Egypt's fluid and ever-evolving nightlife scene has undergone some serious shifts over the years, from lavish dos with glittering Go-go dancers to the rise of the underground. We speak to the men who made it all happen; the game changers who envisioned a nightlife scene worthy of the hangover.
In the beginning there was the word, and the word was Ganz. The lipstick was red and the chinos blue. Haute heels and Hermes belts were strapped tight and pockets were loose. Back then, parties were a play where the people took centre stage and the DJs were curtain pullers. With just a couple of dates etched into the calendars of Cairo's socialite echelons, being seen was the name of the game. There were fireworks, there were Go-go Dancers, midgets, sexy bartenders, sexier vocalists, and more Go-go dancers.
His parties opened up the doors of debauchery to a slew of people for whom it wasn't enough to go to the party; they wanted to be the party. Cue more glitz, more glamour, and more Go-go Dancers. Of course, for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. All of a sudden, the girls curtailed their curfews and the boys abandoned their bouchon in lieu of a different kind of party - one which had the DJ's name in lights, and crowds asking fein el after?
This is the evolution of Cairene escapism. The crowds want to experience something that transports them from their 9 - 5s, and the organisers want to transport us to a fleeting moment they once experienced in Ibiza or Berlin. It's a snowball effect that, over recent years, has led to a huge diversification of a scene where there are now many players - each with their own vision and contribution. Nacelle has turned Cairo into a hugely lauded gig for the world's underground spinners, whilst Back 2 Basics brought the life back into nightlife. Electrum Records gave birth to more local talent than our venues can handle, Blurr brought in some Spanish flare, Vent experimented with our ears, and Tamer Banna made sure we still had Go-go dancers to look at.
This all might seem rather frivolous, but the nightlife industry in Egypt is a big, booming business…when done right. Is our scene now something to be grateful for or is it a saturated free-for-all…and what does the future hold?
We've gathered the people who have dedicated their lives to making your life - or at least what's left of it after the work week - worthwhile; the people who envisioned a nightlife scene in Cairo that's worthy of the hangover.
“We need to throw a party here.” This is the first thing ‘Ganz’ utters as he walks into our new office space. Let’s not dismiss the man’s clear business acumen to build ByGanz, with the help of his 'dream team', into a behemoth regional name synonymous not only with wild extravaganzas, but now Broadway children’s shows, weddings, venue management, and corporate events too. But, come on – those are just Ganzoury's credentials in a nutshell. Essentially, he is Cairo’s original party boy.
Once upon a time, we imagine him walking through the construction site that was the Nile Towers before completion and uttering the same sentence. There, a party he did throw - one of his now infamous 'F*** Me I’m Famous' dos and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, his imagination has not let off. Last year’s Mystic Escape affair – a ball-gown-and-tux-wonderland-themed blow-out in a castle, complete with larger-than-life carriages, glowing mushrooms, and magical forests – confirmed that. “It was unreal in terms of quality, clientele, show, music… it wasn’t a party, it was bits and pieces of a dream.”
He still speaks with the same level of passion about his job both, professionally and personally, excited about new this generation of partiers and party organisers inhabiting the scene. “We were the only people, now there's a million people… not in a bad way, actually, in a good way. Competition makes things better. I see things that I used to do in Gouna years ago, people copying it exactly, and I’m actually really, really impressed” he quips only slightly acerbically.
“I also would have never said that I like Techno but for me, Nacelle is a great party. I don’t go much but it’s great for Egypt. For a foreigner or anyone to come to these parties is impressive.” Ganz waxes lyrical about the wave of up and coming local talent behind the decks, too, seeing it as the key to elevating the scene as a whole. On the flip side however, “The dollar is killing us! The entertainment - the local talent - if they evolve a little bit, it will really make our lives much easier. We have like 100 million people - I’m sure we have DJs; I’m sure we have dancers, and I’m sure we can get everyone local, but I think to be working in that scene for a lot of people is considered something wrong. A lot of families don’t want their kids to have anything to do with that.”
That restriction is on a nationwide scale, though; “We need more freedom. More freedom. We have freedom but it's always under the table and you’re always worried that something will happen.”
This year you can expect more of Ganz’s signature parties including Tea Dance, Werk It!, and Disco Fel 90’s in the lead-up to summer, where he has some big plans after teaming up with Kareem Nabil to form a new company, G & K, which has the opening of a very special new beach restaurant in its sight.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve danced your ass off to an Electrum Records graduate in the past week. You cannot look at a flyer, or a pair of decks, without seeing one of them. The idea was simple but came at the perfect time – pit two amateur DJs against each other at a popular Cairo venue, give them thirty minutes each to strut their stuff, then have an international headliner come in and show them how it’s done. Their friends get to cheer them on, everyone else gets to play pantomime before partying it up, and the DJs get to learn the tricks of the trade through deck time and workshops.
