Old pipes, paint buckets, empty bottles, discarded bits of wood and metal – to the ordinary eye, these are nothing but trash. Yet, to a unique group of seven young Cairenes, each piece of discarded junk has new potential: music. Think STOMP, but Cairo-style.
At an evening jam session on a large terrace in Zamalek, chaos seems to have taken over. Trash, clean and dry, is littered across the floor, an amp and mic appear from somewhere, and a guitar waits patiently on a bench. Armed with drumsticks and more trash, three young men enthusiastically test the sound of every new piece of junk in the pile. After a few moments of inharmonious noise, the racket settles down.
'Ready?' asks Noor Ayman, one of the band’s four percussionists. Suddenly, the terrace is filled with energetic, slightly jazzy and completely unconventional music. Somehow, ordinary junk produces catchy tunes with the help of a guitar, a saxophone and some seriously talented musicians.
They call themselves Zabaleen after Cairo's 'garbage people.' The name is appropriate: not only does the group make music with trash; but they also promote recycling and environmental awareness. Cairo's Zabaleen recycle around 80% of the trash that they collect, far exceeding the 20% to 30% that more developed countries boast.
Zabaleen was formed when drummer Youssef El Kady was asked to put together a performance for World Environment Day at the American University in Cairo (AUC). El Kady asked a few friends to join him, and soon the group reached its current membership.
'We’re just a bunch of people who play on garbage and we have a saxophonist, guitarist and a vocalist,' says El Kady. 'We weren’t planning on continuing; it just happened that we stayed together.'
'It was unexpected that we'd actually make a band,' echoes Ayman. 'On our first performance, we got offers to play in other places, and I think that’s what made us feel that we could actually do something.'
Since Zabaleen’s formation barely four months ago, the group has played nearly a dozen shows at venues ranging from AUC to Al Azhar Park, El Sawy Culturewheel, and Makan in Downtown Cairo.
Why do audiences love Zabaleen’s music? 'Because we’re different,' says El Kady. 'And we play on garbage.'
'Because we rock!' another voice speaks up, drawing laughter from the others.
'Egyptian people like clapping,' Ayman explains, ‘'They like dancing; they like to see lots of things happening with strange things. So when they see people walking in with a garbage bin and then spilling a bunch of metal and trash on the floor, they get excited.'
The group perform their original songs in both English and Arabic. 'We believe in the importance of the Arabic language,' says Ayman. 'We sing in both Arabic and English in order to reach the widest variety of people possible.'
Fortunately, the band has an extremely talented and charismatic vocalist, Ahmed Safi El Din, who is comfortable performing in both languages.
Recently, Zabaleen provided the entertainment at a seminar for the Right to Climb Foundation, which organised an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to raise money for people in Egypt who face mental disabilities. The audience was extremely impressed with Zabaleen’s music and ingenuity, and particularly with Safi El Din’s incredible voice.
Exclamations of 'Yeah, Safi!' rang out from the crowd as Zabaleen finished another remarkable performance.
Zabaleen are media-friendly because they have a message: take care of your country. The group promotes recycling, reusing and environmental awareness. 'For yourself and your country, be clean,' ends the first line of one of Zabaleen's original songs, the chorus of which encourages listeners to 'Throw your garbage away.'
'You can’t take care of the rest of the earth until you take care of your own country,' says Ayman.
Yet, Zabaleen’s popularity stems from more than just creativity and a good message; the band members are excellent musicians. Each member is involved in another band – or bands – outside of the group and possesses a sound understanding of what it takes to create good music. The combination of talents has huge potential, and the group would love to explore that potential. They look forward to turning what they perform now into a better show with more complex music.
Zabaleen’s music and message have found a ready audience. Ayman is right; Egyptians love Zabaleen’s performance. Audiences thoroughly enjoy clapping or singing along – the group plays favourites in Arabic and English as well as original material – and laughing at Safi El Din’s hilarious lyrics and antics on stage.
Zabaleen’s magic on stage and the raw energy that they emit simply can’t be appreciated via YouTube only.
'We’re more than just music. We’re actually a show,' says Safi El Din. 'You have to actually see us. And you have to see us live.'
Zabaleen will perform at El Sawy Culturewheel’s Peace One Day Event on September 19. For more information on their upcoming gigs, check out their Facebook group.