One Night in Cairo: Islam Chipsy Makes Keyboards Punk

Peter Holslin smashed his clarinet The most punk thing I’ve heard in 2014 isn’t punk music at all. It’s a live album by Islam Chipsy, a keyboardist from Cairo. Live at the Cairo High Cinema...
By    May 28, 2014


Peter Holslin smashed his clarinet

The most punk thing I’ve heard in 2014 isn’t punk music at all. It’s a live album by Islam Chipsy, a keyboardist from Cairo. Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute, which came out earlier this year on the Egyptian label Nashazphone, is a low-budget recording of a performance by EEK, which consists of Chipsy and two drummers. Over the span of 35 minutes, the trio delivers a volcanic eruption of Arabic grooves: Synth riffs bursting, kick drums exploding, the audience erupting in cheers. If The Stooges brought rock to its primal essence, these guys are doing something similar with Arabic music, basking in pure catharsis with chaotic riffs and gnarly beats.

Chipsy, who’s in his late 20s, is a regular on Cairo’s nightclub circuit, and he commands a strong local following. But in recent years, he’s also built a surprising number of global fans solely on the strength of live clips posted online. He’s never released a studio album for a Western audience, and even Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute is difficult to get your hands on if you’re not in Egypt. But if you can’t listen to it, worry not, because some of the best Chipsy material is on YouTube—specifically this stuff right here.

Chipsy is often associated with “electro chaabi” (also called “mahraganat”), a style of crude street rap that’s blown up around Cairo in recent years. In his review of Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute from earlier this year, writer Joost Heijthuijsen points out that Chipsy stands apart from this scene, using keyboards and classical training instead of FruityLoops and Auto-Tune. But watching Chipsy’s videos on YouTube, you’ll notice he shares the electro chaabi artists’ affinity for rawness and intensity. One video posted last March shows Chipsy’s live show in all of its visceral glory—his hands flying across the keys, one of his drummers sweating bullets, the club pulsating with multicolored strobe lights. Even from 7,000-plus miles away, I feel the rush.

Most Chipsy performances I’ve seen consist of variations on the same musical themes: His performances are improvised, and a lot of his crude riffs and soloing techniques begin to feel familiar after a while. But when he calms down, he can produce some lovely, micro-tonal phrasings ( And though EEK’s range seems limited, there’s no denying that they’ve honed a distinct sound—which they’ll protect from all biters. In one video, possibly an advert for the band’s services (their phone numbers are included at the end), Chipsy and his crew chase off a trio of cornball EEK wannabees, replacing their busted-ass beats with supercharged party jams that attract a gang of elaborately-dressed dancers.

Of course, Chipsy is no Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten. He isn’t trying to shatter pyramids, or overthrow dictators. His boyish smile, stylized buzz-cuts and fedora-vest combinations are suggestive of simpler ambitions: fun, pleasure, release. Still, the man’s DIY setup is punk to the core. Playing a Yamaha keyboard, his synth tone is delightfully simple—thick, bright, a touch nasally, a touch distorted, and just a few notches more advanced than the stuff of vintage video game soundtracks. For overseas fans, his music is that much rawer thanks to the low bit-rates and video-length limitations of YouTube.

My all-time favorite clip of Chipsy was uploaded on September 8, 2011. The title, when typed into Google Translate, is cryptic gobbledygook without proper context or linguistic understanding: “Islam Chipsy puck Almkiza fond minimum of Imbaba in Abu Saad ups.” To my eyes, however, what’s happening is crystal-clear: Chipsy is tearing it up like a fucking champ. Performing on an outdoor stage, presumably for a neighborhood wedding party, he initiates a nuclear meltdown of wailing synth lines to the rhythm of a gut-punching beat. If this video went on for an hour, I’d be down. But it cuts off—suddenly, rudely—after only 2 minutes and 34 seconds, leaving me hungry for more.

When I first saw this video, Occupy Wall Street was raging, but the most popular indie music in America was the toothless soft-rock of Bon Iver. At the time, I was frustrated. I was angry. I felt like indie-rock had become tone-deaf, that it no longer represented what I valued. And so, it was perfect timing that I came across Chipsy—here was a guy busting out some of the craziest music I’ve ever heard, creating the perfect summation of anger and hope just as his country was going through a political revolution.

On Live at the Cairo High Cinema Institute, the album that came out earlier this year, Chipsy picks up right where he left off on that video. Going hard in mono sound, he even plays some of the same riffs he’d been playing three years ago, which I find a little worrying: An artist can only jam out for so long before they run out of ideas. Still, whether or not he finds a way to push forward, he’s created something special. In this age of globalized, plugged-in connectivity, Chipsy’s chaotic street music is about as punk as it gets.

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