From club to agency to scene: how Cairo Jazz Club and its agency have shaped Egypt’s music scene over the past decade and a half
By Angie Balata
In Cairo’s mostly congested suburb of Mohandiseen, the nondescript front of the Cairo Jazz Club (CJC) is lost among the other storefront signs next to it. Only late into the night, as the venue’s daily crowd of patrons starts to make a buzz around the entrance, does one realize that the odd, squiggly shapes on the building’s exterior and darkened glass belong to the very exclusive bar/club/live music spot.
Notorious for keeping a strict door policy (the official reason is to keep an even gender balance), having ‘no-joke’ doormen (they run the unofficial policy of entry and make the final decision on who’s in and who’s not) and being pricey, the CJC has developed a reputation for being both the place to be seen and one of the few places in Egypt to catch a good live show on any given day. Despite the various controversies that have arisen over the years, CJC has managed, through serious local political and economic obstacles that saw many of its competitors close up shop, to retain its position as a regional leader in the independent music scene. The secret to CJC’s success lies in the diversified activities it carries out and which have culminated in the birth of the Cairo Jazz Club Agency.
The direct impact of the agency on the development, growth and sustainability of an independent music scene in Egypt is essentially a series of very wise strategic moves. In many ways, the story begins with the CJC and continues because of the agency.
From this Side of Nothing
Beyond a general agreement by the population on the excellent quality offered by the classical greats, like Om Kalthoum, Abdel Wahab and others from that era, most mainstream music since then has followed a singular pattern, with very little diversification and has been mostly force-fed to the population through mainstream channels by a handful of companies that hold a monopoly over the industry. Thus, even the possibility of choice never really existed in Egypt—if you weren’t listening to Amr Diab then it was Ehab Tawfik or Hany Shaker or Angham, and so on. In the end, commercial music was essentially the same recycled tunes. Contrary to the world out there where creativity is based on distinction and originality, Egypt has been more about the quick fix with distinction really being in the tone of voice, rather than any actual qualitative element. The contribution of CJC and the Agency, in particular, to the changing of the local music scene takes on a different understanding considering the environment from which it began.
Contrary to popular belief, the original home for the independent music scene in Egypt was not El Sawy Culture Wheel, which opened in 2003. Rather, it began two years prior when three partners took over the ownership of Cairo Jazz Club in 2001. The owners are an eclectic group that includes Akram El Sherif, guitarist of his brainchild band, Soopar Lox, and owner of The Mix Studio; Alexander Rizk, visual artist and the talent behind CJC’s unique interior design; and Ammar Dajani, former owner of Studio 32 and bassist.
“In 2001 when we opened, we had one live night a week with three bands rotating every Thursday. The idea behind the venue was that since there was no [independent] music scene and no bands with a following, specifically no bands that were brands, what we wanted to do was build a cool place that people would like to come out to and then hit them with what we thought was quality, live music,” explains Dajani. “The thinking behind this was that Cairo was the recording capital of the Middle East and Arab pop was coming from here. Clearly there was no shortage of professional musicians and the assumption was that these musicians didn’t start out wanting to record pop. These musicians wanted to create. … If we give them the space, opportunity and money, they could focus part of the time on making the music they wanted to play.”
At the time of CJC’s birth, there was no real independent music scene. Most bands were playing covers, with no band formed around original music. CJC’s original roster included the Riff Band, Eftekesat and Yehia Khalil. Dajani says the first completely independent band with original music without any members being part of the pop industry was Wust El Balad. Along with the usual financial woes related to making music, the other problem bands faced was a shortage of studios and venues. This was the driving force behind opening a venue like CJC and Dajani’s side business, Studio 32: to create opportunities for bands to form by giving them the basic, necessary resources.
The strategy proved successful, as the bands grew in number, more live nights were added to the CJC event calendar, with a more concentrated music direction for each night. People started coming out because the live music was exciting and the more they saw, the more the audiences began to form opinions and develop tastes for specific bands. The increase in bands, along with greater audience awareness through diverse offerings by the CJC led to the formation of a ‘scene’. CJC’s lineup has become the list to watch. With their eclectic list of artists, monthly newcomers and favorite regulars, DJ nights, diverse genres and specially curated nights, and the almost consistent invitation of foreign acts, it is the hub to find good music and understand the local scene.
