Alan Bishop, Sam Shalabi & Maurice Louca are The Dwarfs Of East Agouza

Alan Bishop, Sam Shalabi & Maurice Louca are The Dwarfs Of East Agouza

September 26, 2017

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Dragoș Rusu

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Cities and freedom

On October 1st, 2016, we had the huge privilege of hosting in Bucharest one of the most exciting and inspiring music projects around these days: the trio Dwarfs Of East Agouza, consisting of legendary musicians Alan Bishop, Sam Shalabi and Maurice Louca. They had an unforgettable concert in the first Outernational Night. This conversation took place on the day after.

Bogdan: I’m constantly looking for places where you can breathe a little. You guys travelled a lot. How do you feel about Bucharest's vibe?

Sam: Every place is fucked. We have travelled quite a bit, and this place, compared to most places, is great actually. In terms of a European city, it’s one of the best I’ve been to. It really is.

Alan: In terms of the amount of excitement and less pretension. There was less of the pretentious “I’ve seen everything”, “I’m too cool for you and I’m not going to react”. People are genuinely interested. It’s similar to when we went to Leipzig earlier in the year. It was a smaller crowd but very attentive, maybe 80 people, but they were really grateful and they were really interested in what we were doing, and they were engaged. And people were engaged last night. I did two shows in Brussels! One with the Dwarfs earlier in the year, it was a very engaging crowd, a very excited crowd. And then one with The Invisible Hands where it was one of those “we’re too cool for school” crowds, you know? They didn’t react. Neil Hagerty opened up and it wasn’t that big of a deal. Everyone was just being hip. So it just depends….

Bogdan: You think it’s because they have too many events?

Alan: Maybe. And because I think that it’s over in a way. Because when you get the other side of it, it becomes routine, the excitement is gone, they have seen it all.

Sam: But it’s also an attitude, though. I think people adopt an attitude because it’s almost like if you go to really big cities that are cultural centers, that’s how people are. If you go to New York, you could stab yourself in the eyeball for half hour and the audience would be “Yeah, whatever”. They don’t really care.

Alan: It’s over in New York too. It’s been over in NY for years.

Maurice: Also, crowds are representative of the cities they’re from. Bucharest, compared to St. Gallen, compared to Zurich. It’s obvious that this place is a lot more alive.

Sam: But I do think there’s a kind of creeping thing going, because you also notice it in Cairo a little bit. There’s a creeping thing where people assume that the right way to act, when you go to a show, is to just kind of have that weird jaded thing, and it seems to be spreading in a weird way.

Alan: This is it, yeah. When the ego takes over in a collective way in a community, then it’s over, everyone becomes competitive…

Sam: It stops being about the music, right? It ends up being more about people that just come because they hear it’s a cool thing to do; the experience of the music becomes secondary. To them, the experience of being in a social context and presenting yourself is more important.

Bogdan: Can you tell us about some cities or regions where you’ve seen people still being able to live a bit more freely, where the psycho businessmen and politicians haven’t completely taken over?

Sam: That’s subjective, though.

Alan: It is. It depends on how you define personal freedom and freedom in general. There are plenty of places where you can go and people leave you alone. And you have more of an expressive personal freedom on the street every day. I mean… Cairo is like that. There are obviously corrupt governments everywhere, but when it comes to a sort of a day to day living on the street, in a lesser amount of obedience to this kind of western obedience that is out there, where people would hesitate to cross the street because they see a traffic light and they are not supposed to, maybe they’ll get a ticket from the police for jaywalking. Well that doesn’t happen in Cairo. They are crossing the street everywhere and people are driving like crazy, zig zagging around... there is that element, you know? But beyond that, to where you can feel that there’s no oppressive regime over you, or that there are consequences to … you know… maybe being a little bit more outspoken. I don’t know if those places really exist, other than for the privileged “elite”. That’s the world where you have the freedom to do whatever you want… as if you’re “elite”. And who wants to be a member of that .001% club of assholes that probably sacrifice children on a daily basis!?

