Simo Cell and Abdullah Miniawy‘s collaborative BFDM release wasn’t just a coming together of two sonically intriguing talents. Beyond the fusion of bass-heavy hybridism with Miniawy’s vocal and trumpet stylings, Kill Me Or Negotiate was the collision of two independent thinkers sharing similar sensibilities despite their disparate backgrounds.

Miniawy defies preconceptions of what an Arabic vocalist can and should be. A child of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution in 2011, he found his voice through music, subsequently becoming a mouthpiece for Egypt’s disenfranchised youth. Turning down lucrative opportunities with high-profile brands, Miniawy chose integrity and the message of revolutionary expression over financial gain – a quality many Western artists would do well to emulate. Instead, he sought out innovative souls for fusion-based collaboration, and it was that very ethos which brought him to Simo Cell’s Parisian studio.

Following the album’s release, they went head-to-head to reflect on the ephemeral nature of culture and art, politics in music, collaboration and more.

Simo Cell: Hello dear friend, here is an easy question to start! You mention Aly a few times in the lyrics of our record. Can you tell us more about him?

Abdullah Miniawy: I was a lawyer before, and before that I was in the police academy where I started running before getting my costume screaming I will sing dramatically, yes.

I studied international law for 3 years. I was known by musicians and poets on a very tiny scale as a new wave of mixing genres together – I had fans in Cairo, but I didn’t know them. Aly Talibab was doing exactly the same that I’m doing, but more on the ground. He was a great slameur, his texts were heard by the people. He is an artist who was born in the revolution… I wrote to him randomly saying “Aly, I wish to play a concert”, and the next day he invited me to a show in Tahrir Square for the first time in front of thousands of people during a huge protest. I went down off the stage after this night and the first thought popped up was, ‘shall I keep going with law or do I have to turn to art?’. 

Aly is my only friend from Egypt, yes! I don’t have many, also I lost many others. We did all the crazy shit together; we closed venues, we burnt protests, and we got chased. We even escaped to Europe together – to be Aly Talibab is not an easy deal! He refused to get paid at all for all his activity and was very solid and purely anti-capitalist, burning Egyptian currency on stage! Despite that, there were temptations. For example, candidates calling us to make them a song for their campaigns, getting dream offers from here and there to make music for big brands like Vodafone, Nokia etc. 

After some time people had rage crafted our creation, and our content as well! So he had to retire for the most noble reason! He didn’t want to put more people in jail as he didn’t want to feed them with what they expected, they believed him like Osho [Ranjeesh] so to speak! He used to receive from 10 to 50 letters a day from young prisoners in the last year before taking the decision to retire… They were cheering us up, praising our texts! They were blaming us tacitly for what they’ve been through.

 Ah, Aly! that’s an interview itself.

AM: Where are you politically? 

SC: Ah ah long question, how many hours do I have? Actions matter more than thoughts, so I guess you might have an idea 🙂

More than values or dogma, I can speak about my Modus Operandi in daily life! I try to embrace complexity as much as I can. It’s something I keep in mind all the time because things are always more complex than they appear. Basically, when you think you understand, try again! I follow the middle way: I try not to believe but to learn.

For me, giving everything you have to one main dogma/ideology/system of thought (no matter how you call it) is dangerous mentally. If you think through one prism, you get overly simple and binary answers. It’s the same if you spend most of your time in only one closed community or with people who think exactly like you. So I’m going from one system of thought to another, one small group to another, experimenting, questioning, taking what I like in it, and going elsewhere to cook my own soup, trying to develop a personal vision. The more I do it, the more I understand the opinions of others. I don’t belong to any dogma or ideology. Solitary, but solidarity! Curious and open to every situation because everything moves constantly. Panta Rhei!

One day you left Paris for a few days whereas you had meetings and things to do. We were supposed to make music together, and I didn’t understand why you left. Few months later, you told me to escape and to take a few days off because “I was looking terrible. I was under pressure.” Actually, it was some of the best advice someone ever gave me. I let it go, cut my phone, took a train, walked a lot, and met amazing people. It was like a reset. Thanks for this advice! Is it something you do a lot? And where do you go when you leave like this? What kind of stuff happened to you when you decided to let it go? 

AM: Yes it’s absolutely something I do most of the time, I mean I’m not in Egypt, I’m in a state of escape all the time. I love to dig that feeling where I feel complete on my own, and that’s why it never works in relationships for example! A sailor’s taxes, haha. I go to Munich in Germany when I escape. After 3 years in France I still don’t have a favourite place, park or even venue! I only love trashy atmosphere where dirt climbs the facades, like La Gare, Le Consulat and a few lovely caves… Normally when I tell you I’m escaping I stay home in a flight mode, I write or I read and I search for the tears in my solid eyes. I let the others go as I channel problematically, my body is a house for spirits believe it or not.

Would you live the same life you live currently if you had a newborn?

SC: Yes, and Yes. Every Mistake, every pain, every joy, every moment I went through. All of It!

“Oh, how could I not be ardent for Eternity and for the marriage-ring of rings—the ring of the return?
Never yet have I found the woman by whom I should like to have children, unless it be this woman whom I love: for I love thee, O Eternity!

Thus spake Zarathustra.

