Did you know that the world’s first electronic music remix was produced in the 1940s by a Cairo composer? I certainly didn’t, and the opportunity to discover new worlds is one of the things I love most about being an editorial photographer. Egypt is home to a strong musical tradition, and it is not just about belly dancing, folk music or Middle Eastern pop. A vibrant underground dance music scene is growing fast, and I flew from Nice to Cairo on assignment for Aramco World magazine this summer to photograph its rising stars.
Dolphin sampling & Red Sea raving
Things have come a long way since El-Dabh, the ‘father of electronic music’, let loose his creativity on the singing and tambourine of a folk ritual he’d recorded on a giant, tape-deck-style contraption. Current producers might weave the voices of Bedouin singers, folk instruments or even samples of dolphins, with house beats and Western instruments to make innovative new tracks in the Egyptian soundscape.
Our team for this assignment was international: Tristan (travel journalist, with whom I’ve previously worked on reportages about Marseille’s food scene and the film industry in Morocco) came to Cairo from London; I (photographer) flew from the South of France; and Dick (magazine editor) from the USA. We started by taking the temperature of the capital’s dance music scene, then drove south to El Gouna. Egypt’s leading electronic composer, Safi, is now based in this Red Sea resort, and El Gouna is also home to the Sandbox festival, an annual dance music event attended by over 4 000 revellers.
The brief – to take portraits of the feature’s protagonists and make a reportage at Sandbox – was a particularly creative one. Aramco World is the baby of the Saudi Arabian oil company of the same name and, in its mission to promote elements of Muslim culture internationally, the magazine has rather particular photography guidelines. To show festival-goers in the heat of an Egyptian summer without showing women’s bare arms or legs, shirtless men or any alcohol would clearly be challenging for a photographer. Dick and I discussed how to achieve this, by taking a more ‘interpretative’ approach to the reportage than usual. I suggested taking blurry, grainy, or otherwise abstract images of dancers close-up….and capturing the surrounding empty desert landscapes to set off the portraits.
Safi, described in the article as “the godfather of contemporary Egyptian electronica”, is both a well-known radio DJ and leading musician / producer. The Aramco World website features multimedia pieces, and we decided that I would make an audio-and-stills portrait of him to run alongside this story. Interviewing Safi in-depth, and capturing ambient sound recordings, added layers to my role as photographer.
To label Safi an electronic musician would be to tell only part of his story. This thoughtful nature lover is as comfortable playing instruments like the double-reeded Armenian duduk or acoustic guitar as he is behind the decks, and I wanted to create a piece that would communicate his poetic, philosophical approach to music and resonance, as well as the influence of the desert and Red Sea on his work. So while my team was breakfasting, I prowled around with a microphone capturing early morning birdsong; at the end of the day, I was to be found lying in the sand, photographing kitesurfers and the stillness of the sea at sunset.
The heat in June on the Red Sea is less forgiving than that in the South of France; photographer’s equipment and sand don’t go well together either. But, apart from these challenges, the Sandbox festival was a pleasure to photograph. The beautiful beach setting was an apt backdrop for the beautiful music, and the beautiful people who were there to immerse themselves in it. As the night progressed and the tempo increased, the dancefloors got denser, and the crowd really started to move. Making the most of my access-all-areas press photographer pass, I positioned myself at the front of centre stage with a giant stack of speakers at my back. Facing the front line of revellers, I slowly picked out individuals one by one, and captured details of their movements, as the roving dancefloor lights caught them. With the speakers’ vibrations running through my body, and a deep concentration on sound, light and movement in the dark, I was probably as close as a working photographer can get to a trance.