Left to right: Hatem, Karim, Yasser. Photo: Karim Omran, art direction/concept: Yass Elmasry
In 2004, a new cultural centre called the Sawi had just opened its doors. The Sawi soon become a domain where young and underground musicians could get their music heard. I went to several rock concerts with cover bands, but there always seemed to be an ingredient missing. Then, one night a friend insisted that we attend a concert with The Public, a band that started playing at the Sawi when they were still unknown.
Four years later, The Public was the first band to play at the opening night of the third Sawi Rock Festival. An achievement for a band that is passionate not only about music, but also about the world around them. For instance, they ask their audience to carpool to their concerts, not to increase pollution. The Public are Yasser Elmasry on guitar and vocals, Karim Omran on keyboards and backing vocals, and Hatem Oraby on bass and backing vocals. Their purpose: making music that is humane and not void of meaning. Mashallah met with them in Cairo to speak about this.
How did you meet and what made you decide to play together?
Yasser: Actually it’s a funny story, because Karim and I were friends in high school but never knew that the other played an instrument. Then, an announcement for musicians to join a music club came up, and I met Karim there. It was weird, because I had known him for three years and we had never talked about music. But since none of us quite liked the atmosphere at the music club, we decided to start our own band instead.
Hatem: The three of us had the same vibe, so we decided to give it a shot and play together. That’s what started the chain reaction.
Before the third Sawi Rock Festival, you played mostly covers by Pink Floyd. How come?
Karim: Oh, Pink! They’re not a band. They’re more than a band. Hearing Pink Floyd for the first time was like going through the strangest mind journey ever. Then, when listening to them more, it all made perfect sense. They are people who feel things in the deepest fashion, and then skillfully manage to share these feelings with their audience. Pure emotions. Pure vision.
Hearing Pink Floyd for the first time was like going through the strangest mind journey ever. Then, when listening to them more, it all made perfect sense.
Yasser: I remember when I was a kid and the only music you could get was on cassettes like What’s Now ‘97. Then once, a friend got a VHS tape of Pink Floyd’s P*U*L*S*E*. We sat down to watch it and after a couple of songs, my jaw literally dropped to the floor! I suddenly realised that this was so much more than just music. There were so many meanings and feelings that I was too young to grasp back then, and frankly I still ponder about it sometimes. As cheesy as it may sound, their music changed my life.
As cheesy as it may sound, their music changed my life.
At your concert, I really liked your well-composed music and pattern-like lyrics echoing through the songs. What do you want to achieve with your music?
Yasser: Our music is far from the commercial four-chord concept. We don’t aim at fast fame and fortune. What we want to do is developing a genre of our own with a distinct and unique identity. We want to take the listener on a musical journey with ups and downs and changing moods, triggering the deepest senses inside them. We address topics that are mostly ignored in modern life and try to get back to the essence of human nature, all the while pondering on how and why we are in this world.
Karim: Our musical compositions are a mixture of emotions and ideas, covered under masks. For instance, I find great joy in mind provoking art, which lets you imagine and create everything from scratch. As if listening to people who’ve been to outer space trying to describe their experiences. We want to create music that is similar to hearing such a conversation.
I find great joy in mind provoking art, which lets you imagine and create everything from scratch.
Hatem: For me, the goal is to simply aim at creating a unique and pleasant experience for the listener. Music that sounds good and has a clear idea behind it.
What inspires you to make music?
Hatem: We get inspiration from other music. Even sometimes from listening to very bad music, which makes you think: Man, that’s not right. I don’t want to sound like you. I’m going to do something better. Then, I personally believe that music is about ideas, ideas that can be transmitted through both music and lyrics. They can come from everywhere: movies, life stories, caricatures, a Wikipedia article, a scene in a documentary, people’s characters and odd ways of thinking.
We spend almost 90 percent of our time contemplating the world, the afterlife, people’s behaviour, surrealism, the universe, religion, different types of art and places where we’d love to go someday.
Yasser: When we meet to rehearse and compose music, we spend almost 90 percent of our time contemplating the world, the afterlife, people’s behaviour, surrealism, the universe, religion, different types of art and places where we’d love to go someday. I get inspired by everything around me. But mainly, it’s beauty, dreams and intense feelings that inspire me. A photography, a colour, a scent, homesickness, fear of the unknown, illness, defeat, holy books, road trips, cold weather, confusion. And, an extreme phase of depression, sadness or anger — as hurtful as it might be — contributes a lot to creating music.
Do you envision yourselves as a full time band touring and signing a record deal: the whole shebang?
Karim: Well, if it went that big, I guess we’d be more than happy. Although, a career in music is not really healthy creative-wise. You would be forced to write songs even if you’re not in the mood for it. For me, I’d rather have music as a hobby but on a professional level: doing gigs now and then while not losing creativity.
Yasser: I would love to do music for a living, but for now we’re taking it one step at a time. We’ll start recording our album first, and then take it from there.
The underground scene in Cairo — to the extent that there is one — is suppressed.
What do you think about the underground music scene in Cairo?
Yasser: The underground scene in Cairo — to the extent that there is one — is suppressed. The city is not very rich in that aspect. It concerns everything: from starting to play an instrument and having to deal with avaricious instruments retailers who in the end are unable to get you that new guitar or amplifier you need; to dealing with the situation of unprofessional profit-seeking venues, unorganised events, commercial music and lack of support. Even good bands have very limited opportunities to showcase their music.
Karim: But at the same time, it’s as if rock music is being rediscovered in Egypt. Many of the emerging bands play rock rather than metal-oriented music. I personally find rock music being closer to Egyptian youth. It somehow matches the pace of their lives. Also, I find the trend of bands making contemporary music out of traditional Egyptian songs a bit boring. There’s no room for creativity either on the technical or lyrical side. Rather repetition, which is something that kills the genre.
It’s as if rock music is being rediscovered in Egypt.
How do you think the music scene will evolve in the coming years?
Yasser: I think that in the next couple of years, much could happen on the original side, but only if the situation gets better in terms of venues, labels and support. If not, things will stay the way they are or might even get worse. Good bands will either give up and quit or find their ways outside of Egypt.
Karim: I would also love to see more venues hosting art in general and bands in particular. Bands deserve more. Just like they build huge stages for Arab singers, they should do the same for bands. And getting some indie record labels, that would really flip the industry in Egypt and the Middle East. More bands would emerge and the music scene would flourish.