CAIRO (Reuters) - The mostly black-clad crowd goes wild in a frenzy of slam dancing to the music of heavy metal band Black Sabbath, played by Egyptian rockers on a placid bank of the Nile river.
Heavy metal musicians and fans, once branded as dangerous Satanists by the Cairo government, are making a quiet comeback in deeply conservative Egypt, where they are trying to avoid missteps that sent hard rock music to the gallows in the mid-1990s.
It has taken heavy metal artists and fans years to crawl back to the limelight and in the meantime a new generation of rockers has emerged, playing safe and imposing self-censorship to avoid accusations of devil worship.
Moanis Salem, 28, whose band Invaders was formed in 2006, said he has had no problems with the police or complaints from the cultural center.
“We are not playing tracks of a blasphemous nature or glorifying Satan. We are not seeking trouble,” he said.
Salem, who has also played with homegrown band Divine, said the new generation of hard rockers was fortunate to have the Internet to communicate with fans.
But he regretted the low turnout at concerts, which are mostly held at the Sawy Cultural Wheel on Zamalek, a Nile island close to downtown Cairo.
“Now we use the Internet to communicate with people, announce times of concerts and share our music with fans but to tell you the truth old is gold. Thousands used to rock in. Not any more. The largest crowd we had in Sawy Center was 350 fans.”
Arabic-speaking Egypt is not naturally heavy metal-friendly territory and the genre draws small audiences. Arabic songs and Western pop and rap stars are more popular.
In the 1990s, hard rock concerts took place regularly and were packed with screaming fans, mostly wealthy or upper middle class youth. Homegrown bands such as Steel Edge, Cartoon Killers and Andromeda shot to prominence.
But that stopped when police arrested scores of fans in 1997, including some who languished in jails for weeks over accusations they belonged to a Satanic cult aimed at spreading drugs and sexual freedom.
Egypt’s mufti, the government’s expert on religious law, branded heavy metal fans apostates, but said that given their youth they should be asked to repent. Ultimately the charges did not stick and all the detainees were released.
Heavy metal artists in Cairo say they were simply misunderstood and the crackdown was an attempt to divert attention from tough economic times.
“I attended most of the concerts and gigs and saw no contempt for religion or the ritual sacrifice of cats,” fan Ahmad Mamdouh said.
“Bands playing death metal were few indeed and their audience was limited. You can’t label heavy metal Satanists just because a band or two played Deicide or Morbid Angel.”
Metalheads have also suffered image problems in Egypt, where many people find it odd that a man should wear earrings, let alone make-up like the members of U.S. rock band KISS.
Police who guarded big concerts in the 1990s gaped in astonishment at the sight of well-off long-haired fans in shiny cars, dressed in black shirts with imprints of skulls or mythical creatures.
Mostafa Mahmoud of the Egyptian band Vyrus, which survived the crackdown but split up in 2000, said the music bounced back quickly, but cautiously, to avoid any trouble.
“We played in 1997, several months after the arrests, and gave another concert in 1998 attended by 450 fans,” said Mahmoud. “Rock did not die — that was the message.”
For years to come heavy metal musicians continued to perform in smaller gatherings in villas on the outskirts of Cairo to avoid attracting the eyes of Egyptian state security.
No more posters appeared in middle-class clubs or universities. Black shirts vanished and gigs were more like underground activities. Some fans even destroyed their records.
Today’s rockers have gone beyond doing covers of Metallica or Megadeth and started to create their own music.
Salem said all the Invaders needed was a chance to record an album.
“We have originals. We played them live and the people liked them. All we need is a producer and let’s hope a debut album could be released somewhere in time.”
Writing by Emad Abdalla, editing by Paul Casciato