This is how it always happens: a teenager acquires a dingy little nylon-string guitar, teaches his kid brothers a couple of chords, and then forgets all about it. But the brothers keep at it, fiddling and tuning and eventually writing their own music, and before you know it they are playing gigs at some of Cairo’s smokiest joints and sneaking beers backstage.
“Of course we were underage, surrounded by this whole adult world of rock and clubs that we didn’t understand, but it all seemed so exciting,” grins Abdel-Rahman Hussein, an Egyptian-British journalist turned internet innovator. “We loved it, and yet eventually we drifted away from it. There was university, and then jobs, and then other bits of life take over. There was no sustainable economy for that kind of creative output, and so ultimately it couldn’t last.”
Almost two decades later, Hussein, now 35, is back in the music business – and hoping to ensure that the next generation of Middle Eastern artists stand a better chance of finding and maintaining success than he did. Along with his old partners in crime – younger brother Tariq and older sibling Karim – Hussein is the man behind a new dedicated online audio platform for the Arab World.
Bringing together hundreds of content creators and thousands of users, their site is called ‘Dandin’. The word means ‘humming’ in Egyptian dialect, and after more than two years of steady growth in Arabic, an English-language version is coming soon to a computer screen near you.
Like its global rival Soundcloud, Dandin enables anyone to upload audio tracks to the internet. Songs are its bread and butter but you can find stand-up comedy, news shows and podcasts in its ecosystem too, alongside every musical sub-genre imaginable from Levantine rap to Coptic Christian gospel, cutting-edge North African techno to Mediterranean indie. Unlike Soundcloud though, Dandin’s regional focus allows it to showcase content that might otherwise get lost in the wilds of the web, connecting not only performers and audiences but also bands and solo musicians with each other.
“It’s a way to discover artists and get a sense of the immense range of things that are going on here,” explains Abdel-Rahman, sitting on the balcony of Dandin’s headquarters, just south of downtown Cairo, and gesturing expansively towards the Nile and beyond. “We’re in this space too, and our fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the people who use our service. So we have a mutual interest in promoting their amazing work, finding them listeners and making alternative music viable.”
Mainstream Arab pop is a massive business, with stars like Lebanese singer Elissa or the platinum-selling Egyptian Amr Diab shifting millions of albums. But with the market highly-centralised – more than three quarters of it is controlled by only one company, the Saudi-based Rotana Group – it can be near-impossible for more eclectic sounds to break through. “Outside of the major players, music here actually has a fairly small infrastructure,” explains Maha ElNabawi, a music journalist based in Egypt. “In Cairo, for example, you have some pockets of activity but mostly things are very dispersed and the spaces for live performance are really limited. What Dandin does is offer a new forum for interaction, one that lives and breathes as the internet does.”
For musicians like Youssef Abouzeid – whose band, ‘PanSTARRS’, layers intricate guitar work on top of a heavy bass synth and whose latest EP was one of the most listened-to albums on Dandin last year – it is that opportunity for engagement that marks Dandin out from other online file-hosting sites. “It’s had a lot of effect on the music scene,” the 24 year old Cairene told Monocle. “There are artists in Jordan and Palestine doing similar things to me that I didn’t even know about before, and who I found through Dandin. That sort of thing empowers us as a community.”
There is another aspect to Dandin that marks it out from the crowd. The platform was first conceived of by the Hussein brothers in late 2012, when revolutionary uprisings in Egypt and other parts of the Arab World remained in full flow. “It came out of a moment of free expression and political foment that made one feel like anything is possible,” says Abdel-Rahman, “and the philosophy of the project reflected that.” Since then, though, democratic gains have been reversed in many countries – including Egypt, where cultural censorship by the state is now rife. Dandin has one rule only about content uploaded to its website – it must not violate copyright – but apart from that, anything goes. In the current political context, that alone is a radical act.
The big question now for Dandin’s founders and fans is what comes next. The platform has long-featured an English-language blog to introduce new sounds from the Middle East to non-Arabic speaking visitors; in the spring of 2016 though, it will undergo its biggest expansion yet by launching a full English version of the entire website. Beyond that, it will have to confront the challenge facing websites and creative producers everywhere: how do you monetise your content?
Dandin has already rejected the idea of charging either artists or listeners for its service, but Hussein is interested in developing advertising models that will ensure revenue is shared equitably with musicians. He also hopes to take advantage of Dandin’s unique database by connecting performers and venues looking to put on live events. “We have to help build up a local economy that goes beyond the website,” he insists, “because if the artists can’t make it, then neither will we.”
In the meantime, he is able to sit back and enjoy the weird and wonderful audio labyrinth that Dandin has created. “I spend all my time accidentally tripping up over all this insanely good music that I would otherwise have never even known existed, and it’s thrilling” he smiles. “The biggest beneficiary of Dandin is me.”