Midway through their first year, the owners realized that they had enough of a collection of bands to start Egypt’s first independent music festival, the Cairo Jazz Club Festival. For eight days in February 2002, the festival highlighted the work of eight bands with the closing night being an Open Jam. To further increase exposure, the CJC reached out to local media, and Egypt Today was the media sponsor of the first CJC Festival. According to Dajani, “We used this CJC Festival as a PR vehicle for the bands and Eftekesat, for example, used this exposure to perform original music. Egypt Today was a media sponsor and had written extensively about the bands, featuring each of the bands in the magazine. This was a first for this scene to be exposed in mainstream media and a lot came from it.”
CJC’s reputation for being the place to find good music pushed the partners to expand their activities. The sustaining philosophy was simple: to create a scene you had to invest in the scene. This meant not only financially supporting artists, but also working actively to develop artists. People, companies and projects needing musicians and good bands called CJC and, on the other side, bands that became part of the CJC family benefitted with gigs all over Egypt that paid well and pushed the boundaries of their exposure. By 2010, the venue and its various satellite activities were consolidated and formalized under the new brand, the Cairo Jazz Club Agency.
Quality over Quantity
Dajani’s general approach to and overview of the music scene indicates the tempered analysis of a personality not usually given to the kind of miscalculated decisions of those aiming to make a profit from the current fashion of “everything underground.”
According to Dajani, “Artists dependent on funding and aid models are really traversing a dangerous path because it is not sustainable. The NGO model, in particular, is not sustainable, because the government can come up with laws that affect practice and funding.” This is also a reflection of the government’s 2014 enactment of the NGO law, which put an end to many of the initiatives and projects that were dependent on foreign funding, including the well-established powerhouse that is Al Mawred Al Thaqafy. Consequently, the agency’s ability to develop and help artists grow is largely dependent on the success of the partners in creating strategies that allow them to bring in profit.
In essence, the agency is like a fluid mishmash of various activities, which include workshops, events, the CJC stage and festivals, stitched together with no clear strategy. With every obstacle that popped up as the agency grew, a new set of activities was formed to fix the problem. The growing number of bands and the need for stage experience coupled with the quality CJC had achieved made the agency a supplier at times (for corporate and private events) and a booking agency at others (in terms of helping get Egyptian artists booked at festivals outside of Egypt and foreign artists gigs in Egypt).
“First the agency was focused on representing artists, however, when we realized there was a missing step in the music scene in general, namely there were no stages, due to the lack of venues, festivals and events, on which artists we represent are supposed to perform,” explains Dajani, who adds, “It is important for us to be sustainable as a business. And all this made us realize that representation was too soon given the shortages and decided, as a result, that our focus should be more on creating events and creating festivals through which we can showcase bands.” For now, the agency is focused on two paths of activities: commissioned work with supplying bands for events and the events they create themselves. On the event list, the agency has created some very powerful brands. In addition to handling the programming and booking of the CJC stage, they have gained a strong reputation as creators and organizers because of their festival work. In 2010, they partnered with cultural space Darb 1718 to hold Mawaweel, which was developed around the idea of providing an ‘alternative Ramadan experience’ that included music, art and a bazaar.
“Our idea behind it was to stand in the middle of the art/entertainment spectrum and offer art that was entertaining and vice versa, entertainment with artistic value,” says Dajani. Through the partnership with Darb 1718 came another festival concept, Artbeat, which also began in 2010 and revolved around the idea “…of harmoniously combining arts and crafts by local and international artists with music from around the world into a festival to be enjoyed and appreciated by people from all walks of life.”
Dajani says that “part of giving [bands] exposure was through bringing in important international bands and creating a space for interaction.” The first edition of Artbeat took place in Cairo and Minya, and had a number of objectives: getting bands outside of Cairo to break through the city’s monopoly on the music scene, create scenes for interaction between local and international bands and ensure a parallel path took place on the DARB 1718 side with regards to the arts.
In 2012, Artbeat was held in Cairo, Mansoura and Alexandria. There were seven bands from abroad and 14 Egyptian bands hitting each city back to back. According to Dajani, not only was the festival a great success, but it was done without any corporate sponsorship and open to the public for free to emphasize exposure by both broadening the audience base for musicians and exposing audiences to an alternative to mainstream pop.
