REVIEW: Cairokee – Drop of White

It took me a while to get round to listening to this album. I had heard the buzz around it, the issues and obstacles Cairokee faced with the censorship committee and it being banned from being physically released in stores in Egypt and was definitely intrigued, but not surprised – after all my pretty mild album had faced similar setbacks back in 2010/2011 so this was almost expected for a release coming from a generally outspoken band.

I wanted to listen to the entire album in one sitting with a clear mind, and those living in Cairo would understand how rare moments where one has a clear mind actually are, and so reviewing the album ended up being pushed back a bit more than I would have liked. I worried that the review would no longer be relevant this late after the album had been released but this platform isn’t confined to reviewing the latest releases and so my concerns were quickly dismissed.

I had been aware of the existence of Cairokee before their rise during the 2011 revolution, they date back to 2003, however I only started closely following and paying more attention to their musical journey when the spotlight was cast upon them during the days of Tahrir and the release of “The Sound of Freedom – صوت الحرية”. I remember even getting in touch with lead singer and frontman Amir Eid whilst I was stuck in Liverpool to show my appreciation and support for his musical efforts whilst the protests were on going.

The journey they have undertaken is one to be admired and many aspire to attain. It is the classic transformation most bands dream of achieving – that cross over from small independent underground band status to a name recognised by many, selling out shows, being sponsored, touring internationally and showing no signs of slowing down. Cairokee consists of Amir Eid – Vocals and Guitar, Sherif El Hawary – Guitar, Tamer Hashem – Drums, Sherif Mostafa – Keyboard, and Adam El Alfy – Bass.

Previous tracks released by Cairokee gave listeners a taste of a new musical path that the current generation were paving for themselves. Steering away from heavy weighted lyrics that are typical in “Tarab” music – the genre Om Kalthoum, AbdelWahab and AbdelHalim Hafez are known for, and replacing them with more down-to-earth colloquial phrases that don’t necessary fit within the rigid frame imposed and once expected of song lyrics and yet not the typical love songs that were over saturating Egyptian airwaves. This new style of lyric writing has been met with much criticism and even labeled as a weakness by some, unaware that it is often a conscious decision to write that way or use lyrics of this kind and not a lack of ability or inability to source good lyrics.

Their sound has developed in so many different directions, incorporating different genres within the same track and yet still resulting in a homogenous flavour. They have tapped into other Egyptian genres (as well as western ones) and borrowed different elements – such as Chaabi characteristics – and show a maturity in the way they have chosen to integrate them into their songs.

In their album – “A Drop of White – نقطة بيضة” released in 2017, Cairokee demonstrate a greater understanding and better grasp at intentionally breaking the rules when it comes to their song lyrics to inflict a stronger effect. However, the occasional seemingly mis-matching between syllables and notes which results in forced sounding phrases here and there like the first 2 syllables of the phrase “gowaya 3a’l we alb (My heart and mind are both in me) – جوايا عقل وقلب” in the track ‘A Drop of White’ at minute 2.16 let down the effect they had created momentarily. Their use of irregular rhyme patterns within their lyrical phrases capture the listeners attention with unexpectations, emphasizing and highlighting the vocals’ percussive role instead of just the melodic one. The topics visited within the album are nothing less than what was expected of the band. The fears, concerns and thoughts of a generation where a majority feels almost lost in limbo and unsure of their place, all vocalised and relatable.

The idea behind creating a visual album is one I fully support, especially since the album is only available digitally due to the obstacles placed by the censorship committee. However I feel it needed more of a variety in the type of videos shot for each track. A live music session with a camera circling the musicians on a track for the entire song gets quite repetitive after a while. Perhaps different angles and different settings/location for different tracks would have been enough of a break down to the monotonous feel of the visual aspect of the album. Having said that, the video of “Dinosaur – الديناصور” was a welcome change and had a stronger impact because of their different visual approach. It was very reminiscent of Mashrou’ Leila visuals I had seen at their live performance in London at the Barbican in 2015, but I feel they complimented the song quite nicely.

The fifth track – “Layla – ليلي”, acted as a turning point with the the album for me. It felt like a door that led me to a different chamber in the maze that is Cairokee, a fork in the road that took me down a different path on the Cairokee journey. Its upbeat and cheerful dynamics were welcomed as a palette cleanser preparing me for an intense dose of flavour in the next six tracks and it paved the way nicely for “Dinosaur – الديناصور” – one of the strongest tracks on the album.

The contrast between the sound of “Dinosaur – الديناصور” and “Wrong Way Blues – السكه شمال في شمال” is one that induced a dog-like head tilt when I first heard it. However the latter’s groove quickly established itself and my initial confusion was erased. I am yet to decide how I feel about the female backing vocals in the chorus that echo an 80s Egyptian pop sound like that found in Hamdy Batshan’s “Eh El Hekkaya – ايه الحكاية” or Hossam Hosny’s “Kol El Banat Bet-hebakكل البنات بتحبك”. The track “Last Song – اخر اغنية” brings in the familiar vibe of Cairokee that was prominent in their post 2011 releases. It was originally released with an accompanying video in 2016. And as if to serve as a reminder, it features the calls to freedom and revolutionary/protest feels we are used to hearing from the band. This song had received some attack last year over the line “اركن ياد على جنب وحط احمر شفايف ” implying that a woman is to be looked down upon or sidelined – a common view within the Egyptian patriarchal society but surprising to have come from the Cairokee boys who are usually quick to criticise the state of things and advocate for change and progression.

Cairokee have collaborated with several singers on this album – AbdelRahman Roshdy, Tarek El Sheikh and Wael El Fashny – bringing in a different vocal quality than Amir Eid’s. Eid has been often criticised for his vocal ability, however his voice is an essential element of the Cairokee identity and lends itself to their music quite nicely, as well as helps them stand out. Its unique texture adds a special layer to their compostions, contributing to the development of the Cairokee sound. And after all, Cairokee wouldn’t be Cairokee without Amir Eid.

Overall, I feel this album is one that Cairokee should be very proud of. They have managed to progress musically without totally shedding their old skin, remaining recognizable and true to their roots but still constantly developing, maturing and remaining current. The album is a perfect snapshot capturing the emotional and psychological state of a generation – across all social segments – that feels increasingly lost. Cairokee integrated and incorporated different musical elements from different genres new to them whilst still maintaining the relevance to and reliability of a wide Egyptian audience. Its nice to see Egyptian musicians pushing the boundaries of the boxes imposed on them (both musically and otherwise) and challenging expectations to produce something new and beautiful, in contrast with others who dominate the mainstream scene who keep simply rehashing the same thing over and over again.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to listen to the “A Drop of White – نقطة بيضة” album,
click here.

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