Angus Finlayson finds out how place, identity, connection and solitude feed into Ahmed El Ghazoly's unique club music.
Having studied Computer Science, he started brushing up on his coding skills, with the intention of finding a job as a programmer. "But it just never happened," he said. "Being healthy and rested and having daily access to my home studio was just too inspiring, so instead I just started making lots of music and recording lots of mixes. The requests for guest mixes and remixes and compilation tracks also kept coming in and it's all been exciting and interesting stuff. I'm having too much fun to stop and focus on something else."
Some savings, the low cost of living in the Egyptian capital, and a recent grant for Arab artists affected by the pandemic, have helped him to muddle through so far. "I guess you can say I'm being irresponsibly optimistic about being able to sustain myself until things go back to normal," he said. "Also about things ever going back to normal!"
Not that he would necessarily be happy if the old reality suddenly returned. Since ZULI and I last spoke, in March 2019, his touring schedule had got busier than ever, and things hadn't been easy. "The sleep deprivation, jet lag, poor diet and all that stuff took its toll on me both physically and mentally. Even though I was quite literally travelling the world, I was having a terrible time. My anxiety was through the roof and by December I started having psychosomatic reactions. The doctors told me I had to change my lifestyle; I would have never imagined the stress to manifest physically."
It might seem odd that on-paper success could be "terrible" while Covid-induced precarity brings with it a new lease of life. But it makes a kind of sense that ZULI would thrive creatively in the conflicted limbo of lockdown, even managing to bounce back from the loss of two EPs' worth of music in a theft last year, finishing off his best and most club-ready record to date.
An introverted and sometimes oppositional character, when we met in Berlin in 2019 he voiced frustrations with the scene and doubts about whether he deserved his success. Things were going better then—he'd been living off his shows for a couple of years, and had a long European visa and a contract on a two-bedroom flat in a nice part of Cairo. Even so, he seemed aware of a tension between isolation and connection, as spells of travel would alternate with productive, but psychologically tough, alone time back in Cairo.
At the time, he identified the long periods of self-imposed isolation which fed into Terminal, his head-turning 2018 album, as bringing their own health risks. "That wasn't good for me at all. Psychologically it was bad. I'd rather not do that from a health perspective. But when I don't do it, to be frank I'm not as creative. I'm hesitant to admit this to myself, but it's becoming more and more apparent that this type of unhealthy isolation is kind of necessary for me to be in top form, to create."
The album's title has two meanings: one, as in transport terminal, referring to ZULI's status at the end of the line, on the fringes of the international scene; and a darker meaning, as in terminal illness, hinting at the effects of a life lived in constantly shifting gears. "That isolation coupled with travelling a lot has contributed to my growth," he told me. "Not necessarily upwards or in a positive way, just that I've changed a lot. My foundations—I keep demolishing them and building again."
ZULI's music, too, demolishes and rebuilds itself as a matter of course. I first met him in 2015, while writing a feature about VENT, the Cairo club he had set up with friends. Back then I heard two strands to his music-making: the queasy hip-hop he made as Swag Lee, in the early days of the Arabic hip-hop scene (his collaborator, the rapper Abyusif, is now legit famous); and hissy, Actress-style techno—then under the name XULI—which caught the ear of Lee Gamble.