Culture

Striking a balance between acoustic and electronic experimentation

REVIEW

BEIRUT: The industrial chug of a factory floor, a low whine like an air raid siren, a layer of lackadaisical drums and bass and then a luscious, ponderous melody slides through all the aforementioned noise. "Betrayal," the first track on the band Bikya's self-titled debut album, builds in texture and complexity for just over six minutes. Gorgeous, spacey, challenging, it

exemplifies the strengths of Bikya's sound, blending acoustic instrumentation with electronic experimentation.

Bikya began in 2005, when three musicians from varied backgrounds forged a singular idea of where they thought electronic music should be in their time and then set out to create it. The band features Mahmoud Waly on bass and electronics, Mahmoud Refat on drums and electronics and Maurice Louca on guitar, keyboard and sampler.

One can detect a wide range of styles and influences in the mix - the patterns of rapid-fire drum 'n' bass, the kind of ghostlike sounds that lurk in the background of old school techno, bass lines straight out of classic funk, a tinge of California surf guitar, rich and occasionally mournful abstractions reminiscent of bands like Fridge or Air or Boards of Canada and, interestingly in terms of production value, the precision and depth of trip hop circa Massive Attack.

Bikya's debut is the latest release from the fiercely independent record label 100Copies in Cairo, which was established a year ago by Refat as a platform for experimental music in Egypt and beyond. The trick with 100Copies is that, true to the title, every release comes in a limited edition of 100 copies. Addition copies are made for circulation outside of Egypt, and since he started, Refat has picked up distribution in Beirut (CD-Theque) and Berlin (the Staalplaat store) and Bern (Ha Haa Music).

The name Bikya might refer to a common colloquialism in Egypt, "rubabikya," originally derived from an Italian expression and used to mean "old things" or "junk." Street vendors in Cairo shout out "bikya" as a plea for people to donate or sell them things that they can repair and resell. Then again it might refer to one of world's most obscure languages, spoken on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria by a dwindling population of one. Either explanation could fit the music, which is intensely cinematic and begs to be used in soundtracks for the kind of films that fill art-house screens.

Biyka's sound is entirely devoid of vocals and orchestration. It doesn't adhere remotely to the conventions of Arabic pop. Only the occasional and faint patter of percussion recalls classical Arabic rhythms. If one wants to hear a conventional, and probably cliched, expression of Cairo's aural culture, he or she would be better off sticking to mainstream Egyptian music, urban congestion or the imagined clinking of coffee cups in a Naguib Mahfouz novel. This is not to say Bikya doesn't make audible a certain reality, just that that reality is complex and its contradictions are expressed rather conceptually in, say, the sounds of an industrial shredder on the track "Hack It," and then interspersed with the light and nimble keyboards of a pseudo-lullaby.

Bikya revels in jarring noises, and it's not for nothing that two tracks are titled "Error #1" and "Error #2." The former grates with harsh sounds while the latter comes across like a beautiful piano piece that's been buried under water.

Certainly Bikya's music falls into an isolated niche - call it electronica, intelligent dance music, ambient electro, folktronica, call it what you will. It takes a patient listen or 10, but it pays off. The brilliance lies in the balance between sounds and in the depth of the compositions. On a track such as "Sherif," featuring Valentin Coenen somewhere, somehow on saxophone, the most beautiful bits of the song, a languid guitar, are constantly buried and retrieved. Bikya flirts with accessible song structures without compromising on innovation or on making music that sounds resolutely new.

Bikya's self-titled debut is out now from 100Copies. For more information, please check out www.100copies.com

 

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