Sam: What you often have in countries where the government is very corrupt and very oppressive (like in Cairo) is a very big distinction among people. And people know that. People know that this thing is corrupt and has been corrupt for a long time. So people are not affected so much by that. It’s more free on a social level. But in a lot of western countries, people mix it up. So they start being their own kind of police, right? They don’t want to say things because they will offend someone. They feel like they can’t do this, they can’t do that, or they can’t smoke in a certain place or whatever. They just start to do that themselves. So in places like Egypt, there is more freedom on a more day-to-day level. Whereas, for example, in Switzerland, that is supposed to be very progressive, there is not. But the people themselves are their own police.

Love is important. Being in a positive state instead of being negative. Especially the people around you. Once we start fighting amongst our nucleus of friends and family, we’re giving in to what I would believe that the outside diabolical elite forces would want. Alan Bishop

Diferences and control

Bogdan: So because the system works a little for them, it got into them.

Alan: They become their own middle manager. The narrative doesn’t even have to control them anymore; they’ve already done their job over the years of programming them to be a certain way to where they police themselves and everyone around them. I mean, you can still be outspoken, you can still say things and you’re not going to jail. But you’ll be ostracised by the community, or by your circle of friends. And you know, in a sense, what we’re saying about Cairo is true, but there are other little local mafioso things that keep everyone in check there as well, that we’re not maybe aware of. On a day to day level it would be like... class and privilege working against a common person who might want to express themselves but can’t do that because the neighbour will do this to them, because they have more money, more power than them. They can keep them in check. There are other elements of that. But in terms of the physical body being able to do things on a day-to-day basis, in the west you can’t really do that without the potential of a consequence. It’s freer that way.

Maurice: Like Sam is saying, it’s subjective. In a way, yeah, of course, all that applies, but Egyptians can’t think they’re more free. There’s censorship and there’s all that kinds of stuff, and gay rights and similar things that don’t apply. But I agree with Sam and Alan in that sense that you feel more free. In Egypt, there’s no such thing as thinking outside the box, because there is no box. There’s no system. I feel that myself. For me, countries like Switzerland are a lot more oppressive. The law might give you more freedom, but the people are policing themselves.

Alan: Society has taken freedom away by programming the illusion that there is freedom.

Sam: Because people still believe. Our friend Yalda said that the difference between a lot of westerners and non-westerners is that in Egypt, for example, people know they are being fed shit, while in the west, they don’t. They’re eating it and they think it’s something fantastic. Some of the best political discussions I’ve had have been in Egypt, you know? Just because people know, they understand. In the west on the other hand, I think people still believe in their governments in a weird way. They still think that their governments are actually working for them. It’s a bizarre thing.

Bogdan: If the government says that it’s ok to do something, the lengths a lot of people would go to are scary. For example… you were talking about Switzerland. In the 60s or 70s they outlawed a modern form of slavery. The state could take the children of a poor family and make them work on a farm. That’s how they created the Swiss middle class. They thought they should work until they are 18 for a farmer, away from their family, so they won’t be lazy. That was the logic of it. You had these kids killing themselves, beaten by the farmers… horrible shit. And this was up almost until the 60s or 70s, people just let it happen because the government said it was all ok.

Maurice: And that stuff stays in the consciousness of the people. In the consciousness of the cities. It’s there, you feel it. It makes sense to me what you’re saying now, you feel it.

Sam: Part of it, I think, it’s because in a lot of western countries, the emphasis is on the individual, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even to the extent that in Cairo, or a lot of places that are not coded over with the western ideal, people on the streets either don’t pay attention to you, or they would look briefly at you, which is seen as a normal thing, but in some places, for example Montreal… if you look at someone and smile when you’re walking past them, they will think there’s something wrong with you. In Cairo people just say hello as you’re passing them by. But in places like New York and Montreal, people think you’re nuts if you look at them too long or whatever. Part of it is that. If you feel that way, then you want the state to take care of the rest of the stuff. You want the state to be the collective mind, because you just want to keep the attitude of “just leave me alone and the state will take care of everything else”. In Egypt that couldn’t happen. Because people figured out a long time ago that the state doesn’t give a shit about them. They never did. So people figured out how to do that themselves.