The introduction of the Red Beats DJ Battles, followed by the Student DJ competition, has seen a conveyer belt of Ford proportions manufacture pretty much every spinning talent Egypt has to offer. And now, it’s the locals showing the imports how it’s done.
Ahmed Fahmy along with Nadia Taleb and Hany Sadek - AKA DJ Samba - are the founders of Electrum and the masterminds behind this DJ-making machine, whose alumni include the likes of Baher, Hassan Abou Alam, Aguizi & Fahim, Gawdat, Sebzz, and Nourre Fahmy. That’s just to name a few, but back in the day “it was basically just me and Samba and Aly Awad… that’s how it started,” recalls the veteran spinner.
He started organising parties back in the early 90s after a stint in the States, events with “percussion zaffa bands from Khan Khalili and Techno” that brought in hundreds of people with “question marks written all over their heads.” We assume the Zaffa-Techno concept wasn’t sustainable and Electrum was eventually born. “We first wanted it to be a label but nothing was happening in Egypt; it didn’t pay the bills, of course, so we moved to doing parties.”
Thanks to them, now there’s plenty happening. “It feels great, of course! I see that one of the successes of Student DJs is that they created the scene and created the talents, and these talents are paving their way - not only here, but some of them are starting to make it internationally as well, so this is something to be very proud of.”
The complaint used to be that everyone was going out for the sake of the organiser, the clientele, and the venue, and not knowing a thing about the DJs playing, but it seems there’s been a paradigm shift. We’ve all seen it: a group of DJs huddled in the crowd, silent, unmoving, giving mental marks to the one on stage like a judge at an Olympic gymnastics meet. And for someone who has dedicated his life to the music, for someone who essentially added flame to the idiom that “everyone’s a DJ,” Fahmy has some interesting wisdom to share. “There are now people who are really into the music, and they take it very seriously and become very critical, and they forget what it’s all about. Just have fun!”
We’re gearing up for much more fun and macabre DJ battles this summer as Student DJ will return for a sixth season, as well as the second year of Egypt’s first music conference Muzix, organised by Electrum.
We could just leave this section blank, tell you to close your eyes and let your mind wander to all those ecstatic House Sessions moments of unified bliss in the centre of a crowded Temple dance floor as the stadium lights blare and the Funktion One speakers burst out a tectonic drop from the latest European powerhouse DJ. Or maybe in your reverie it’s the sun on your face, the grass under your feet, and a pretty girl in Lennon shades waltzing away on the banks of Royal Mohammed Aly Club’s Nile plateau at Funk N’ Pop. Maybe the chill, funky mid-week B-Sides are your thing, or Monday's secretive Behind Closed Door showcases. Over the past few years, each one of Nacelle’s new concepts has been the first of its kind, changing the course of Cairo’s nightlife for the better, and forever.
A couple of seasons into House Sessions, the term ‘Nacelle Family’ began being bandied about. It was in reference to the group of people who made up the organisational team behind Nacelle and their friends who attended religiously. This wasn’t just about the party anymore; this was an institution that created bonds within society that weren’t previously there, that gave birth to an unparalleled family vibe, to this idea that, whatever we were experiencing, we were all in it together. It was never about the organiser, or the table, or the guest list; it’s the faceless crowd on the flyers and the immediate family sat in Nacelle's double slash emblem formation above.
When Hot Since 82 played the final track in the Season 3 House Sessions finale, as the sun came up over the Temple, people cried. They actually cried.
Their first organised party was a small get-together atop the Shephard Hotel, with live music from Parov Stellar. This was after Nacelle’s Co-Founder Tito moved back to Egypt from Canada and the States, where he had begun throwing parties to make ends meet. “We would throw end of month parties in order to raise money for the rent. Of course I dreamed big and we spent most of the money on the party itself, not the rent. They were wild! There was also a crazy warehouse party in Montreal that we did; it didn’t fill up but it was definitely a learning experience!” To give some perspective on the journey, the last Funk N’ Pop, Nacelle’s bi-weekly picnic-style day festival, brought in more than 1,000 people.
“Even if the party is for 25 people, if you’re honest about it from the beginning it will be a rocking party; that's the most important thing. There are plenty of other important aspects, of course, but I feel this is the most important as it helps define everything else you do, from crowd, to hosting, to music, to production and more.”
