By Frank E. Bartscheck II
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, you did not have to leave the house to enjoy Cairo’s music scene: Many performances were hosted in the salons and diwans of wealthy individuals. They were exclusive events, bringing together musicians and aficionados for an intimate evening of the arts. By the mid-20th century, however, these private performances fell out of vogue. Until now.
On December 15, about 100 people showed up at a Zamalek apartment for a Sofar Cairo concert, featuring an eclectic mix of punk, rock, cover bands and a solo keyboardist. Sofar, an acronym for ‘songs from a room,’ started in London in 2009 and these so-called “secret concerts” quickly became a worldwide movement reaching 80 cities on five continents and thousands of performances. In June 2014, Nora el-Fangary and Alia Megahed started a Cairo chapter.
“My [team] partner Alia was living in New York for a year and happened to attend a New York Sofar event and absolutely fell in love with it,” explains el-Fangary, who used to work in public relations but is now dedicated to music full time. Megahed studied music production in NY and is now a DJ who has spun for concert organizers Nacelle.
As the story is told in the music industry, the founders of the initial Sofar in London — Rafe Offer, Dave Alexander and Rocky Start — noticed two problems they continually encountered when attending live musical performances. First, concertgoers pay sky-high prices to view a performance in a huge stadium where performers seem like a small speck on the stage. Second, the smaller venues that host less-established bands are often crowded with people talking and not paying attention to the music. Sofar was born of the team’s desire to provide both performers and the audience with a more intimate musical venue, which allows for a more powerful performance.
It’s a simple formula that harkens back to Cairo’s tradition of salon concerts. Local music fans volunteer to transform their living room or any unique space into a pop-up one-night venue for an intimate show. The Sofar team evaluates each potential venue prior to approval to make sure it meets the organizer’s standards and won’t create problems within the neighborhood.
Audience members are asked to stay for all the performances and not to talk or text during the show. While the rules may sound a bit draconian in this smartphone-happy culture, in person it comes off a lot less so. It creates an environment that allows for the audience to engage in the music, which in turn encourages performers — generating a feedback loop that gives birth to some amazing musical moments.
“What you need is a unique space that will take a maximum 100 people because Sofar does not host any gigs that have more than 100 attendees,” el-Fangary says. “The number of people attending really matters because it affects the mood of the performance. Sofar is all about respecting the music; it’s all about a cozy and intimate setting.”
Finding people willing to open up their living rooms to strangers may seem like a daunting task. However, the lack of local venues providing platforms for less-established bands has made sourcing Sofar locations easier than expected.
“It hasn’t been so bad,” says el-Fangary. “When we first started, we went to friends who we knew would be OK with hosting a show. At the second gig we had an audience member who loved the idea and was very excited to host the next show at an underground music room in Sixth of October city. Another audience member who attended the first two shows then hosted a show at his place. Until now it has been quite easy.”
Sofar Cairo’s spontaneous growth has mimicked the organic growth of the Sofar global movement. As the word spread throughout Cairo, others have begun to step up to help the fledgling venture. Recently, Vibe Studios in Dokki lent its assistance by providing sound equipment for events. Sofar does not sell tickets or charge for admission, so organizers “pay for everything out of pocket and then collect donations at the end of the evening from attendees. Last gig, all of the money we collected went to pay the cost of the sound equipment, the biggest cost is the sound equipment,” says el-Fangary, adding that Vibe Studio’s assistance “is really helping us” to grow.
If you want to attend a Sofar Cairo performance, you need to sign up for the Cairo mailing list through the international website Sofarsounds.com. The organizers vet the list to make sure new people get a chance to attend and find out why people signed up. “This is important for us,” el Fangary says. “We like to know what the attendee is interested in and why they are planning to attend the show.”
Those accepted as audience members are notified via email a few days prior to the show. Be advised, you will need to get in line. “Our last event [in December], we had over 100 people on a waiting list, who were unable to get into the show,” says el-Fangary. “You can see there is a lot more demand and people want to attend.”
Sofar Cairo plans to meet this demand by increasing the number of shows. “We started out doing shows every other month because we didn’t know it would become this successful, but after the most recent show we decided we are going to try and do it every month,” says el-Fangary.
Artists can sign up to perform at a Sofar event via the website, and the local organizers also scout for talent on their own. Sofar Cairo organizers noticed the rock and roll band Of The Earth, which played at the December concert, at the Cloud 9 festival in Sinai. “We really liked their music and we approached them,” el-Fangary says. They attended the third Sofar to get an idea of what we do and were very excited to play the fourth gig.”
She adds that Vibe Studios is also “providing us with a list of great bands they know who practice at their location,” which is how they found the band Bluezophrania for the Zamalek gig.
A Sofar concert serves up eclectic music acts. “When it comes to different [musical] genres, we try to keep it diverse,” says el-Fangary. “We don’t have any preferences, anyone is welcome to play any type of music so long as it is good quality.”
El-Fangary admits that not charging admission does make the Sofar undertaking more difficult to sustain but “it makes it more passionate. It is not a job we are doing and it is something we really enjoy. Even if there is no money involved, it is nice to know that those who are helping are there because they are supporting the whole concept. It is also why the idea of volunteer and donation-based shows is great because anyone who is putting effort into the creation of the event is supporting [both the artists and Sofar Cairo].”
Sofar concerts are set up as non-profit, private events, with everyone working the event as a volunteer. The bands are not compensated for the show, gaining instead exposure to audiences they might not have reached.
Omar Kamel, lead singer of Bluezophrania, notes, “I believe these kinds of gigs are the places where we can actually build up an audience. People are not just coming to hang out while music is being played; they are actually there to listen to and enjoy the music. This is the best connection you get between the band and the audience. We are not on a stage, we are almost in the middle of the audience and I believe that is the closest and best connection we can get with the audience.”
And that connection builds new fans. “This is what’s really cool about Sofar,” says el-Fangary. “There are a lot of artists that perform at Sofar that I have never heard about before and I always enjoy them and now personally follow their music. So it is really cool that it is having this effect.”