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Lekhfa: alternative music for Egypt's connected generation

By Alison Hird

Maryam Saleh, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Maurice Louca are established solo artists on the alternative Arabic music scene. Together as Lekhfa they draw on Egyptian shaabi, pop and psychedelia to produce an off-kilter sound. Their new, eponymous album uses the edgy dystopian poetry of their contemporary Mido Zoheir to remarkable effect.

"The name [Lekhfa] literally means 'to make something invisible'," Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, the band's vocalist and composer, told RFI. "It was more of a joke at first and then it turned into something that each of us saw as relevant to the music in a different way."

The three band members enjoy successful solo careers in Egypt but wanted to work together "out of curiosity", says vocalist Maryam Saleh, who has marked herself out with a combination of electro pop and street poetry.

The band's blend of genres: working class political music from Cairo known as shaabi, to psychedelia and pop, and using instruments like slide guitars, oud and buzuq results in an exciting, dissonant sound.

"Playing oud with shaabi beat and singing with a shaabi beat aren’t done that way usually," says Ghazeleh. "When we each did what inspired us from each other's work, it came out as something very weird at the beginning."

But gradually "something special" came out of the combination of layers of sounds and instruments.

"It represents what we in our worldwide generation of internet users like to hear," the Palestinian-born composer and multi-instrumentist continues. "What influences us in that region is that mix of things: it’s not one culture or the other."

Artwork for Lefkha album cover ©Lefkha

Dystopian poems, broken rhythms

The lyrics were all written by local poet Mido Zoheir.

Saleh had worked with him extensively and saw an opportunity to bring some of his unpublished works - with their images of betrayal, madness, demagoguery and doubt - to the fore.

"The lyrics are the heart and soul of these songs," she says. "We all believe Zoheir expresses what we think and feel."

Saleh points to a "philosophy of dark comedy" in the opening song Kont Rayeh (I was on my way) in which the speaker's been sabotaged by his loved ones and "snared by a beast" just when he felt able to take on the future.

"I was going I was going / I was all set to speak / I was feeling well again / truth was on my side / in my heart a vast yearning," it begins but concludes "It seems the burdens are immense / it seems that I will not speak."

Lekhfa performed one of its most political songs Ekaa Maksour (Rhythm Broken) at the album launch in Cairo's Azhar Park in September 2017.

Audiences sang along to "Rhythm broken into four quarters / drilling illusion into listening ears / a devil in lies / a long arm in tyranny / you the sultan / the people public property."

"It's cheerfully sarcastic about something - not very cheerfully - problematic," says Ghazaleh. "The magic of Mido Zoheir!"

There's no mention of politics, no direct shouting down of the government but you don't need a degree to detect a certain spirit of revolt.

"I think it’s also very social, not only political, because it’s related to a certain social mentality", says Ghazaleh. "It’s about how people treat each other or others."

A connected post-Arab Spring generation

This kind of cross-genre, cross-continent alternative music has grown in Egypt in the wake of 2011's so-called Arab Spring.

Lefkha have found enthusiastic audiences in theatres and festivals and are supported by El Genaina Theater in particular. Ghazaleh admits they have to leave out some of the bad language from songs like Teskar Tebki (Drunk, you weep like a child).

"We sing the clean vesion in Egypt [but] the audience doesn’t like that and ends up singing the explicit words themselves for us."

Despite the recent crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt - in Februaary this year singer Sherine Abdel Warhoub was given a six-month jail sentence for "insulting" the river Nile - Ghazaleh says social media and music platforms online means they have few problems getting their music out.

"I can create my music, can share it with people especially online and I can see people relating and reacting," he explains.

"With online networks, internet etcetera, it’s less in the hands of someone to tell people what to hear and what not to hear. And this is in itself what's keeping everything going."

Ghazaleh says the real challenges are related to the region's underdeveloped industry.

"The technology is there, [the problem is] the ability to get funding, to be able to sit and create music, to get produced, to record and distribute."

Thankfully they have large, appreciative, thirsty audiences.

"[The fact that] the audience is very thirsty for new kinds of music and new experiments and alternative means of expression keeps us going and makes up for the fact that the industry isn’t as developed as it should," Ghazaleh says.

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