized control with a tough, reggaeton-like beat that got the whole floor moving.
After several minutes of unrestrained head bouncing in my corner of the room, and full-on dancing elsewhere, the group wound the track down and Chipsy stood there, massive grin on his face, arms crossed with complete confidence as if to say “how about that, then?” It’s clear the guy knows exactly what he’s doing – and it’s hard not to take notice.
It was at this point that it dawned on me – all the things I’d read about Chipsy being classically trained in piano were probably true. Though he’s taken his music in a completely different direction, the skill he just showcased was pretty serious. Like, full-on professional serious. Locked in a trance at the gig unfolding, I noticed that Chipsy crosses his arms and poses after most songs, a kind of trademark – a way of signing off with a degree of cheekiness after every track. I managed to snap out of it, and walked round hastily to get a better view. The drummers were really dictating the flow of the whole performance, mixing it up and providing a flurry of tom fills every thirty seconds or so. From this new and improved vantage point I watched the remaining few numbers, fixated on the scales being churning out and elated at the way the crowd reacted to them.
As the gig drew to a close, the band barely moved before the crowd urged them to play an encore. Chipsy built this one up steadily, and then flung OTO straight back into a complete ecstasy of Arabic electronics and sturdy syncopation. Then it was back out onto the near-freezing streets of Dalston for me, safe in the knowledge that I’d witnessed the undisputed Cairo keyboard king strut his stuff. Of course, that’s until I find another guy with a Yamaha on YouTube.