Features

Adham Zidan: Egypt's Musical Renaissance Man

Inside the mind of a musical genius, a technical wizard, a mad scientist.
Apr 02, 2019

He's been an integral part of some of Egypt's most important underground bands as musician, producer and sound engineer. A member of The Invisible Hands, he’s worked with the likes of Maurice Louca, Youssra El Hawary, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Nadah El Shazly, Tarkamt, The Dwarfs of East Agouza and Lekfha. He understands sound and music like few people in Egypt. He understands how to get the best out of an instrument, out of an artist and out of himself. Adham 'Eddie' Zidan is, in no uncertain terms, a renaissance man in the world of music. A man who is as intuitive as he is thoughtful; as instinctive as he is philosophical. He pushes boundaries, but never loses sight of tradition. Yes, this was one hell of an interview, one that gave us just a small insight into his inner workings - but one that also revealed so much.

With your background, it seems that it was inevitable that you'd move into music...

I come from a musical family; my father is a music composer and my mother and her brother and sisters were in a pop band back in the seventies. Music has always been there from when I was young, my mother was a huge fan of The Beatles and my father would play me records all the time, mostly classical and Jazz, but I was forbidden to play it growing up.


In my first year of university I got a guitar as a gift, and started teaching myself. I started writing songs almost immediately afterwards and have done this continuously ever since. At the same time, I was studying theater and doing sound design for a bunch of plays. 


How did you transition from this to the world of sound engineering?

I feel there’s a through-line between everything I do. In 2009, I was in a play and the director asked me to compose music for it. At the time, I was hearing much more than just guitar in the songs I was writing. I was hearing fuller arrangements. So I bought a midi keyboard, and through this I gave life to the songs in my head.


I was satisfied with the arrangements, but it still sounded like shit to me. That led me to sound engineering and understanding that to mix something nicely you actually have to record it nicely — and by nicely I don’t necessarily mean professionally. I asked around for advice and scrounged through the internet, which is a lovely resource that we have now. I also had the pleasure of working with Hussein Sami, and being around him taught me so much. For me, I’m always learning through the job or the project I’m working on at that moment.


Your setup is usually quite limited. Do you think limitations help a musician flow his creative juices? 

Limitations are always a fantastic thing, because they force you to work within a particular context. Shortly after I got into the world of virtual instruments, I realized that it’s a sea with limitless options. You can spend eight hours looking for a sound. So I came to a decision of uninstalling all the virtual instruments and buying a synthesizer. This is how my alias, Today is Tomorrow, came to life. The idea was to record the songs with the equipment I had at the time: the instruments I had or borrowed, two microphones, and a four-track recorder.


Some people might have the discipline to not get lost in the endlessness of options. However, I find that when you limit your options, you don’t deal so much with the noise, as you deal more with the core of the situation.

Hmmm...give us an example.

The Beatles. People from different backgrounds can agree that The Beatles were fantastic. They had access to EMI studios, which was one of the most advanced studios at the time and was building equipment solely for them. But if you strip all of the production from the songs and just look at the arrangement itself, you’ll find that it’s all already there. The brilliance of the song is all in how it flows and how the lines intertwine. Everything else only makes the thing better. Also, their desire to experiment and their pace. If you have something in mind, you shouldn’t be waiting for all of the stars to align. Just get it done, and the more you hold on to old stuff, the more you get stale in a way. 

Would you go as far, then, to say that a lot of your influences come from the ‘60s? 

Of course. Most of the music I listen to was recorded somewhere between 1965 till 1978, or is current music that is also influenced by that period, which I think was musically the richest period of all time.

That's interesting, because when you listen to your work, that doesn't really come across...

It’s funny that you say that. I mean it’s good, it means that the output is varied.

I mean, there’s definitely some The Doors influence in your Today Is Tomorrow album, though.

I get this Doors thing a lot. But primarily, in their time, electric organs were in their heyday, and played a really big part in most of the music of that era. The Doors is one bands that the organ is just as important to as the electric guitar. And since organ is primarily my instrument, I get why it feels that way. Maybe there’s a deeper reason. 

