ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

ZULI on music, activism and distorted perception of the Orient

Territorial identity, the connection of music with a specific spot on the map, geographical tags are artifacts and remnants of the past in the opinion of Ahmed El Ghazoly, a musician from Egypt, who produces music as ZULI.

For many years he has been organizing parties in Cairo, being a part of Kairo is Koming and AHOMA collectives, as well as the influential Vent club. Living in a country dominated by electro-chaabi and traditional Arabic music, he opposes the mainstream music and any speculation on the basis of nationality. In his work, Ahmed prefers to leave room for interpretation, creating music at the intersection of grime, jungle, and techno, free from complex narratives and concepts.

For many years he has been organizing parties in Cairo, being a part of Kairo is Koming and AHOMA collectives, as well as the influential Vent club. Living in a country dominated by electro-chaabi and traditional Arabic music, he opposes the mainstream music and any speculation on the basis of nationality. In his work, Ahmed prefers to leave room for interpretation, creating music at the intersection of grime, jungle, and techno, free from complex narratives and concepts.

I know that in your early childhood you lived in London. Why have your family decided to move back to Egypt?

          I moved to London when I was two months old. I lived there for ten years. It was a time when I first went to primary school, and had my first friends. So there was definitely an impact. We used to leave and visit family in summer holidays sometimes, and I never used to like it. My dad decided to come back to Cairo for many reasons, he got the job there, and he also felt that he wants to bring up his kids in Egypt. He thought: "OK, let me raise my kids in Egypt, and if they wanna go back to Europe they can do it by themselves when they are old."

So you grew up at the intersection of two different mentalities - Eastern and European. What music influenced you more?

          When I moved back to Egypt, I was 10. You know the music you listen to when you are that age is not that sophisticated. I was listening to the pop charts. I think my main influences came later on when I was a teenager. There is a lot of different stuff I listened to, but I think I grew up mainly on guitar music. I was born in 1984, so I was a teenager in 90s. That was around the time when it was Britpop in the UK, and there was grunge, and the rest that was dominating in mainstream. Also, the electronic music was popular but mainly the cheesy stuff. I was really into the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy at the time. I remember making attempts getting into Arabic and Egyptian pop music but I never really found myself there. If you ask anyone, they will say that Egyptian music and Arabic music kind of went downhill starting the 80s-90s and got commercialized. There was one singer called Mohamed Mounir who worked with some interesting producers until the end of the 70s or 80s. He had 3 or 4 albums around that time that I still listen today, but besides that, I don't really have an example. Arabic music hasn't influenced me so much at all. It's more of Western music and stuff I discovered later on when I was a teenager.

I know that in your early childhood you lived in London. Why have your family decided to move back to Egypt?

          I moved to London when I was two months old. I lived there for ten years. It was a time when I first went to primary school, and had my first friends. So there was definitely an impact. We used to leave and visit family in summer holidays sometimes, and I never used to like it. My dad decided to come back to Cairo for many reasons, he got the job there, and he also felt that he wants to bring up his kids in Egypt. He thought: "OK, let me raise my kids in Egypt, and if they wanna go back to Europe they can do it by themselves when they are old."

So you grew up at the intersection of two different mentalities - Eastern and European. What music influenced you more?

          When I moved back to Egypt, I was 10. You know the music you listen to when you are that age is not that sophisticated. I was listening to the pop charts. I think my main influences came later on when I was a teenager. There is a lot of different stuff I listened to, but I think I grew up mainly on guitar music. I was born in 1984, so I was a teenager in 90s. That was around the time when it was Britpop in the UK, and there was grunge, and the rest that was dominating in mainstream. Also, the electronic music was popular but mainly the cheesy stuff. I was really into the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy at the time. I remember making attempts getting into Arabic and Egyptian pop music but I never really found myself there. If you ask anyone, they will say that Egyptian music and Arabic music kind of went downhill starting the 80s-90s and got commercialized. There was one singer called Mohamed Mounir who worked with some interesting producers until the end of the 70s or 80s. He had 3 or 4 albums around that time that I still listen today, but besides that, I don't really have an example. Arabic music hasn't influenced me so much at all. It's more of Western music and stuff I discovered later on when I was a teenager.

What about rap? I know that you have roots in the rap scene and also use it in your sets. So, where did the passion for it comes from?