Bogdan: In the west, you are helped by the state ever since you are small, and you get used to it…

Alan: You’re programmed.

Sam: Yeah, you’re programmed. One thing that is remarkable is that you meet people that still believe that their governments are working for them. It’s remarkable, it’s incredible. And then, if you go back 200 years and you look at history, everyone would go like “yeah, of course, they don’t”, but now people are like “oh yes… they do”

Alan: As if something has changed. We have come a long way, yeah, sure. ... but actually it’s an illusion. They have become very good at being able to fool people. To make it look like they really figured something out. In terms of being able to be more fair with society, their rulers now rule in a benign way where they try to create the appearance that they’re benign, but they’re really malevolent in every form. When you look at what states actually do. The actions speak louder than words. The actions are obvious.

Bogdan: Did you come into contact with any cultures that haven’t built this huge machinery and are embracing death, chaos, becoming, just living non-violently?

Alan: More animistic cultures. Things like this are evident, in different ways, but when you get to the major religions, which always promise an afterlife or some sense of a continuance; this is a really effective way to control people. Because there are too many indigenous cultures, there are too many different forms of practice. And they couldn’t all be controlled. So more and more people were put under control by entities that built states or built kingdoms. Something was needed and religion provided a brilliant form of control. It’s a programming system to obey. If they weren’t programmed to obey, who knows what would happen. People became obedient.

Sam: It’s like traffic lights. Do you really need traffic lights to cross a street? Of course, if you’re in a place where people obey traffic lights… you do. That’s all they see. While in other places people are aware of a different system. They are aware of an organic way of dealing with it. So … controlling people, I think, is something that happens after… people freak out when they think they’re losing control. But often that’s the only way to kind of learn anything, you know? And what you end up learning is already there. It’s not something that is foreign to you…. So…

Music stories

Bogdan: Let’s talk about music. Tell us a few stories of some of your most intense listening experiences.

Sam: When I was a kid, I used to go to a library. It was in a university. They had a collection of vinyl. I didn’t know anything about music, but I was looking at the covers, and I would listen to stuff if the cover looked interesting. So some of the first music I listened to there was John Cage and Morton Subotnik. Just because the covers were really cool. That was very significant, because I didn’t know anything about that music. And then punk rock, that really had a big effect on me. Like Sex Pistols. There was this guy that called himself “John Cage” who had a radio show on Saturday night for about a month and then they canceled his show. He would just play stuff like Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Brian Eno, weird modern classical stuff, weird jazz stuff. And I was very excited about it. I phoned him and told him “this is amazing!!”. I was a little kid. Everyone else hated him and they took it off the air. This was a big part of my musical education. So every Saturday night, for a month, that’s what I did. I would listen to that radio show. During the week I would wait for his broadcast.

Alan: When I was young, it was mostly just listening to Arabic music and trying to understand what it was. My grandparents would play it all the time. Every time we were at their house they had cassettes of Farid Al Atrash, playing these hour-long classical Arabic pieces. The orchestra of these songs playing over and over and over again. It seemed like it never ended and I was trying to understand why these songs are so long. I was trying to wrap my head around the music mostly, and around these strings, these rhythms and not really appreciating it, but trying to understand why they appreciated it. It was always this thing… of like these crazy cassettes they would pull out and put in again. And we were listening to this as we were having dinner, as we were in the house, the music was playing almost all the time. And I didn’t fully appreciate it until later. But this was my first struggle, I was trying to understand this music that just did not resonate with what I was used to, of course, living in the states as a kid. And then I think moving to Phoenix from a small town in Michigan just opened me up to everything. And being able to go into a record store and find records by all these other artists that I could never find, locally in a small town in Michigan. And as Sam was saying...with punk exploding... and free jazz.... it was quite something. As for me... when I saw Bad Brains for the first time in 1982 it was mind-blowing for me.

Bogdan: They played punk and reggae...

Alan: Yes, but it was the punk stuff .... and they were so fast and precise. And they were doing it better than anyone else. And also, locally, the Meat Puppets were really interesting in that period as well. Reckless, completely reckless. They were playing rock and country songs. And ... just... destroying them. It was really fascinating to see. I think they were tripping on acid most of the time... but...

