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The Dwarfs of East Agouza Break Down Their Improvisational Music

Founded in Cairo by Maurice Louca, Sam Shalabi, and Alan Bishop, The Dwarfs of East Agouza create improvisational, free-spirited music that touches upon jazz and krautrock, combined with influences of Arabic and Egyptian Shaabi music. On stage, the trio embraces their improvisational dynamic, resulting in exciting and spontaneous shows that allow them to venture into whatever musical direction they feel like playing. “It’s like we each throw a thousand balls in the air, juggling them amongst each other.”

Improvisation can be incredibly tough. It requires tons of skill, overlapping sensibilities, some form of principle or structure and a lot of trying. The Dwarfs of East Agouza have mastered this near alchemic form of music making, as heard on their stellar album Bes (2016) and their upcoming new album High Tide In The Lowlands. Before their live performance at Rewire 2023, the Cairo-based trio reveals some of their tricks, sharing how their live performances and studio albums came about. 

You are all veteran musicians from a variety of other musical projects and groups. What was your initial impetus to collaborate and perform together? 

Alan Bishop: Geography. We all lived in the same building in the Agouza district of Cairo.

How has the dynamic and creative process of this collaborative project evolved over the years?  

AB: All very naturally. We never rehearse – we just play, which makes the Dwarfs liberating and something I always look forward to, regardless of the length of the intervals in between our shows. 

In an ideal setting, what kind of dynamic are you looking for amongst one and another when performing on stage?  

Sam Shalabi: I’d say that’s quite a pragmatic question, because the “ideal setting” is already there in a sense, because we can’t really make music if we’re not listening to each other. Since that's how we make all of our music, the “ideal setting” is always a given when we play together. But when it comes to performing, if the sound is right – like the monitor mixes and our proximity to each other – and we basically can hear each other well, then we have found our ideal setting. 

As your music relies on collaboration and improvisation, do you implement an underlying structure or philosophy that you all adhere to? Do you also allow yourself to break out of those structures and what does that look like? 

SS: We are all interested in similar things and we are listening to and looking for similar things in music. We are not even interested in “free improvisation” per se – all of us are rather very interested in what Steve Lacy calls “composing on your feet.” In a way, it’s like we each throw a thousand balls in the air, juggling them amongst each other. All of those make sense to us. While not putting any restrictive labels on what it is that “makes sense” to us, our music is always that high-wire act between composition and chaos. So we allow anything that works or that is generative in that context to exist. It could be something very song-like or something completely free and open and unknown. Listening closely and a deep trust are crucial to that.

How would you describe the differences in the creative process between performing on stage and working together in a studio-setting on the recording of your music? 

SS: There’s very little difference, except that we include the audience, the room, the vibe, and the particular time/space in the process when we perform live. However, if you remove the audience from what I just said, performing live or playing in the studio is exactly the same.