Live music in Egypt

Original article by Nadya Shanab for Music Africa

Live music is an integral part of most, if not all, cultures around the world and is the thread that binds societies and communities. This is also the case in Egypt. Yet, the development of the live music industry at various levels is still very much a work in progress. Despite its potential and the many promising talents searching for opportunities to perform, as well as established artists in need of events and venues to ply their trade, live music infrastructure in Egypt is generally underdeveloped. 

Egyptian rapper Afroto performing at Zamalek Theatre in 2021. Photo: CNL Music

Music genres that dominate the live music scene in Egypt are constantly changing, especially in the non-mainstream sector. A few decades ago, rock and metal music were the dominant sounds on the independent front. More recently, the independent scene has transitioned into indie/alternative rock, fusion, mahraganat (electro-chaabi) and trap/hip hop. Cover bands are also prominent, particularly at weddings, corporate functions and venues that provide ‘general entertainment’.

Types of live music performances in Egypt

The current live music scene in Egypt, pre- and post-COVID-19, can be split up into the following categories: live concerts, general entertainment, weddings and functions, and street-style mahraganat. Both independent and mainstream artists perform at these events.

Live concerts can be labelled as ticketed events where the audience’s sole purpose for attending is to watch a musical performance. Concerts usually take place at cultural venues, bars, cafes and restaurants (listed individually below), or at purpose-built stages and arenas set up in open spaces like the Giza pyramid complex, or vacant plots. These can constitute seated or standing spaces, with some venues flexible enough to cater for both options. Several promoters and event organisers, such as CNL Music and Nacelle, have been hosting concerts either at existing venues or temporary set-ups specifically built for an event.

‘General entertainment’ can be summed up as performances that are not necessarily the main attraction at a venue. They take place at bars, restaurants or cafes where the clientele may not have come specifically for the music programme but to socialise and enjoy a meal and/or drink. Venues such as Cairo Jazz Club, The Tap, and Room Art Space cater to this type of live performance. 

Weddings and functions, particularly weddings, are a major source of income for live performers in Egypt. Cover bands and established artists are often booked to perform at weddings, and no artist is considered too big for a wedding gig. Members of the upper echelons of Egyptian society often flex the depth of their pockets through high-calibre artists performing at wedding parties.

Street-style mahraganat [1], on the other hand, are live performances common in lower socio-economic districts and rural Egyptian cities or towns. They are Egypt’s version of block parties, usually celebrating a wedding or birthday. Makeshift stages are created, often blocking a road, where live performances take place and entertain the neighbourhood. This type of performance is more common within the mahraganat, electro chaabi and chaabi genres. Mahraganat, arguably the most authentic genre to come out of Egypt in recent years, has gained traction in the country among music fans from different socio-economic backgrounds, despite it being detested by the government and the Musicians’ Syndicate [2]. 

Live music venues 

The number of venues that offer live performance opportunities are few and far between, when compared to the large size of Egypt’s population of more than 100 million. Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt’s capital and second largest city respectively, host only a handful of venues where live music is a regular activity on the menu. 

The general public can choose between cultural venues, bars, restaurants and cafes such as the Cairo Opera House, El-Sawy Culturewheel, Room Art Space & Café, the Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts – Makan, Darb 1718, Zamalek Theatre, Jesuit Theatre, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and Tahrir Culture Centre, among a few others. Some of these venues, depending on their business models, have strict door policies or require entrance fees, thereby restricting the type of clients who can attend their events. Others are more inclusive and may offer tickets at more affordable prices depending on the type of performance taking place.

Below are some of the better known live music venues in Egypt

Cairo Jazz Club

One of the oldest venues on the scene, and now boasting two locations in the west side of Cairo – in the Agouza and Sheikh Zayed districts – Cairo Jazz Club offers a daily schedule of entertainment, featuring both live acts and DJs. Despite the jazz reference in its name, it caters to a wide selection of genres and musically themed nights [3].

El-Sawy Culturewheel

Operating for almost two decades, El-Sawy Culturewheel is a cultural centre that hosts a variety of different art forms: theatre, music, dance, workshops, lectures and seminars. It consists of five different spaces, namely the River Hall, Wisdom Hall, Word Hall, El Sakia Garden and the Nile Orchard (El Bostan). The centre is located on Gezira Island under the 15th May Bridge in the central district of Zamalek. El-Sawy Culturewheel, like Cairo Jazz Club, has often launched the careers many acts in the Egyptian alternative music scene. It was established by Egyptian cultural entrepreneur and politician Mohamed El-Sawy [4]. 

Room Art Space & Café 

Room Art Space & Café operates through two venues in eastern Cairo – in the Garden City and New Cairo districts – and hosts different types of live performances apart from music. Both spaces offer an intimate experience for art lovers through a cabaret-style seating arrangement [5].

Cairo Opera House 

A state-owned complex that falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, the Cairo Opera House, located in the district of Zamalek, is a cultural hub that hosts art exhibitions, live music events, theatre, ballet and more. Inaugurated in 1988, its goal is to “promote the arts of music and dance and to preserve and renew traditional Arab music.” Its live music programme caters to all tastes – including classical, traditional and contemporary – and hosts both established and upcoming artists [6].

Bibliotheca Alexandrina 

Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the Library of Alexandria) hosts the International Summer Festival [7]. The festival runs over two months and offers an eclectic mix of artists performing on one of Alexandria’s most prestigious stages. The festival also features music workshops, film screenings and theatrical performances [8].

Obstacles facing live musicians in Egypt 

Musicians who perform live in Egypt, local and international acts alike, are required to be members of the Musicians’ Syndicate [9]. They are also required to obtain a permit for every live performance they participate in, or risk being banned from playing live. These permits are often a considerable obstacle for artists and event organisers, as there is no clear fee scale for the cost of the permit for different artists, or a step-by-step application guide for acquiring a permit.

This goes hand in hand with other obstacles that musicians in Egypt face, including censorship where many venues require artists to agree to not perform songs with controversial lyrics, especially those that are deemed political, sexual or offensive in nature.

Remuneration is another obstacle facing live performers in Egypt, especially in the independent music scene. Since the number of venues that host live performances are limited, event organisers often negotiate unfair fees for artists who compete against each other to secure performance slots. Unfair remuneration in Egypt also includes fixed fees regardless of the number of attendees, high backline fees and large cuts of ticket sales favouring the organiser.

Despite Egypt being a cultural centre of the Middle East and North Africa, the country’s live music sector leaves much to be desired. As the third biggest country on the African continent in terms of population [10], operational live music venues are not only scarce in the big metropolises but almost nonexistent in the smaller cities and towns. Purpose-built venues are few, meaning that performance spaces are less than ideal for musicians and audience members alike. In short, the live music sector in Egypt has yet to cater for the full potential of its musicians and for the demand of music-thirsty audiences.

Resources and citations: 

[1] https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41601(link is external) 
[2] https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/the-egyptian-authorities-grip-on…(link is external)
[3] https://cairojazzclub.com/(link is external) 
[4] https://culturewheel.com/en(link is external)
[5] https://www.roomart.space/(link is external) 
[6] https://www.cairoopera.org/?lan=En(link is external)
[7] https://www.bibalex.org/en/default(link is external) 
[8] https://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/35/416609/Arts–Culture/Stage–Street/Programme-Bibliotheca-Alexandrina-launches-th-Intl.aspx(link is external)
[9] https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/music-in-egypt-in-the-last-decade-hit-and-run-with-the-authorities/(link is external) 
[10] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=EG

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