Sam: They were a great band...

Alan: Wrapping my head around bebop, though...was really great. And even before appreciating free jazz. Getting into soloing and who was doing what. And the method of operation and how to play this kind of music was fascinating to me. I think bebop was the most interesting thing to me in my late teens and early 20s. And I knew that I didn’t really want to play like that. I loved it and I loved listening to it and I borrowed from it, I didn’t want to approximate the same stylings or become a jazz player, but I loved listening to jazz. I loved listening to bebop.

Sam: Yeah, I was a bebop snob for a while. I love it.

Alan: Yes. I can listen to it any time. That’s the kind of music that is like... default for me. If I want to put music on and not have to worry about what it is or think about what to play, it’s bebop. It’s the default program I go right into. Good bebop... from the late 40’s to early 60’s. And we all know whom I am talking about.

Bogdan: What about you, Maurice?

Maurice: I’m trying to think... There’s a lot to remember... I mean... You had very little access to what would be called alternative music growing up in Cairo. I would have to wait for Saturday evening to watch this show on MTV who would play metal. For me, hearing Black Sabbath as a kid was quite something.

Bogdan: How did you hear of Black Sabbath?

Maurice: Well Egypt, you know... it’s all word of mouth and it’s about who travels and comes back with CDs. And when the first record store opened... they only had CDs actually, records were over... I’m a bit younger. I would go there and hang out and check the covers of albums. It was very expensive so you would just get one for your birthday. You couldn’t buy records very often. And whenever you bought one, whether it was good or bad, you would just listen to it all the time. Because that was the new thing you got. And then you just exchanged it with friends. When someone would travel you would make them a list with music to bring back. All this stuff sounds cheesy to me now, but it was all kind of exciting at that time. Not very long ago, Sam introduced me to Skies of America (Ornette Coleman) and it really blew me away. Stunning record. I don’t know anything that sounds like that. But maybe that’s because I didn’t listen to a lot of free improv. Another thing is listening to music from the 20’s. Arabic music from the 20’s. For me that sounds like it’s from the future. It’s music that hasn’t happened yet. Of course, the recording quality has an effect to it. But it's music that is just so free. Arabic music has been tempered over the years. In early to mid 20th century, they started tempering Arabic music. Putting it on the piano … trying to make it kind of… westernized. Also this idea of big orchestras. But this music was done by 3-4 people, very small ensembles, and it’s very free, the signatures, the scales, the sounds are really weird and unsettling in a beautiful way.

Sam: I have a question for you, Maurice. When you were growing up in Cairo, what was the role of Arabic music, to you as a kid? Is it something that was part of you?

Maurice: Well yeah, of course. It was all Arabic music. You couldn’t really listen to western music. The choice was very limited. You had Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and that kind of stuff you could find on cassettes. It was all Arabic cult music.

Sam: When you were a kid, among your friends… were you guys excited about Arabic music?

Maurice: When you start getting excited about music beyond commercial music, you had to look to the West because any alternative to Arabic music wasn’t available. It was not played on the radio. So you develop a musical consciousness that goes beyond popular music. But if you start looking for something exciting, then you go to listen to whatever infiltrates… stuff like Pink Floyd, Hendrix. These were the alternatives.
The first few tapes I bought were pop music, whatever the hits were at that time. Then I got more curious about music… and I couldn’t find anything around me, so I immediately started looking towards rock music. It’s only very recently that you can kind of find more exciting Arabic music. You don’t have pirate radios; you don’t have those structures like in the West, where you can have an alternative scene. Especially in the 90s and the 80s. And live music was very limited. I’m very pleased about that because you are constantly very excited about music. Things are just coming through. This might sound mundane to people in the West that have more access... but for us it’s special. This stuff came from nowhere.

Alan: You mentioned Hendrix. Hendrix was my first obsession in terms of a one artist. Trying to collect everything, and study... more than anyone else. It was all about Hendrix. When I first heard Jimmy Hendrix it took me over for years, and it’s still the same for me. I can never get sick of anything that he does.

