Egypt, EDM and the long reach of the British Empire

The word “Egypt” is European. It is the Anglicization of the Greek word “Aiguptos,” which is turn means “the place where the projection of Ptah manifested,” Ptah being the demiurge of Memphis (a city named by the Greeks, as shown by the distinctive -is case ending) and one of the Neters, or creator gods. The word for “Egypt” literally is just a word for what was mythologized to have happened at Memphis; an entire country was named for one of its cities, sort of like if the word “United States” meant “That Which Occurred at New York City.”

The Greeks’ influence over the English language and over Western ideas is so engrained as to be unnoticeable. Take not only “Egypt,” but also “Asia,” which was the Greek term for everything beyond the known world, east of the Aegean Sea. There aren’t any clear geographic boundaries between Europe and Asia, plus the latter is so vast that its narrow implied meaning in many conversations – it is often just a stand-in for “China and nearby countries,” in the way that the the U.S. is a stand-in for “North America” – is at odds with the area that is nominally encloses.

With names that are themselves generalizations, Egypt, Asia, et al because empty vessels for broad-brushed statements about the economies, politics and cultures of these areas. “The Asian Century,” for instance, is such a general concept as to mean nothing but “even more of the power – albeit the same type of capitalistic economic power – will be concentrated outside the borders of Europe, in this Other that we’ve been building up or millennia.” Similarly, “Egyptian EDM/trance music” often means “music that is made by people from within these geographic boundaries,” rather than music that takes on particular characteristics of the local environment. Generic words are useful for spreading and reinforcing notions of globalization and homogenization.

I thought about the latter case while listening to Aly & Fila’s “Future Sound of Egypt” podcast, which is filled with hours of EDM tracks from Egyptian artists. If not for the voice-over about Cairo being the largest city in the Middle East (another big and vague term), though, one might not have any notion that this music was made in Egypt instead of the U.S. or the U.K. There aren’t any neys or unusual instruments. “Egypt” was originally conceived as a vast yet discrete area, tied to a Greek memory involving just one of its cities worldview, and in EDM at least it is now a country where most of the music is tied to European norms, just as its name and description were and still are.

Aly & Fila are an Egyptian duo that make some of the most melodic, memorable EDM today, in song- and album-sized chunks that more digestible than having to listen to, say, a full DJ set. Their last two albums, “Quiet Storm” and “The Other Shore” are useful introductions for anyone even mildly interested in vocal dance music. Throughout their songs, one can still see the long lineage of that original verbal colonization of Egypt by the Greeks (or even earlier by the Hebrews, whose word for Egypt situated it as the opposite of Israel; but Hebrew roots haven’t come over to English as visibly as Greek ones have).

Their songs are in English, plus many of their vocals are from the British singer Sue McLaren. In addition to being made into a vessel for the world-views of the ancient Greeks and Semites, Egypt has also been the subject of centuries of colonization by countries like France and the U.K., which only ended less than 60 years ago with the Suez Crisis. The cultural reach continues, however, in traditions like the love of football and the integration of English lyrics and album-like suites in the music of Aly & Fila. Listening to the latter, I think of this great quote from the book “Soccernomics,” about the ongoing cultural victories of the British Empire over the American Empire:

“This is a struggle between two very different types of empire: the British (which contrary to popular opinion still exists) and the American (which contrary to popular opinion may have never existed.”

Both countries have contributed to EDM and trance, although other former colonial empires (the Netherlands, for instance, which is the home of Aly & Fila’s record label, Armada, of many famous DJs) have had much more significant stakes in these genres than in Anglocentric ones like rock and hip-hop. EDM is about experience, but it is also about a globalized music industry with roots going all the back to the Greeks’ broad categorizations of countries, continents, and the people who live in them.

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