Photo by Omar-Elkafrawy
Tales of a MENA journalist and film maker
Interview by Jason Gross
Sad as it was to have SXSW cancelled in 2020 thanks to COVID, one bright spot came out of it. The fest was supposed to have a panel on Middle East and North Africa (MENA) music and one of the participants was Egyptian writer/director Fady Adel. Since I was helping to orient the panel members, I was in touch with him and when the panel and fest didn't come to pass, we stayed in touch. I was fascinated to learn more about his world for a simple reason- music journalism, and thus most of its coverage, is confirmed to stories about acts in the US and UK. 'World music' occasionally seeps into the mix but even then, coverage is usually restricted to sub-Saharan African artists, which is fine because they deserve more recognition but so do other regions. Adel's expertise seemed key to understanding the world of MENA music and the issues surrounding it, including religion, censorship, Western influences, COVID's effect on music scenes and more. While his work usually appears in MENA regional publications, he's also written for Bandcamp, among other places. That's not even mentioning his work as a documentary film-maker. As such, his perspective is vital and needs to be heard.
PSF: What was the music you were listening to when you grew up?
FA: I grew up listening to pop in my pre-teens and I remember very vividly being introduced to trance around the age of 13 by an older cousin and downloading the In Search of Sunrise compilations from Limewire. My parents both come from Coptic Sudanese families so the music at home was a bit of everything, from the Egyptian and Levantine pop to classic Sudanese music from the likes of Mohammed Wardi and Abdel Aziz El Mubarak who only passed away recently.
PSF: What first got you interested in journalism?
FA: I've always had this idea of starting a music blog of my own as a college student because I saw it as the only way I could break into the music business, having been a music enthusiast since a very young age, but not a musician or booking agent or whatever else. In other words I always saw it as a stepping stone for other jobs in the business. With a background that mostly stems from electronic music I grew up reading >Mixmag, DJ mag and later on Resident Advisor, XLR8R and Telekom Electronic Beats.
PSF: When you were starting out as a writer, where there any particular journalists who inspired you?
FA: Yes, definitely. Here are the immediate inspirations I can pinpoint; Matt Unicomb ("The Underground Sound of Montevideo"), Elissa Stolman ("A 10-Track Beginner's Guide To Rominimal"), Peter Holslin ("How Salah Ragab Became an Undisputed Icon in Egyptian Jazz") & Tom Faber ("'If Israeli soldiers start shooting, we won't stop the interview': Palestinian hip-hop crew BLTNM").
The majority of these pieces came out when I had just started my journalism job with the exception fo Tom Faber's. What they all have in common is a brilliant choice of topic paired with great timing, just as the respective topics were gaining momentum (again with the exception of Peter Holslin's because it's a retrospective piece).
PSF: When you were younger, other than the artists covered, what did you notice as the primary difference between music journalism in your country and music journalism in the US, UK?
FA: I think the biggest difference here is the artists' mindsets. With the different music scenes here still very nascent when I started this job nearly three years ago, most of the artists sought being featured on publications purely for the promotion and resented/were frightened by the thought of being reviewed negatively or even objectively. However, I think this is slowly changing now.
PSF: How did you get your first writing assignments and what did you write about?
FA: So this is kind of a funny story. As I mentioned I always had this idea of starting a music blog of my own, but I never went on with the idea because I was busy studying Clinical Pharmacy at the time. But once I saw SceneNoise had an opening, I immediately registered a Blogspot domain and wrote this feature-list of '10 Remixes The Redefined Originals' and sent it as my writing sample. My first assignments was then a very regular news/buzz piece about Wasla Festival in Dubai, announcing line up/programme and so on.
PSF: Who do you see as the most important and influential artists in your country and region now?
FA: I could list artists for days, but off the top of my head, it's artists like Zuli, Molotof, Shabjdeed & the BLTNM crew and Abo Sahar to name a few.
Across their respective genres, these artists have created something profound, unadulterated and uninfluenced by the west, and created a trademark sound for themselves, managing to turn it into much more than a niche phenomenon for a handful of listeners.
PSF: Has the problem of government or religious censorship come up? If so, how has that been dealt with?
FA: It has come up frequently. Back when I worked at Scene Noise, most of our mother company's sister platforms were shut down on the NYE of 2019, luckily Scene Noise emerge unscathed because the officials mistakenly shut down a website called 'Scene News' instead. Obviously from that point onwards I had to tread much more carefully with my topics and commentary. Which was a huge challenge in covering stories like the mahraganat [hybrid of folk and EDM] ban of 2020.
PSF: Are there topics that you have to be careful of covering because of government regulations? If so, how do you navigate that?
FA: As I mentioned, it's very tricky. Covering topics that are clearly anti-regime or pro-LGBTQ+ is a big challenge, but as a team, we always managed to find a way around from our choice of language and imagery for articles, to choosing only to repost a piece of work on social media to avoid jeopardizing the platform's website.