While Artbeat would not continue in this format, given an environment that has changed dramatically since its inception, the agency offered another powerful alternative with their Fusion Festival. The first edition took place after the January 25 Revolution and brought various artists from around the Arab world to be matched with local artists for a night of fusion. The concept behind this, explains Dajani, is that, “There is something now of great size and quality called an Arab music scene, with the separate scenes maturing and being able to lay bridges between them. There is a lot of exchange and collaboration happening between the Arab capitals. So the idea of Fusion was a recognition of that and that we are talents part of a bigger scene that all need/should/want exposure and recognition in the different capitals just as we need that. It began as a Cairo Jazz Club event and last year we took it out of Cairo.”
Music with a Side of Everything
Beyond the music side of the agency there is a distinct move toward incorporating art into the marketing design of their strategy. Sarah El Redy, the marketing manager at the agency, explains that she makes sure that the artwork is interesting (incidentally, the creative brilliance in the shadows of the great designs is none other than Amr Qenawi) and that the language used to promote the bands is engaging. For most bands this is a serious problem as very few have the means to market themselves properly. On the social media front, both the Agency and CJC are still playing catch up. Like many others, they have depended largely on their consistent clientele, due to their strong position in the market, and to other alternative methods of media, including text messages, emails, print and newsletters.
El Redy points out that they have not been dependent on Facebook, especially since one of their pages was shut down unexpectedly by the social media giant. This led to greater diversification in outreach. The agency’s revamped attempts at outreach seem to be paying off, with the help of the partnership they have with CairoScene and CairoZoom, subsidies of the media company Mo4 Network.
Scene Leaders or Scene Feeders?
As service providers the Agency has always sought to connect bands with opportunities and when events like last year’s “Raise Your Voice Against Sexual Harassment” needed event management and bands, the agency quietly stepped in to help. “Basically,” says Dajani, “we aim to figure out what the music scene needs coupled with our business aims, and the aim is to remain profitable so as to remain useful—this is what we are always asking.”
CJC has been critiqued for their select choices when it comes to programming and for the low pay offered musicians in light of what is assumed to be a large yearly profit margin for the partners and better pay from new competitors. Ahmed Abaza, former bassist with Fabrica and current event manager for both the Agency and the CJC, is unwaveringly certain about what the CJC and the Agency are in terms of their roles in the local music scene. For him, CJC has helped promote a lot of bands and that spotlight is not easily handed out: “We have a tough stage, you have to have stage presence and we have a tough audience.” For him, most of the bands in the scene are reproductions of a few bands and there is a general lack of originality.
Accordingly, CJC stage policy and the Agency’s booking strategy are about vetting and supporting those who will make a difference. “Our criteria for choosing bands are quality not genre, not anything else. We do auditions and the bands that come don’t get just a yes/no. They get a ‘yes, but’ or a ‘no, but’ with details on their performance and how they can improve,” says Dajani. “It’s never about ‘you’re not good enough for this stage,’ but maybe how bands can improve to play the stage. Two of the three owners are musicians and the third is the visual artist, so we take this seriously. Our auditions were a way for people to come in and find out how to improve and sometimes people do auditions just to get pointers.”
On the money side, Abaza disparages the implication that CJC profits from musicians. For him, CJC offers a consistent calendar that doesn’t charge at the door and that offers a community and network for the musicians to benefit from. Moreover, CJC Agency takes initiatives and creates concepts around musicians, including producing albums for musicians (such as Neobyrd) and supporting musicians with opportunities inside and outside Egypt.
For Dajani, the critique is baseless: “Our business model is different than other competitors, in the sense that we don’t charge cover fees and have no tickets. Other places book bands that will give them a certain financial success. Here we take risks with bands whereas others don’t; we work with bands and help them grow. … We pay what we can afford. Live music is costly and its production is costly and we have expenses that others don’t because live music is integral to the concept,” says Dajani who points out that other venues may often be food and beverage outlets that use music to attract clientele or where music is integral to the concept and the two cannot be compared.
Where other venues and organizers almost consistently offer the exact same lineup and program format, CJC Agency, conversely, is always looking to change the dynamics and keep music ‘fresh.’ How? Unlike others, they understand that the heavy price tag of the band should not be the gauge of quality. “In my opinion, this is not sustainable,” says Dajani. “Of course musicians need to be paid and audiences need to pay, but at the end of the day, music’s first priority is to be heard … CJC is the place where you get an intimate experience and a stage experience and a place to try different things out.”