          I’ve always liked rap, but I really got into it around 2010. I started producing rap for local rappers in Egypt, and also had different aliases. I thought it was a phase because I stopped doing it around the end of 2012. I took a break, but then got back into things three years ago, and I'm making rap again. I'm working on an album right now, my first LP. I featured many MCs and also, at the same time, I'm making a rap mixtape. During the process of writing the album, I invited a lot of MCs from Egypt, not just Cairo. They come to the studio in Cairo, and I’ve recorded a lot of it. You know, I'm trying to be the Egyptian DJ Khaled. Like, working with different people all over the place. I imagined it would be just a phase in 2011 but rap is here to stay, and it just feels comfortable.

But what was your first encounter with electronic music?

          I think it was Robert Miles. When I was really young, I was obsessed. I think it was “Soundtracks” from 1995. It was either that or The Prodigy - The Fat Of The Land; or maybe Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole.

Your first release under ZULI moniker came out in 2016. So, it’s interesting, have you ever had attempts to release your stuff before?

          I’ve been making music since 16, I guess. I was DJing and started creating music. I was also into rock, punk, and other stuff, so I thought maybe I should learn an instrument to help me produce. I got a bass guitar and started creating rock and punk songs. Then, I’ve been producing electronic music for a long time until I focused on making rap beats under different names and did a few projects with friends. Then I started focusing on my solo work. That was in 2014-2015, which is around the same time I met Lee Gamble and decided to release on his UIQ.

What is the story behind your meeting with Lee?

          I was dating someone, and she didn't really like my music. She liked my ambient stuff, but she didn't like my more dancefloor-oriented stuff. So, one day I was in a car, I took her to pay her phone bill and thought: “Alright, this is an opportunity for me to listen to some dance music." I put on some dance music on, and then she came back to the car and Lee Gamble track was playing, you know, the album on Pan - Dutch Tvashar Plumes, and she thought it was me. She was like: "I love you, but I hate your techno. Can you just play something else." I was like: “It wasn't even me, it's the guy called Lee Gamble.” She said: “Maybe you should send him your music then.” So I sent him my music, and he was like: “Yeah, I like it; I'm going to play it on my NTS show.” And in 2015, when he decided to start UIQ, he told me about it and proposed to release the record. That's how it happened.

How have you been working on Numbers and Bionic Ahmed EPs? Was it something that you recorded specially for Lee or you had it before?

          For the Bionic Ahmed, there were six tracks. Four of the tracks were written before and then I wrote two other ones specifically for the record. The second record on UIQ was Numbers, and it is a very specific record because, again, four out of the six tracks were written in a live context. The way I perform live has nothing to do with my releases. I have material that is specific to the live set, and the reason behind this aspect is a setup. I set it in a way to play with both of my hands and be busy on stage because I don't like just to stand there. I like to do something. So I have this setup for live, and it's basically groups of sounds that whenever I'm performing I put them together on the spot, kind of improvise. But then, over time you find that, alright, this sound goes with this loop, and this kit goes with this bassline or whatever, and then they kind of form tracks. So four of the tracks on Numbers were, originally, live loops that came together naturally in the live environment. And then there are two tracks that I wrote specifically for the record.

What about rap? I know that you have roots in the rap scene and also use it in your sets. So, where did the passion for it comes from?

          I’ve always liked rap, but I really got into it around 2010. I started producing rap for local rappers in Egypt, and also had different aliases. I thought it was a phase because I stopped doing it around the end of 2012. I took a break, but then got back into things three years ago, and I'm making rap again. I'm working on an album right now, my first LP. I featured many MCs and also, at the same time, I'm making a rap mixtape. During the process of writing the album, I invited a lot of MCs from Egypt, not just Cairo. They come to the studio in Cairo, and I’ve recorded a lot of it. You know, I'm trying to be the Egyptian DJ Khaled. Like, working with different people all over the place. I imagined it would be just a phase in 2011 but rap is here to stay, and it just feels comfortable.

But what was your first encounter with electronic music?

          I think it was Robert Miles. When I was really young, I was obsessed. I think it was “Soundtracks” from 1995. It was either that or The Prodigy - The Fat Of The Land; or maybe Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole.

Your first release under ZULI moniker came out in 2016. So, it’s interesting, have you ever had attempts to release your stuff before?

          I’ve been making music since 16, I guess. I was DJing and started creating music. I was also into rock, punk, and other stuff, so I thought maybe I should learn an instrument to help me produce. I got a bass guitar and started creating rock and punk songs. Then, I’ve been producing electronic music for a long time until I focused on making rap beats under different names and did a few projects with friends. Then I started focusing on my solo work. That was in 2014-2015, which is around the same time I met Lee Gamble and decided to release on his UIQ.