Maybe it’s because how they worked. At the time they recorded on a four channel multitrack, so they could only use four sources at a time. What they did is they recorded the drums onto four microphones and then bounced them down into one track, leaving three extra free tracks. What that means is, once you bounce down the drums to one track, you lose all the capacity to edit or change how the drums sound. So basically you’re always working in a way that is final. You don’t defer decisions till later. How many recording engineers have the mentality of recording the cleanest signal and then decide later what to do? I say fuck that. Personally, my ethos is, whatever you’re doing, do it as if it’s the last step of the process. When recording a song, get shit to sound how you want it to sound. If you want the drums trashy, get it trashy on the spot. Fuck them up, detune them, put stuff on the cymbals. Some of the best drum sounds that you know, the ones that are sampled on endless hip hop tracks, were recorded in a shitty square room, with two shitty mics, and they were used for years because they sound fucking killer. It could be one big beautiful mic totally distorted in the preamp of the console. But that’s the sound. 


I find most modern music that’s produced nowadays in million dollar studios sounds like shit. It’s soulless. Where the fuck is the character? 


One of the grooviest songs I’ve heard is Zambian musician Chrissy Zebby Tembo’s 'Trouble Maker'. It sounds horrible. It sounds like the person who recorded it doesn’t have a clue as to how to use a mixer. But I guarantee that it’ll make you want to move. 


Yeah I just saw this video The Most Sampled Loop in Music History about that drum loop that basically was used to invent a whole genre, drum n bass. So yes, I think chaos is important during the writing process. 

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work professionally. But yes, you have to leave room for magic to occur. Most of the magic comes from the mistakes.

Happy accidents...

Exactly.

How did The Invisible Hands come together?

I got a call from Cherif El-Masri, who is one of my best friends, in 2010 and he was screaming “The Sun City Girls are coming!” I didn’t know who they were, but the Venn diagram between our musical tastes is big. So I went home and listened to them, and they blew my mind. The show ended up being a solo show by Alan Bishop, because his brother couldn’t make it. The venue was half full, and I’ve never seen anyone control a room the way this man controls a room. Not in an egotistical way. He didn’t give a fuck who liked him and who didn’t. I went home to rethink everything I thought I knew about live performance.

It just happened that he had songs that he wanted to translate to Arabic and so he started working with Cherif and Aya Hemeda. He came back to Cairo a couple of times after that. They recorded the material, but they needed one more person to perform it live with them. So Cherif asked me to join them as a keyboardist. I went to meet Alan, we had a trial rehearsal and any intimidation I felt went away in the first five minutes. We rehearsed and in the process of doing shows, we came up with new songs and suddenly we had another record. That was ‘Teslam’.

Is there ever any sense of self-doubt when embarking on a new project?

I’m not the kind of person that tries to present a facade. I’m very aware of my shortcomings and I’m at peace with them.

For example, for about a year and a half after Teslam, Alan and I met daily to record some of his songs. We recorded more than 60 of them, of which 35 got released on a triple LP called With a Beaker On The Burner And An Otter In The Oven. In the beginning, I was going to record the album with Alan, I knew how to record and I had better equipment at the time. Obviously through the recording project we were working in service of the music, I was suggesting things that serve the music. I do whatever my job description says. But I feel that, when I’m attached to a project, I always add things outside of the scope of my job. At the end of the day, you’re not working for a person, it’s for the music. Everyone should try to make the song the best it possibly could be.

After recording, Alan just told me, “why don’t you mix this?” I told him that I’d never mixed anything like this before. He was like, “they sound great as they are and you’ve already been mixing through the recording process.” So I went ahead and did it. And I’m really happy with how that turned out all the way through.

With you being involved in projects that are with different aesthetics, do you approach them differently?

I’m always thinking of how to serve the music, of what it needs. How I play with The Invisible Hands definitely differs from how I play with Procession Towards The Unknown or my solo project. The approach is also different from song to song. But I think the information is all there, in the piece itself, you just have to extract it. When I worked with Youssra El Hawary, for example, to me, the world she was trying to create through her music was very clear. When I stepped in as a producer, the idea was how do I make these songs better, not how do I change these songs to make them fit my style.

So it’s all about accommodating your style to what the artist’s needs are. 

Exactly. I’m always trying to help achieve a vision. When it’s my music, it’s my vision; when it’s someone else’s music, it’s their vision. However, my influences and my style will ultimately seep in; they’re going to come out in one way or another. 

What was the thinking behind your Dad forbidding you from playing music?

My father was trying to prevent his only son following in the footsteps of what he’d call a 'dark future'. 

Do you think it is a dark future? 

He has a really funny anecdote; if you live in a village in Upper Egypt while trying to pursue an opera singing career, that’s not the smartest thing to do. There are no operas there, nor an audience that will support you. So either you try to do it in a different context, or find yourself something else to do. Well, I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I get the point. 

