INTERVIEW & EXCLUSIVE Azemad ‘Helwan’ [Awkwardly Social]

Cultural crosser Azemad not only crossed boarders when moving from chaotic Cairo to chaotic Berlin but incorporates the best of both worlds in his music. Therefore his works include sounds, elements, drums and vocals with an Arabic and African-touch or influence and notes from the capital’s Techno or Electronic music scene. The result is, contrary to the assumption probably, a homogeneous new EP – also due the artist’s technological development from the EP’s predecessor Dreams – that showcases Azemad’s artistic being and identity at the same time. Shortly before the release of Afriki on Berlin label Awkwardly Social, the artists spoke to Torture the Artist about the production process, the stories that come with each title, his musical progress and inspiration as well as the influences of both metropolis on his music.

Torture the Artist: Hello Azzam, where do we catch up with you at the moment and what’s your day been like?

Azemad: Hi, I am currently enjoying my vacation in Egypt and writing to you while I am on the beach. My day couldn’t have been better. I hope yours is also nice and warm!

Torture the Artist: When and how was your first encounter with electronic music and what was it that made you decide to go and give it a second chance?

Azemad: It all started by listening to the music for sure. As a kid in Egypt I was very interested in Egyptian Shaabi (folk music) before it developed to the now so called Mahraganat. What fascinated me on the one hand about it was how poetic and emotional the lyrics in this type of music were. On the other hand I was listening more to electronic music rather than any other genre. As a kid I was listening to a lot of music from Shpongle for example as the psychedelic/ambient electronic mix intrigued me. I moved to Berlin as an 18 year old and that’s when I started diving into Techno and DnB. At this point I’d already come across two of my biggest influences in music ever: Aphex Twin and Djrum. I somehow got completely hooked on their music which inspired me to start doing my own music and in turn buy my first ever midi controller and speakers. Ever since I started prioritizing learning music production and that’s when I met Nelson of the East who guided me through taking my musical journey to the next level and introduced me to hardware synths at his studio. 

Islam has always been different from my perspective, it’s more of an approach that I take towards everything in my life.

Torture the Artist: In your bio it says “growing up in Cairo with an Islamic background that has stayed a part of his identity since childhood and is still inspiring most of his productions.“ How is the Islamic background expressed in your productions or is it more of an approach for you towards music? If so, what does this approach look like?

Azemad: I have to start off by saying that being a good Muslim is something I aspire to be everyday in my daily life and is the most important thing to me. However, being a Muslim nowadays is some kind of a taboo to the modern world due to a lack of information, poverty, corrupt media and unforgivable actions done by non-muslim groups claiming Islam as their identity. 

Islam has always been different from my perspective, it’s more of an approach that I take towards everything in my life, which gives meaning to it. In music for example, my approach is it to try and deliver a certain emotion, feeling or a message without trying to think a lot about the dancing element in the track. My music conveys a message, my lyrics speak to who I am as an artist and a Muslim, I express my identity through my music and that is through writing words about wanting God to guide me and to escape life’s distractions. I don’t want to make music for the dance floor because I feel sometimes the meaning is lost there in the midst of the party chaos. If I create a track it expresses the emotions I was feeling at that point in time and if a dancey track comes out of it, then so be it, but I don’t intend it. 

I still haven’t scratched the surface in my musical journey, I’m still lacking and learning various technical and writing skills to achieve what I just mentioned in a proper way. But my vision primarily stays that I would like my music to be as heavily influenced by my Islamic upbringing as much as anything else is influenced in my life.

Torture the Artist: Your first EP, which is called Dreams, was released on Kaleido Muzik at the end of 2020. The four lucid ambient-infused tracks now in a retro-perspective feel like the denouncement of your most recent EP Afriki on Awkwardly Social. How do you perceive the two EPs at an artistically level and how have you matured as an artist in-between the releases?