What is the story behind your meeting with Lee?

          I was dating someone, and she didn't really like my music. She liked my ambient stuff, but she didn't like my more dancefloor-oriented stuff. So, one day I was in a car, I took her to pay her phone bill and thought: “Alright, this is an opportunity for me to listen to some dance music." I put on some dance music on, and then she came back to the car and Lee Gamble track was playing, you know, the album on Pan - Dutch Tvashar Plumes, and she thought it was me. She was like: "I love you, but I hate your techno. Can you just play something else." I was like: “It wasn't even me, it's the guy called Lee Gamble.” She said: “Maybe you should send him your music then.” So I sent him my music, and he was like: “Yeah, I like it; I'm going to play it on my NTS show.” And in 2015, when he decided to start UIQ, he told me about it and proposed to release the record. That's how it happened.

How have you been working on Numbers and Bionic Ahmed EPs? Was it something that you recorded specially for Lee or you had it before?

          For the Bionic Ahmed, there were six tracks. Four of the tracks were written before and then I wrote two other ones specifically for the record. The second record on UIQ was Numbers, and it is a very specific record because, again, four out of the six tracks were written in a live context. The way I perform live has nothing to do with my releases. I have material that is specific to the live set, and the reason behind this aspect is a setup. I set it in a way to play with both of my hands and be busy on stage because I don't like just to stand there. I like to do something. So I have this setup for live, and it's basically groups of sounds that whenever I'm performing I put them together on the spot, kind of improvise. But then, over time you find that, alright, this sound goes with this loop, and this kit goes with this bassline or whatever, and then they kind of form tracks. So four of the tracks on Numbers were, originally, live loops that came together naturally in the live environment. And then there are two tracks that I wrote specifically for the record.

I know that recently you released your new album Trigger Finger. Is there any particular concept behind the album?

          I don’t know why people call it an album, it's also EP. It's a collection of singles that I happen to write over the years. There is no particular concept behind it. I try to shy away from concepts. I'm not a big fan of being literal about narrative. I prefer to leave some space for the listeners to interpret it in their own way. But I don't say it's a right thing to do, but I prefer when there is a space for the listener's imagination to apply what they are hearing to their own perspective. I may sound like a hippie right now, but I really believe that music expresses things that you can't say in words and if you do, you kind of ruin it.

I know that recently you released your new album Trigger Finger. Is there any particular concept behind the album?

          I don’t know why people call it an album, it's also EP. It's a collection of singles that I happen to write over the years. There is no particular concept behind it. I try to shy away from concepts. I'm not a big fan of being literal about narrative. I prefer to leave some space for the listeners to interpret it in their own way. But I don't say it's a right thing to do, but I prefer when there is a space for the listener's imagination to apply what they are hearing to their own perspective. I may sound like a hippie right now, but I really believe that music expresses things that you can't say in words and if you do, you kind of ruin it.

What about AHOMA — a collective of more than 18 musicians and visual artists from Cairo. Could you define what it is? Is it linked to Kairo is Koming? What is the difference between these projects?

           Kairo is Koming appeared six years ago, I think. It was a different time in the scene here in Cairo. Kairo is Koming was two сamps. It was my camp, which is me, Asem (aka $$$TAG$$$) and Nader (aka NAA). Asem and I were making this 80s type of music - electro, new wave. And the other camp was Bosaina, Hussein Sherbiny, and Ismael. It was also something like an electro-influenced band, but more poppy. Bosaina and I found each other, and I introduced her to my friends; she introduced me to her friends, and we formed a collective. So it is more of a friendly type of things.

          Kairo is Koming, and AHOMA is different. We created a music space VENT a few years ago, that was very good time for the music in Egypt because it was the venue made by musicians. Through VENT, we met countless musicians and producers. There was a community that was built around it because it was a place where you can meet truly like-minded people. Of course, we made some money, but it wasn't the primary concern.

What about AHOMA — a collective of more than 18 musicians and visual artists from Cairo. Could you define what it is? Is it linked to Kairo is Koming? What is the difference between these projects?

           Kairo is Koming appeared six years ago, I think. It was a different time in the scene here in Cairo. Kairo is Koming was two сamps. It was my camp, which is me, Asem (aka $$$TAG$$$) and Nader (aka NAA). Asem and I were making this 80s type of music - electro, new wave. And the other camp was Bosaina, Hussein Sherbiny, and Ismael. It was also something like an electro-influenced band, but more poppy. Bosaina and I found each other, and I introduced her to my friends; she introduced me to her friends, and we formed a collective. So it is more of a friendly type of things.