This album was created in my former studio, the room was small, we had latency issues, I didn’t know how to record a mic properly, we had to record lots of stuff twice or more… It was a very DIY process. If we record a new album, I guess we could have opportunities to go to a more professional studio. On the other hand, keeping this very naive and spontaneous process could be cool. Do you think that working in more comfortable conditions would impact the music we produce?

AM: Yes, I think so! We need to be more connected to bring a sound like that together, well isolated and comfortable like being in pyjamas… Studio time with a schedule could be nice for the final takes but this process of professional recording could also create something magic, such as the desire to give yourself 100%

SC: You do a lot of collaboration! How do you choose your projects and why did you collaborate with me?

AM: It’s really based on the human himself. I don’t choose, we choose each other I guess! I mean I frequently see plenty of people, artists! But connecting to someone feeds so much to the quality of the sound! I don’t comment or adjust anyones philosophy, I love to disassemble my style and redo the puzzle again depending on what I have in my hand to work with in a very narrow scale with no choice. I think of what I did before each time I bring a new note or a detune myself. I search for originality and all these things depend on the person. Basically I think of you while working together, do you see what I’m talking about? I work with you because I feel you’re a good person, I love how we match in our talks about human existence, the spiritual side you have that awakens mine in this industrial, extra-capitalistic life in Europe!. 

Would you collaborate with new singers or musicians again? Name a few artists.

SC: Working with you opened a lot of possibilities for my personal projects so I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for other collaborations. For now, I definitely want to collaborate with Roberto Aussel (my dad). He’s an amazing guitar player. 

How do you separate all your projects mentally and how do you manage to give something different and unique to each project?

AM: Artistically, exploring fusion is like filtering the ocean, it depends on the people I interact with, their own sound and character, the way they eat or they behave. I observe my partners and it helps me to communicate on many levels. I listen to advice all the time, and with a degree of care, I’m very open with art. I keep a tune or a colour for each project and I explore it, disassembling it in detail.

Mentally, I’m young. I’m just 26 and I constantly feel like I have something to give or talk about. I spend my entire day on the piano for example, and I put myself to bed by force sometimes to sleep. I’m passionate, I feel everything is art around me, and I never feel enough. For example, I’m exploring cinema and I’m publishing a book next year as well. I guess we got to flirt with all aspects. I was lucky to come from a literary background that made me see everything in metaphors and details. A pen for me is a plastic plastic roll that contains a tube of ink with a sharp tip that could be used for writing, painting or twinging. 

Do you think music is like furniture today?

SC: I know why you’re asking this question. To contextualise a bit, I bought a ‘70s sideboard a few weeks ago. It’s so heavy, the sideboard weighs 70 or 80 kilos… I live on the 2nd floor, and the stairs are not so big… It took us more than an hour to find how to move it and to set it up. And we broke the furniture legs ahah…

It made me realise something. This little piece of furniture tells so much about life and how it changed recently. Back in the day, we used to build very strong objects, solid pieces impossible to unscrew. This sideboard is complicated to move, but it’s also the kind of object you keep throughout your whole life, it’s pure and made by a cabinetmaker. Today, furniture is light and built in kits. It is designed to be moved easily and quickly, from an apartment to another, to a city to another. In fact, by observing a simple object, you can see how life became faster and lighter in a few decades. Everything has to be convenient and quick, we want everything in a minute. Such a different life philosophy, it’s fascinating

Back to the question, I don’t think music is like furniture today, but I think furniture, music, or whatever tells us a lot about our modern lives. Fast fashion, fast food, fast furniture… Quantity over quality, going from one topic to another without digging and taking time to question things. It’s very easy to follow this way because it provides immediate satisfaction for the mind, but it’s a big trap. That said, if you take time to open your eyes and really dig, tons of exciting stuff is coming out. This is very true for music! So my vision about life and music is still very optimistic, as long as you don’t fall in the trap…

SC: You are performing live on stage with many other musicians. You once told me how “you have to give your best and to show them”. Could you define the borders and the touch points between competition and collaboration on stage?

AM: The audience want you to give them what they want. If you say an Arabic singer a huge number of people will undoubtedly expect the Oud; if you say a DJ a huge number of people think of tomorrow land. That’s what you fight against when you are on the stage, that’s the borderline – it’s the place where you have to purify yourself completely to elevate your ego high till it leaves your body. Then you become naked in a negotiation with your devil fighting to jump back inside yourself again, you see? That could cause the feeling of a competition, but again in the eyes of the audience. 

Competition and collaboration are two faces for the same coin on stage… It’s a thin line and you must walk it, if you forget your weight you will fall and you will fuck the whole show up… It’s like a boxing ring: you kiss your competitor at the end of each match, or you take the fight out of the ring! It’s a sort of love, no?

SC: Do you remember the mainstream track we started to write together at the studio (“we’re living in the hiiiighway !”)? Do you think you (or we) will explore this territory at some point?

AM: Yes, I have some surprises for you.

What career advice would you have for me? 

SC: Build a solid team around you that you can trust no matter what.

You’re learning French. I would love to see you writing in French. Do you think this day will come?

AM: Yes, I want to badly! If I overcome my Oxford french! Yes, why not! I wrote something inspired from Mille Bornes that starts “brebis galeuse mets la carte rouge sur ma tête”.

Can you teach me a new expression in French?  

SC: J’en ai gros sur la patate!

Kill Me Or Negotiate is out now on BFDM | Buy it here

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