Bogdan: It was some of the wildest shit that you could see on TV back then, right?

Alan: I couldn’t even see it on TV back then. He was never on TV. Hendrix was not on TV in the late 60s, early 70s when I started to hear what he was and discover what he was and buy his records. Not in my town. I never saw him on TV. I think the first time I saw him is when I went to see the Woodstock film. I saw it later, though. I saw it when I was 14 or 15. I think. I don’t even know when it came out. But that was the first time I saw footage of Hendrix. And there was something magical about not knowing, about only getting a little bit of information. I did a research paper in my English class, at that time, in high school... on Hendrix. And I went to the library and I found two books that had a paragraph on him, and then I had a Circus magazine or a Creem magazine that had an article and that’s my bibliography. The rest of it I just made it up out of my listening to his music on records and learning from the liner notes from the record covers. There was nothing. I couldn’t research him at all. There was really no information.

Maurice: Even literature was very exciting. Reading interviews and that kind of stuff. I used to read and re-read interviews and articles

Sam: Well that was the amazing thing. That you could read an interview with Lou Reed, or Iggy Pop as a kid... and they would mention Heidegger, or they would mention James Joyce. And you are like ... „what’s that?” and then you go... pursuit it. So... it would all be very exciting.


Dragoș: Are you concerned about identity in your music?

Maurice: Not at all. If I want to do a Norwegian pop album, I’ll do one. I don’t care.
I don’t think anyone owns music. That would defeat the whole point in a way. It’s against the history of how music came about. None of this came about in isolation. It’s a shared thing.

Alan: I mean... Music was moving through Egypt as it was through every country influencing it subtly over the years, on and on and on and it never ends. And I think that’s good thing. To a point... to where it becomes a political thing, to where there’s a conspiracy to actually force people to adapt to certain things. Which is the case with the colonial export of music today. It’s pushing certain genres down people’s throats all over the world and getting them to accept it through technology, through the media, to what people are perceiving as important and relevant and to the point where a lot of countries that don’t have the abilities to push their culture and music back into the face of the West, don’t have a voice, to where they have to accept other people’s culture of music so they can project theirs back towards that direction.

Sam: I think, in a way, you are born with an identity. The way you deal with that is up to you. And you should be allowed to do something about that, and if you’re into other types music that does not normally belong to your culture, you can maybe start with something exotic, but you have to connect to it. That’s the same with people. I’m not going to naturally gravitate towards someone because they are Egyptian or Canadian or whatever. I’m not going to be like “oh... that’s probably a cool guy because he’s Egyptian”. So... you know... it’s really like Maurice is saying. It’s some other form of kinship that can include all of that. And it makes it more exciting, it makes it more open, because I think when people stick to their own cultural identity too much, it becomes uniform. It becomes one thing, and it doesn’t really allow a lot of oxygen. That’s the best way to learn about anything, almost... to travel. Because all your preconceptions are false, and they get shattered.

Alan: And it’s bullshit when people try to project a cultural identity on you, just because they assume that you should have one. And this happens all the time. Maurice has experienced more of that than we have, because he’s been stuck in this kind of “oh... this Egyptian group is here” and you’re forced into this box. There are things like “Arab culture night” or “Arab spring music festival” in Denmark. Like... really? It becomes absurd in a sense where people are hijacking your identity and putting in a place that you maybe don’t subscribe to. It’s completely unfair.

Sam: It’s funny when people get upset by that too. I grew up in Canada and I’m Egyptian. I don’t really play traditional music, but I've done things where people think they’re getting this sort of little happy dancing Arab guy, and then they get disappointed because...

Alan: You’re not little and you don’t dance

What is Important

Dragoș: What would you say is important and relevant for you?