          Kairo is Koming, and AHOMA is different. We created a music space VENT a few years ago, that was very good time for the music in Egypt because it was the venue made by musicians. Through VENT, we met countless musicians and producers. There was a community that was built around it because it was a place where you can meet truly like-minded people. Of course, we made some money, but it wasn't the primary concern.

It was about booking people who were not booked anywhere in Cairo. All the promoters and djs or whatever are people who make traditional stuff. You know egyptian instruments, electro chaabi? So we thought: "No one books us, so let's form a collective, let's book each other, empower each other, support each other."

It was about booking people who were not booked anywhere in Cairo. All the promoters and djs or whatever are people who make traditional stuff. You know egyptian instruments, electro chaabi? So we thought: "No one books us, so let's form a collective, let's book each other, empower each other, support each other."

          We realized that there is an essential amount of producers who don't get booked, so let's create a venue and book these people. That is the main idea behind AHOMA. We have a few promoters, we throw parties and only invite members of the collective to perform.

How was the music scene in Cairo developing after VENT?

          We left the venue in 2015, and there was kind of a gap in a music scene. It stagnated a little bit. But that being said in the past 2 or 3 years other promoters have emerged, and they have the same concept, and also much exposure, so things are picking up again and there are new DJs, there are a couple of new producers. I feel like the potential behind this new wave of electronic musicians in Cairo is a way stronger than ever before. I feel like Egypt is on the rise now regarding electronic music.

What do you think about the cultural identity of the scene in Cairo?

Well, I feel that at this age, with the internet, it is not important. It isn't as important as it used to be, let's say, 20-30 years ago. Do we have our own distinct sound? I don't think so. And I don't feel that this idea of a certain city having a certain sound anywhere in the world at the moment. I don't feel it really exist anymore. I'm not sure if you would agree with me, though. People from Egypt have been influenced by other cities in the world through the internet. We are all going to listen to other people, and nothing is really original if you think about it. I mean, yeah, you intend to be original, but at the end of the day, if you dig deep down in your originality, it is really a mix of many different things even if these things are not musical. They kind of inform your music.

When it comes to countries that are a bit outside of a global context, people tend to expect something exotic and special. But It might feel a bit overemphasized.

Absolutely. And that is something I’m trying to fight. While I've been doing that videos for CTM I was trying to fight that. Alright, there is another fact. I'm not sure if you are interested in it and add it to the interview, but I will tell you anyway. In Egypt, the independent electronic music scene is very tiny. We have like 15 fans, so there is no money in the scene. All money that goes into the music scene come from one or two places - either culture institutions like the British Council and the Goethe Institute, for instance, or corporations who sponsor cultural activities.

          We realized that there is an essential amount of producers who don't get booked, so let's create a venue and book these people. That is the main idea behind AHOMA. We have a few promoters, we throw parties and only invite members of the collective to perform.

How was the music scene in Cairo developing after VENT?

          We left the venue in 2015, and there was kind of a gap in a music scene. It stagnated a little bit. But that being said in the past 2 or 3 years other promoters have emerged, and they have the same concept, and also much exposure, so things are picking up again and there are new DJs, there are a couple of new producers. I feel like the potential behind this new wave of electronic musicians in Cairo is a way stronger than ever before. I feel like Egypt is on the rise now regarding electronic music.

What do you think about the cultural identity of the scene in Cairo?

Well, I feel that at this age, with the internet, it is not important. It isn't as important as it used to be, let's say, 20-30 years ago. Do we have our own distinct sound? I don't think so. And I don't feel that this idea of a certain city having a certain sound anywhere in the world at the moment. I don't feel it really exist anymore. I'm not sure if you would agree with me, though. People from Egypt have been influenced by other cities in the world through the internet. We are all going to listen to other people, and nothing is really original if you think about it. I mean, yeah, you intend to be original, but at the end of the day, if you dig deep down in your originality, it is really a mix of many different things even if these things are not musical. They kind of inform your music.

When it comes to countries that are a bit outside of a global context, people tend to expect something exotic and special. But It might feel a bit overemphasized.