Azemad: Well, as I previously mentioned in the previous question, I am still scratching the surface here and I’m constantly learning. I try to immediately apply what I’ve learned as in my opinion that is the best way for one to develop as an artist and to be honest, I want to learn everything so that I could create something new. I’m always keen on not sticking to one certain sound, I’m a person who appreciates music in all its genres. Therefore, my inspiration comes from all kinds of music and I want to create music as interdisciplinary as possible. I believe that not just Dreams as an EP is different from Afriki, rather the tracks within Afriki are all different from one another. 

Picture by Alana Naumann

I love both EPs equally as they both trigger a lot of emotions and pleasurable memories that I had while working on them. Afriki definitely sounds more advanced, more professional and sonically better but I love listening to Afriki after Dreams and acknowledging the improvement in my production skills. I guess I have grown and matured a lot between those releases through being able to construct better ideas and through being able to use alternative approaches that help ease my workflow and kill the creativity block sometimes. 

Torture the Artist: Compared to Dreams Afriki includes way more Arabic-influences, to what extent was this part of your artistic process and maybe including more of your identity in your music?

Azemad: Since day one, I have always wanted to include Arabic sounds in my productions and that is not through adding Arabic percussion or harmony rather by also including Arabic vocals or simply just Arabic words. The track Memorialize in Dreams includes a sample stemming from the Egyptian revolution, while Dreams Pt.2 has some Arabic vocals in it. Another thing worth mentioning is while working on Dreams, I faced a lot of technical limitations and wasn’t able to include Arabic harmony as most of the Arabic sounds use specific microtonal synths systems that are different from the standard one which I didn’t have access to at the time. 

I love the Arabic language so much and it feels so poetic to me. It definitely shapes a huge part of my identity, even more than Arabic harmonies and rhythms and it is something I would like to include in most of the music I am creating.

Torture the Artist: How and when did Afriki come about and what do you connect with the release?

Azemad: The whole EP was finalized in the beginning of 2022, but some tracks were produced before others. EL XR and Helwan for example, were finished in the beginning of 2021 while Mahragan being the latest one, was created in November 2021, and then came J. Wiltshire’s awesome take on the track, creating the remix we have now in the EP.  Every track was worked on in a different phase in this totally chaotic year, giving the EP a sense of chaos in terms of the wide-ranging and eclectic sounds of the tracks yet each track shares the same background of reflecting each mood I had in that specific point in time. 

Torture the Artist: Mahargan is Egyptian folk music paired with a HipHop-influence and EDM – often played at weddings, Helwan is a city in Egypt, Afriki is/ can be a reference to Habib Koité’s album, while Berwaz could be a gallery in Egypt and EL XR is short for for elixir and can either be associated to the scientific field or a coding language. Azzam, bring light into the darkness, what’s the actual meaning or inspiration behind all those tracks/ track names?

Azemad: Mahraganat (plural of Mahragan) means festivals and, as you mentioned, is a genre in Egypt that has originated from Egyptian Shaabi Music (Egyptian Folk Music). I decided on the name Mahragan as the track has a dancey vibe to it with some Egyptian Rap and that synth sound/melody that is often used in weddings or Egyptian festivals in general. 

J. Wiltshire’s remix is called Mawal Mix as Mawal is also an Arabic genre but somehow more mellow, slower and more emotional giving the opposite vibe of a Mahragan. Helwan is a city in Cairo and it is where I was born and raised. 

Afriki, when pronounced like that in Arabic, means African. There is a phrase in Afriki in which I call myself “African with dark skin”, which is something I intended to say as Egyptians are somehow perceived as only Arabs and not Africans too, which is also a part of our identity. I thought it would be cool to include this in the track as a way for it to be filled with all those Arabic influences yet name the track Afriki to exhibit both identities. 

Berwaz simply means a frame and to be perfectly honest with you, it was just randomly picked but now I think it fits the track perfectly. 

El XR comes from the name of my favorite drum synth LXR by Sonic Potions, which was the synth used to create all drum and percussion sounds. The track was created after jamming and recording the beat with the drum machine. 