Alan: For me, I have to enjoy what I do. I have to believe in what I do, and if a reality is forced on me, I will not do it. And as long as I’m being true to myself, doing what I want and choosing the people that I want to be around and being in a situation that I can be inspired by, that’s all I can really ask for, because the rest is going to be up to me. If I’m in a position or in a situation that I don’t enjoy, or in which I’m feeling that I’m not able to be myself and have to burden myself, I’ll shed them. I think it’s about being comfortable and being around the right people and not being around people who suck your energy dry and bring you down and are too dependent on you to where there isn’t really a balance in a positive way. Then I feel that I can function at the highest level and that’s what I’m always striving to do. For me that’s important. Love is important. Being in a positive state instead of being negative. Especially the people around you. Once we start fighting amongst our nucleus of friends and family, we’re giving in to what I would believe that the outside diabolical elite forces would want. So we should focus our anger and negativity on those who are more oppressive towards us, not our inner circle of friends. And when I see friends arguing over things. When they’re either making a film, or making an album, and they’re beating themselves up, it’s like... what the fuck are you thinking? Why are you destroying yourselves when you should be in the zone where you’re functioning at a high level, without having all these differences of opinion. If you have all these differences of opinion, bust it up and go find like-minded people who can do the right thing, that you can all be comfortable with, instead of fighting amidst yourselves, because you’re never going to accomplish anything when you’re arguing and always at odds with your close associates. It’s a pointless task. You’ll never be productive, you’ll never do anything great, and when you get into a system where everyone is on the same page, everyone has at least basic a fundamental agreement on the direction of what you’re trying to do without spending hours and days and weeks and months arguing about it. Then you can be productive and do something that’s great. And you focus all of the negativity or the anger or a confrontational approach to those who try to oppress you from outside. That’s the key. I see too many inner circles destroying each other. And they never get anywhere, and they don’t realize this. And this is a huge point that I always try to bring up.

Maurice: Amen

Sam: That’s important

Scoro: The more enslaved they are, the more they take it out on their close ones. It’s amazing...

Maurice: It takes a while to learn that.

Alan: It does, it’s not always successful for me either. It happens for a while, and then something else, another dynamic comes in. You can’t control certain things all the time. And let’s face it, we’re all sort of dependent upon the people that we’re around, and the situations that we’re in. And everyone has a different situation, whether it’s economic or in families or in relationships. We’re dealt the cards that we’re dealt, and we have to play those cards as best we can so it’s not always easy to get out of a difficult situation. But you have to be committed to it. Otherwise you’re just going to be dragged down in the maelstrom and drown yourself, because you’re not making that effort to get out of it.

Sam: I think if you’re paying attention, you get better at that. The people that I play with now and such situations have been getting smaller and smaller over the last 20 years. Because I just don’t like to be around assholes. But it takes a while to learn that. It takes a while to accept that. Because you think you have to.

Bogdan: You think this is all there is.

Alan: There’s more complex issues that are involved. Especially if it’s your family. They are your family. You want to give them the benefit of doubt as much as possible. So there’s a lot of different elements here. It’s ok to have a small circle of friends. You don’t need to have a huge circle of friends because things get too confusing anyway. If you can create a nucleus of friends that you know you can trust and depend on, and who are not going to stab you in the back and destroy you, then that is really important.

Maurice: I think there’s a mix of fortune and what Alan was saying ... just to be able to tell when something is affecting you.

Sam: I think it’s about paying attention. Because it can be immediate. One of the cool things about Alan is that everyone I've met told me “you should meet this guy”. So immediately, we were friends. And the same with Maurice. It’s the fact they were working on getting close to people who have a good, positive effect. It becomes somewhat easier because it’s rare to meet someone that so many people spoke highly of and said “you should meet this guy, he’s a cool guy”.

Alan: It works both ways. They said the same thing about you.

Sam: Otherwise... life is too short. And the pleasure of playing the music that we want to play, and be friends at the same time. Which seems easy, I know plenty of people that are in huge bands, and they hate each other. And the atmosphere is so draining, and it’s so oppressive.

Alan: And they are doing it for the pay-check, or they’re doing it because they think they have to because they need to be in a band and they don’t wanna upset the apple cart. But money is not always important that way and people have to realize that. And fame, or social status... these things are tricks that bring you into this unpleasant position sometimes.

*photo credits:
Maged Nader
Yiannis Soulis @ Avopolis
Camille Blake @ CTM 2016

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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