Absolutely. And that is something I’m trying to fight. While I've been doing that videos for CTM I was trying to fight that. Alright, there is another fact. I'm not sure if you are interested in it and add it to the interview, but I will tell you anyway. In Egypt, the independent electronic music scene is very tiny. We have like 15 fans, so there is no money in the scene. All money that goes into the music scene come from one or two places - either culture institutions like the British Council and the Goethe Institute, for instance, or corporations who sponsor cultural activities.

Those people have a particular narrative in their heads that is precisely what you were saying, like: "Alright, you are Egyptian, so we need to hear some "oriental" music with some traditional instruments. If you don't have this sound we are not going to fund you."

Those people have a particular narrative in their heads that is precisely what you were saying, like: "Alright, you are Egyptian, so we need to hear some "oriental" music with some traditional instruments. If you don't have this sound we are not going to fund you."

          The other source of money would be cooperations, like, Red Bull or other companies who are involved in music. They are copying cultural institutions. They are the same; they want to sell Arabic vocals, the instruments, and stuff. It's been my main issue for the last couple of years. I try to bring some attention to that. We have a lot of really talented electronic musicians who sound like themselves, but they don't sound like traditional Arabic music.

And what about your CTM installation. How did you work on it?

          It was my first installation. I've never done anything like this before. The idea behind it was to choose a number of locations around Cairo. I've got a small camera and used the hat to hide it inside because it's illegal to film most of the places where I was shooting. At the same time, I had the recorder in my pocket, so I did the recording and video, and then, when I gathered the material for each location and made a sound library, I used it to create a piece. There was a room with 6 screens arranged in a circle because the video is 360 degrees. It was like you are in the street.

          A week before traveling an accident happened, and I lost all my data between September and January 2017, including all the audio and video material I had collected and edited for the installation. I then had to go back to the locations and shoot videos and record audio, all over again. It was really stressful. I had to do my entire project again in just six days. I'm obviously going to feel that the version I lost is better and I’m left with that feeling forever.

          The other source of money would be cooperations, like, Red Bull or other companies who are involved in music. They are copying cultural institutions. They are the same; they want to sell Arabic vocals, the instruments, and stuff. It's been my main issue for the last couple of years. I try to bring some attention to that. We have a lot of really talented electronic musicians who sound like themselves, but they don't sound like traditional Arabic music.

And what about your CTM installation. How did you work on it?

          It was my first installation. I've never done anything like this before. The idea behind it was to choose a number of locations around Cairo. I've got a small camera and used the hat to hide it inside because it's illegal to film most of the places where I was shooting. At the same time, I had the recorder in my pocket, so I did the recording and video, and then, when I gathered the material for each location and made a sound library, I used it to create a piece. There was a room with 6 screens arranged in a circle because the video is 360 degrees. It was like you are in the street.

          A week before traveling an accident happened, and I lost all my data between September and January 2017, including all the audio and video material I had collected and edited for the installation. I then had to go back to the locations and shoot videos and record audio, all over again. It was really stressful. I had to do my entire project again in just six days. I'm obviously going to feel that the version I lost is better and I’m left with that feeling forever.

And what about conversations with other people? You also recorded interviews, how was it?

          Yeah, people didn’t know about the interviews. It was good to record them when they didn't know, so I managed to capture the street opinions, like, the real opinions, the way they feel, because once you tell someone that you are recording them, they are conscious, and they hold back with that. So I did not put them into that position, not letting them know that they are being recorded.

How much are you involved in politics?

And what about conversations with other people? You also recorded interviews, how was it?

          Yeah, people didn’t know about the interviews. It was good to record them when they didn't know, so I managed to capture the street opinions, like, the real opinions, the way they feel, because once you tell someone that you are recording them, they are conscious, and they hold back with that. So I did not put them into that position, not letting them know that they are being recorded.

How much are you involved in politics?

Politics is everything, it's everywhere. But when you live in a country like ours, you should be very careful about what you say.

Politics is everything, it's everywhere. But when you live in a country like ours, you should be very careful about what you say.

Tell us a bit about your plans.

          I feel like I have a role to play in Egypt. I'm not going to say right now, but I have plans. The only reason that I'm not saying is that they are not in motion. Like 15-30%. Actually, I will be dedicating my time to that after finishing the album.

Tell us a bit about your plans.

          I feel like I have a role to play in Egypt. I'm not going to say right now, but I have plans. The only reason that I'm not saying is that they are not in motion. Like 15-30%. Actually, I will be dedicating my time to that after finishing the album.

______
Text: Tanya Voytko
Photo: Malak El Sawi

( Latest articles )