Unfortunately, Kahraman offers a damning replica of the music it tries to capture.
The packaging and sale of music from Africa and Asia towards a Euro-American audience is far from a new concept. The preceding decade—and particularly the last five years—has seen this concept blown to new proportions. Releases from Soul Jazz, Glitterbeat and Northern Spy have attempted to bring to light the scenes and styles that have been highly active in these continents for decades, and one of the latest entries in this project is a release from the Cairo-based dance band EEK, led by keyboardist Islam Chipsy. Though released on an Egyptian label, the marketing (press quotes from Wire and The Guardian) suggests that Kahraman is meant to give non-native listeners a taste of what they’re missing. In short, the album is a dishonest look at the magical reality of Chipsy and his band’s work.
All of the press materials surrounding Kahraman discuss the vivacity of Chipsy’s live show. Watching any clip of EEK on YouTube confirms this, with pounding double-drum sets and Chipsy’s virtuosic keyboard solos giving off loads of energy, both in their musical skills and crowd interactions. The music sounds massive and the audience is clearly having a blast. The gigantic disappointment of Kahraman is that the mix provides no indication of this dancefloor focus. The album sounds dry, tinny, quiet and flat. Any sense of the electricity that births this music is lost and muddled into background noise. Even at high volumes, you have to strain to hear the thumping grooves that drive these these tracks.
“El Daynasour” is one of Chipsy and EEK’s signature songs. Carried by a call-and-response melody between a reedy synth and a brash horn section, the core composition is one of the best suited to dancing. Chipsy focuses on a simple dominant-tonic resolution, allowing the track to constantly build and release tension while the band show off their performative skills through subtle improvisatory gestures. If you squint and imagine a heavier, more full-bodied sound than is present on the recording, you can vicariously live through an EEK dance party. The blasts of brass sounds and the manic drumming have the potential to light up a room, and the already-long track could go on for dozens of minutes before these ideas tire.
If you’re searching for positives, this strangely acoustic-sounding production on this overtly electronic album does draw attention to the compositional intricacies of these six tracks. The patterns on the “El Daynasour” rewrite “Fast Track” are a polyrhythmic treat, as is the flute playing on “El Zantor.” Especially the latter, with its trilling melody pitted against a groove that sits deeply in a rare pocket, is among the closest moments towards escaping its production missteps on the album and gives listeners a taste of the skill that goes into the writing and playing of Chipsy’s music.
The fact that Kahraman might be the first point of entry into Chipsy’s art for many listeners is a disservice to the sound and style that he and his band have cultivated. This is not a new concept; there was a similar performance-production disconnect in the Ifriqiyya Electrique’s recent album, and those two examples are both taken from 2019 alone. As the forces of globalization and the internet continue to push previously unheard sounds into Europe and North America, it’s the responsibility of both the labels and listeners to ensure that they’re meeting the artist on their own terms. In the most basic sense, it’s important to hear these sounds and understand the meaning of dance and club music around the world. However, it’s equally important to hear these sounds as the artists and the fans in their home countries intended them to be heard. Unfortunately, Kahraman offers a damning replica of the music it tries to capture.