PSF: Could you pick out a few articles that you've done that you are particularly proud of?
FA: Having written about music for a living for a little over three years now, I have a lot I'm proud of. But once again off the top of my head, it's my Kafr El Dauwar Records mini-documentary, my feature on De.Ville, my Egyptian music photographers piece, my interview with Molotof (and his first ever), my Irtijal festival mini-documentary which I directed remotely with the help of Lebanese videographer Karim Al Ariss, My Boiler Room 'Palestine Underground' filmmakers interview, and more recently as a freelancer; my Fadi Tabbal feature on Bandcamp and my Groove Magazine feature on mahraganat music.
PSF: In terms of how the rest of the word sees them, what do you think are some of the most common misunderstandings about artists in your region?
FA: I'm sure a lot of people, particularly artists, share my view on this one. It's the fact the majority of the west's perception of music out of our region is that it has to sound Middle Eastern or 'oriental,' which is no longer true. Music out of MENA can be original, brand new, ground breaking and undefinable too.
PSF: How has your country dealt with the COVID crisis in terms of the entertainment industry? Has this meant that a lot of clubs/venues are closed and that musicians are out of work? How have then been trying to stay active otherwise?
FA: The industry here was impacted by the first lockdown the same way as anywhere else. Live events slowly returned back to normal between October 2020 and March of this year with some capacity and social distancing restrictions (that were hardly followed). COVID then picked up again, combined with a crackdown on drugs that particularly affected the rave scene in mid-March, as well as restriction due to the Holy Month of Ramadan which brought things to a complete halt again. The main flagship venues have stayed afloat or exchanged hands. Musicians are trying to stay active online and maintaining intimate, self-organized events.
PSF: From your perspective, how has the COVID crisis had an effect on the music journalism in your country?
FA: Well, to put this into context, I personally have been out of a full-time journalism position since April 2020 and had to transition into a creative/content creator role in a marketing agency since then. Many publications now currently rely on unpaid or underpaid interns to create the majority of their content. Added to that, many of these interns are upcoming musicians or DJs themselves who bring forth massive conflicts of interest that manifest themselves in not only mainly covering artists within their circle of friends, but also trying to insert themselves in the picture whenever the chance permits.
PSF: Have you had any experiences where you have seen that something you have written has had an immediate effect on a band or club/venue or music label?
FA: I've seen this happen several times. From DJs getting booking requests following an articles to Yunis & Ibrahim X from Kafr El Dauwar records being approached by French and Swiss cultural institutes for European performances that sadly never took place due to COVID. Another example is writing a short news piece about a newly-opened Dubai venue called The Grid, I remember being contacted by someone from Boiler Room shortly [afterwards], asking for the manager's contact. Boiler Room would go on to host an event there several months later.
PSF: How do you think the music scene in your area will recover and change as the COVID crisis is brought under control?
FA: I think there will be two sides to the recovery. On one hand you'll have all the big venues and promoters only becoming more and more money hungry in an attempt to try and recoup from the losses imposed by COVID, if any. So higher ticket prices, more repetitive lineups that rely on international bookings with little attention to local a talent as possible. On the other hand you'll see more socially conscious efforts in terms of events and labels that will attempt to breathe as much new life into the scene as possible, supporting upcoming names that didn't quite get their chance before the pandemic and investing heavily in new breeds of artists.
PSF: What role does Islam figure into the music that cover? Do religious figures in your area see 'secular' music you cover as a threat?
FA: I don't necessarily believe Islam as a religion in itself plays a role in censorship. However, the way it's weaponized by the state and particularly the musicians' syndicate as an underlying moral compass to rule on what's considered appropriate and what isn't, usually for reasons entirely unrelated, is the main problem
PSF: With your work as a film-maker, how hard or easy is it for you to gather resources to make a movie? Also, how do you see this work as similar or different to your work as a writer?
FA: Starting my career in a publication belonging to a bigger company that was invested in this sort of content and relied on in-house production resources has helped me learn all about the ins and outs of video production, especially as the publication itself was still starting and there was a lot of room for experimentation and no one necessarily knew any better to oversee how I conducted my interviews and mini-documentaries. Sure, there were producers who made sure everything logistically worked out at the end of the day, but there was very little editorial input asides from internal regulations on video content length, all I had to do was just pitch a solid story that's not insanely costly to implement and that was that.
To answer the second part, I think the groundwork for any video piece is essentially the same as that of an article. For the longest time, I treated my prepared interview questions as the script and built a visual narrative around the subject's answers and storytelling. In the same way a journalist also strives to make his article aesthetically and visually pleasing, I sought to attach as much relative video footage to the piece while also staying engaging, using music and dynamic visuals.
PSF: Also for film-making, how do you choose the subjects you want to cover?
FA: The groundwork for me is no different from any feature piece. Finding the right subject with their own musical formula in the making and an interesting back story is all there is to it really. I generally then rely on as much archival footage as possible in addition to whatever I'm able to get on camera and through the interviews.
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