First of all, we live in a society that doesn’t really appreciate artistry. This is not only Egyptian society, but globally, too. Also, the methods of consumption nowadays make it almost impossible for you to break through the noise. There’s so much shit — so much shit that’s good and so much shit that’s just shit. Then there's the framework itself. Forty years ago, there was a very clear and unified way to reach people [with your music], certain steps. Now, you can be sitting in front of a laptop playing on its keyboard and making music with Ableton, uploading it on Soundcloud and this is your life, while you're still a valid musician.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get anywhere.

You might, or you might not. You could also go through the normal steps and get a record produced and have a label release it, and still not get anywhere. The process that you go through no longer corresponds to the end result. 

Also, the attention span of audience has decreased drastically over the years and now everyone’s streaming music off Spotify. No one listens to records or even buys records. You subscribe to a thing and you have ALL the music, but really, you don’t have all the music, you just have all that’s on Spotify. They curate what you listen to. Not to mention they pay the artist next to nothing, but that's a different conversation.

I’m sure that back in the day it was a different experience — people used to listen carefully before paying money for a record. Even after you buy it, you’ll listen to it for a while.

Exactly. You meet with your friends and listen to the album. It’s a totally different situation, and of course, there are positives and negatives. The positives are that I can hear about an obscure band that played music in Nigeria in 1972 and be actually listening to it in less than five minutes. Whereas before, you had to go around and ask people, and it could take you forever until you found a copy. So now, I think, as a listener, you have to develop a certain kind of discipline of how you consume music, because everything is available. 

You’re working full-time in the music industry - does this mean you've officially 'made it'?

I don’t consider myself working inside the industry here [in Egypt]. I work in a parallel industry that consists of very few people, and I’m not waiting for a breakthrough moment to get to the other side. I have no interest in the other side. I’m lucky enough to be working with people that I love and respect and on music that I love and respect, and that’s purely luck. I count my blessings everyday, because I wouldn’t survive the 'industry'. 

But why? A lot of Egyptians would kill to be in your position. 

I don’t think they would. I operate in a different context. My context is, if we sell 1000 records it’s fucking great, because I know we cater to a niche audience. If something breaks out and manages to get a much wider audience, I’m not against that. But that’s not the aim. If I had to think about audience metrics, view counts and all that, I’d die. It’s hard enough just being an artist, especially in the difficult times we live in now. 


Sure, more difficult, but would some of these new musical styles emerged, say, 10 years ago?

That’s the tricky part of it. Funnily enough, I think right now, we’re living in the most exciting time musically, at least in this region. The output that’s coming out of the region now is great. But we’re doing it in a context where there are less venues and more regulations of what we can and can’t do.

More awareness, less resources?

Possibly. But in terms of resources, you can do anything anywhere. At least in terms of producing.

But in terms of putting together a show it’s much harder. This doesn’t help the audience grow in any way. 

Ultimately, your audience in Egypt is very limited. We live in a city of 20 million people. How many people do you think go to all of the shows? 30k? What’s the percentage of that in comparison to the number of people that can possibly go?

Now you’re opening the door for a bigger discussion of how music is related to social classes in Egypt. 

I agree with you entirely. I’m not delusional to what the reality is. There’s a problem of access. If they start playing Lekhfa on public radio, more people would listen to them. But they don’t, for obvious reasons. And there’s so many different dynamics at play too. It’s impossible to even mention all of them. For example, there’s a story of this guy who was really into music, and wanted to go to an Invisible Hands gig at Darb 1718. This guy didn’t want to go because he didn’t feel that he would be welcomed in the space, because he perceived it as a space for a particular social class - that’s the saddest fucking thing ever. How many of these instances happen? Of course, there are venues that are classist and try to maintain a particular kind of clientele, but this one wasn’t. However, the opposite is also true — Oka & Ortega and a lot of Mahraganat guys play at weddings now. The same people that would deny them access to their clubs bring them to play at their weddings to get a little taste of street life or whatever. It’s all weird.

So what are you up to next?

I'm currently producing Baskot Lel Baltageyya’s debut album. We just finished recording the third Invisible Hands record and it should be out this year hopefully. I’m also recording an album by a fantastic oud player called Natik Awayez that Maurice Louca is producing, and working on a music-related podcast with Maha ElNabawi.

Photography by SceneNoise / Haleem Elshaarani