As you can imagine, going from 30 to 1,000 attendees has been no short task, with bureaucratic blocks and unimaginative government entities constantly throwing in roadblocks. “Outdated entertainment laws and fees as well as hypocritical enforcement are a big challenge. There are so many outside the box ideas that are simply impossible to consider due to draconian fees and taxes and government interference and lack of permits. This ends up making certain simple formulas successful and thus limits so many ideas outside of four walls and a club.”
Last month, Nacelle announced that this season of House Sessions will be its last. Whilst people may make lofty comments about it not being the same anymore, the fact is that the crowd that made it what it was in the first couple of seasons are a little grown up now, and those behind Nacelle are smart enough to realise that where one life cycle ends, another begins, and have cleverly adapted to branch off into events like Funk N’ Pop that are accessible to all whilst keeping the exclusivity and die-hard-music-fan factor with their underground BCD nights.
And then, we have the bigger, better return of Sandbox festival in May. Sandbox… close your eyes and just wander.
Ismail Fouad Kassem
Back 2 Basics
It’s 2013. The music was getting darker, the nights longer, and the bass deeper. In comes Ismail Kassem, honing in on the simple pleasures - music you can dance to and friends you can dance next to. Once that formula is in place, 3eesh hayatak till the early hours. This is the essence of Back 2 Basics, the day to nighttime (“so at least 50 percent of the party is orderly!”) party series, which was fully booked from day one. “We really believe that with all the mumbo jumbo, and all the bookings and concepts and all the themes, it all comes down to a very nice place with people who are there to enjoy themselves and have fun, and of course the best music that can actually fit their taste.”
Kassem saw a chance to capitalise on the commercial gap left by the underground's emergence; “I saw an opportunity back then which is not the same opportunity available now. The market was very dark and all the events were trapped on one side of clubbing. I saw the other side of clubbing because maybe I’m a bit older.”
And so goes the B2B gospel: throw a party that you yourself would want to party at. “You'll find me very tense the first couple of hours, but as soon as I see the dance floor pumping, I am right there in the middle dancing with everyone! This is what I do at my parties; I don’t really work, I enjoy it.” It’s a method he sees would do well being replicated, with more and more newcomers in the market. “What we’re seeing now is people over-saturating the market, thinking it’s about money and not about the crowd enjoying the mood. This is how things start to get a bit poisoned, but it’s a dip in the bigger picture; it will eventually adjust.” A lack of venues in the city also poses another issue: “It’s something we need more of because, when people overexpose a certain venue, there's no other choice but to burn it and make the people not want to go to the specific venue regardless of the promoter or the brand that is throwing the party.”
On a more optimistic note, Kassem has big plans for B2B’s charming third year in business with a trilogy of parties which launched in March, featuring Noire and Fayek at the Fairmont Rooftop.
You’ll often find that, behind every Egyptian party organiser, there is a crowd synonymous with them. Who’s going to be there? Inta aref ba2a, el nas beto3 [Insert anyone else on this list]. But Banna doesn’t have a particular crowd, it's more so that his parties have a particular mood – one of seduction and celebration. Most well-known for throwing the annual AUC after-grad and New Year parties, these are two occasions that epitomise escapism into a whole new world, and if Banna has anything to do with it, that world involves burlesque dancers in bird cages and Gatsby-esque gallantry…every time.
“People are getting married and moving away, they're not into the hardcore partying anymore - most of them. This is tradition; you get married, you get busy, and you don’t really look for anything,” says Banna. “It’s not going to attract the same people.”
Whilst occasionally throwing the suave corporate event, and regularly taking over Gouna’s Club 88 in the summer, the fact remains that people will always celebrate the New Year, people will always graduate, and Banna will always make sure to throw one hell of a send-off. “I’m a perfectionist, so whatever I do has to be perfect. Perfect location, date, crowd, and service. They get bored so you need to find a good location - a new location - with the alcohol license… it’s not that easy to find a new location. If you do it at a hotel it's basically a rip-off between taxes and so on. To find a new space, to get something different for the crowd, maybe this is one of the challenges: to find nice places." The secondary issue which he deems central to the success of an event, focuses on funding. "If you set high ticket prices, people are not going pay at the end, so it is vital to have enough sponsorship to host a good event."
Heart, Soul & Mind
For years, Wahba has been pulling the strings behind some of the country’s biggest nightlife projects. Starting out by organising school parties, he then joined the team of then-fledgling Electrum Records as an aspiring DJ. “I thought I could just fool them and infiltrate the company and maybe play at their parties,” he jokes. Now a more accomplished fixture behind the decks in Cairo's nightlife, he recently launched an event consultancy and planning company: Heart, Soul & Mind. It’s a name that personifies his approach to how the industry should be run. “I take pleasure in serving people and watching people enjoying themselves, so if I can create that atmosphere with any kind of event, I would feel happy; and if that’s anything related to music, it obviously makes it more interesting for me because I can connect with it on a much deeper level.”