Torture the Artist: How would you describe your music to your grandparents?

Azemad: I would describe my music as chaotic and mechanical which is how our modern lives and thoughts have become. 

Whenever I explore new possibilities or new techniques of operating devices I immediately try to apply them.

Torture the Artist: Your music is both, organic and mechanic, do you personally have a preference for either one? Following the question before, what is first in your productions, e.g. the organic-sounding recorded part or the mechanic one?

Azemad: I don’t really have a preference for either one. I believe a good mix of both organic and synthetic sounds brings out the best results. I love hardware synths and samplers and I love to spend time learning them. Whenever I explore new possibilities or new techniques of operating devices I immediately try to apply them. And sometimes these learning sessions end up being a nice project that I try to develop and add more organic sounds to it too. 

So far, I’ve started with the synth or drum machine then added recorded sounds and vocals to finalize the track on all the tracks in Dreams and Afriki. However, after I was done with the EP Afriki, most of my projects started with using the mic first before everything else and I started to randomly record sounds around the house, the studio or even just random sounds I make with my mouth to see where this can take me and I was surprised with the results that came out of it in that way. I’m a firm believer that using diverse approaches while doing music helps in overcoming the creativity block that happens quite often actually. 

I would very much like to develop my music in a way where it sounds as interdisciplinary as possible, original, irregular but also meaningful and emotional.

Torture the Artist: Where would you ultimately try to take/ develop your music and who would you like to work/ sit in the studio with on your way there?

Azemad: As mentioned before, I would very much like to develop my music in a way where it sounds as interdisciplinary as possible, original, irregular but also meaningful and emotional. I would rather have my music listened to rather than danced to. 

I guess it’s very hard to just name one artist who I would like to work with one day as there are a lot of artists who are mind blowing to me. I have somehow become addicted to Djrum. As cliche as it may sound but I always feel that I understand every single feeling and emotion that he wants to convey in his tracks and I’ve always had the feeling that his music corresponds with me and describes my feelings. It’s just simply emotionally intelligent in all ways. I listen to Djrum every single day and I guess it would make the most sense to work with him as it would be a huge achievement for me personally.

Time is just flying due to constant insane amounts of distractions.

Torture the Artist: As initially mentioned you grew up in Cairo, but you are now living in Berlin. What’s something that you picked up or adapted in either one of the cities that helped you to grow as an artist? 

Azemad: Berlin is a total chaos while Cairo is even more chaotic. There’s a lot of stuff happening at the same time and time is just flying due to constant insane amounts of distractions. This has influenced me to become a person who doesn’t know how to chill. If I am not busy my mind will just start generating chaos. For some people that’s a huge disadvantage and for me too for sure! But I’ve learned to adapt and turn this into productivity by doing more stuff and concentrating on more than one thing simultaneously. It helped me to learn quickly and be able to work, study, do music, maintain a social life and keep on playing hockey with my team. I guess if I wasn’t born and raised in cities like that, I wouldn’t have been able to give as much energy and attention to music as I am right now.

I prefer to stay at home or in the studio rather than going out as Berlin is full of distractions, chaos and show offs that simply makes me somewhat anxious.

Torture the Artist: Where do you feel home in Berlin, and why?

Azemad: I love to stay home or hang out in my studio but I also feel home around my friends that I met when I first came to Berlin. Those people became my family there and I feel the most comfortable around them. Currently, I prefer to stay at home or in the studio rather than going out as Berlin is full of distractions, chaos and show offs that simply makes me somewhat anxious. 

Torture the Artist: What’s something you’d bet on and what (musical) extravaganza would you pay with the win?

Azemad: I would bet on my improvement and hopefully the more I improve the better the result that I can share with people. 

Torture the Artist: Berlin to Cairo is like ….

Azemad: Simply more opportunities and freedom but definitely less warmth and more loneliness.

Words by Holger Breuer

Pictures by Alana Naumann

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