Wahba is genuinely egoless, deeply passionate and knowledgeable about music first and foremost, and is someone who has never taken the limelight or had his name as a prefix to any event name. “At the end of the day, I don’t save dolphins; you know what I mean? Feeling proud is not an attribute that I would use, but if what I do makes people happy then I guess that’s good.” Whilst Wahba is currently making many party people happy as part of the management for über popular Downtown rave cave Zigzag, he feels the scene still has a way to go, and that the culture must change with the people for anything to happen. “For some reason, everyone is big on following trends here and not understanding the core of such a movement. The rave culture doesn’t suite the traditions. It’s very well-needed, but it cannot expand in a healthy way; there’s a roof to its growth. If you want to call this a scene, you need a bit of everything.”
The responsibility for such a shift he feels also lies with the promoters and organisers, “The problem is when you're focused on a certain number of people only, it becomes very repetitive. You go out, you see the same people, listen to the same music that is downloaded from the same website from the same DJs. It’s quite repetitive and everyone is working on his own. No one is taking the lead and saying okay we need to set a plan for how things should work.” The change he hopes will start at home with Zigzag, “I want to play around a bit and change the perception of the place because we're going to be introducing different kinds of nights that are not hardcore, so I’m trying to change people's perspective on that.”
When Cairo got news of the Adana Twins coming to town in 2012, there was scepticism as to how this is happening and who is doing this? The answer was, at the time, a secret. An underground booking of that calibre hadn’t been made in Cairo for a very long time. First information leaked was the name of the party, Audio Damiana; again, what?! Is it a singing plant? Is it a label? Is it a spaceship? Everyone was asking who - or, rather what the f*** - is an Audio Damiana?
We soon found out that the brainchild of DJ/Producer Tamer Auf, Joseph Gibri, and Majd El Sherif, was the brand that catered to our then-unfulfilled underground fantasies. A dark, abandoned nightclub that most of us had never partied at before bore witness to the start of a different type of party - one that had manifested in Cairo several times before but had disappeared for years.
Audio Damiana was great not just because it was ‘underground’, but because there was a special unpretentious vibe to it. If you were in there, you were doing you, without being judged or feeling like someone’s watching you. Door selection wasn’t concerned with who you were or your social status, if you would fit in or not; it was the music that was the focus.
Auf had started organising parties when he was only 18 years old. “There was an opportunity; there wasn’t a scene in Cairo, but there were a few parties happening like Gate Crasher and Ministry of Sound - that was in 1999 – 2000. I loved these parties and I wanted to organise my own. The first one was Sonique at Nile Gate.” Shortly after the underground died, it turned to shit; too many drugs and the wrong crowd made it into a very rough scene, though that didn’t last long.
Fast forward to 2010 - 2011; most party organisers at the time were afraid of booking underground acts - they just didn’t sell. After the revolution, in came Auf and crew; they took the plunge and booked a slew of different underground acts that followed the first party. People loved it from the get-go - an indoor, murky, subterranean get-together for House heads. “If it had been like any of the parties that were happening at the time, outdoors in well-known established venues, people might not have liked it so much.”
A year full of fantastic parties passed by, and Auf took a break from organising events, putting an abrupt end to Damiana to focus on DJing and producing. But we’re sure, to the delight of many, there is a comeback on the horizon. “Come September, we have plans of resurrecting Damiana; we’re in talks with a new partner that might be able to spark the motivation needed to bring it back. We won’t be able to give you any info since nothing is solid yet, but we are excited.”
In November of 2013, Vent, co-founded by Asem Tag and Ahmed El Ghazoly launched. It was Egypt’s first truly European-style underground venue and the first to open its doors to a whole host of über-talented local bedroom producers who’d otherwise never get a chance to perform anywhere else. It was grimey, stripped bare, had weird reverb, and it was paradise for its cult following. It built a following of Alternative music zealots and put a middle finger up to the hotel roof soirées, the 250-LE-glass-of-Sprite sippers, and the clap-along-whilst-playing spinners.
“This gated community of partygoers and promoters that control the means to push/inform taste, creates the stagnant and stale environment that we're forced to operate in,” says Tag. “People have a very narrow scope of exposure, which is baffling in this day and age. It's like these DJs and promoters don't have Internet, or they all share a connection at this one kid's house and he's stuck in 2002. We need more venues with forward-thinking programming for this scene to grow.”
Alas, there was more than just a silver lining to Vent. “I'm glad that we were able to debut a nice bunch of artists. It's also great to see how the community attached to the venue has developed. There's a lot of learning involved, a lot of healthy competition, and plenty of support/collaboration.”
Since its closure, the Vent team has been throwing one-off parties with the same ethos of the former Downtown watering hole, and this year will be launching their own imprint, with the first few releases coming from local talent. They also a have something brewing towards the end of the year. “It may be our biggest production to date.”
Coco Mokhtar & Ahmed AbouSamra
Coco grew up amongst the clubs and parties that have developed in Cairo over the years, and with the people who made them. AbouSamra spent the last four years partying it up in Barcelona with his time split behind and in front of the decks of some of the biggest Balearic bashes. Naturally, they’ve made quite the team since a certain Gouna NYE House Party they organised together two years ago eventually led to the launch of Blurr Entertainment. “The other parties sucked at that time, so everyone came; the vibe was really good. The next year we decided to throw an official party - it was our first party, and it all started from there,” says Coco. The theme was born from Catalonia, according to AbouSamra; “my vision was to bring what I learned from abroad and make it happen here.”
That's quite literally what happened. Cue dancing chickens, tennis players on stilts, and blow-up dolls, as the duo brought in the infamous El Row party franchise to our shores - first in Sahel and then at The Temple in Cairo - whilst inflating the growing popularity of Techno and Tech House in the scene. Rarely does one of their parties end without the familiar chants of 'One more song!' Why? "Because, whatever you do, whatever you think, or how creative you'll be, you'll never get this vibe in one place; no way!” says AbouSamra.
Whilst their to replicate and recreate an experience from abroad has been nothing short of miraculous, Coco still sees niggling challenges constantly faced by all promoters within Cairo’s fun-time zeitgeist. “El Row in Spain attracts about 5000-6000 goers; here, the maximum it got was 1800 Rubies, for instance, which is a third, you know? Parties like this are very expensive and there's a lot of logistics, so we need actual funding. In Europe, you don’t depend on sponsors that much.” That small pool is only depleted more due to the obvious segmentations in society. “Abroad, partygoers are partygoers; they don’t have 'el nas di m3afena awi, el nas di msh 3aref eh' social classes, someone might be a lot wealthier than another but they're all partying together.”
Coco and AbouSamra are now part of the creative management team in charge of The Temple’s resurgence as a nightlife staple, mixing it up between their own Blurr series as well as commercial applications like the Disco and Hip-Hop parties.
Theatre of Dreams
Sinai – Nuweiba – Ras Shetan. The last havens on Earth - a magical land filled with hippies, Bedouins, and biblical mountains; a place that conjures up images of Aladdin pants, drum circles, and yoga. Blissful silence. Mahmoud Zidane’s Theatre of Dreams may have altered that image for good. After travelling to attend House/Techno parties in Europe, he bravely thought, at just 19 years of age, to throw a rave in Sinai - to recreate that festival experience with the type of music he heard abroad, in a precarious location a lifetime away from the city, with a purely local line up of DJs, and it worked. This year, TOD celebrated its third anniversary with the biggest Sinai blowout to date.
Part of Theatre of Dreams' ethos is to develop our local artists to the point where they are on par with their international counterparts, Zidane says. “One of the main problems I face when organising a party is that, although we have a big number of local DJs, they are not big enough to uphold themselves on an international level. We need to promote artists like Baher or Misty - who are very good DJs and producers - to get them to a point where they are gigging abroad, so that when they play a party here in Egypt, they would be as big as any international booking we get.”
It’s clear that Zidane has a vision for the clubbing scene throughout Egypt; he started in South Sinai, but quickly moved on to Cairo and the North Coast. His concept brings in a young, fresh crowd, and that alone creates a different experience. As the new kid on the block, he relates to the younger crowd more than most other organisers, he says. “I realised the need for the European festival experience, where a party rages on for three days or more, nonstop; that’s what we did with the first TOD, and others soon followed. Nacelle's Sandbox was always a one-day event; it later flourished into a three-day event.”
We asked Zidane how his age hasn’t affected his career in the entertainment industry; he simply replied, “I look like I’m 26 or something, no one ever questioned my age.” However, he does say that it gets in the way when dealing with sponsors, as in Egypt you can’t pen a contract or a cheque unless you’re over 21. Everything is in his dad’s name until he reaches legal age, which he will very soon, after which nothing will stop this kid from accomplishing his dream - better yet, his Theatre of Dreams.
Photographed exclusively for CairoScene by @MO4Network #MO4Productions at the #MO4Studios.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.
All party images courtesy of CairoZoom.
Text: Timmy Mowafi