Sandbox is leading the charge for Egypt's newly burgeoning dance music era - Features - Mixmag

Sandbox is leading the charge for Egypt's newly burgeoning dance music era

Celebrating its 10th anniversary on the Red Sea, Sandbox is a forerunner in Middle Eastern electronics, bringing local and international stars to boutique crowds

  • Words: Gemma Ross
  • 21 June 2024

On a balmy night in May, the Egyptian town of El Gouna is teeming with locals. Old friends are embracing, others clinking glasses over the sound of live music, some simply soaking up the lively atmosphere. Nadine Salama, who was a Sandbox Festival veteran long before she bagged a job with the event team in 2023, is making her way around the town, giving her friends a quick peck on the cheek as they declare their excitement for the festival to begin the following day. “Everyone looks forward to Sandbox,” Nadine explains. “It’s the most exciting time of the year.”

While there’s no shortage of dance music festivals in the Western World, in Egypt, the annual sundown-to-sunrise three-dayer stands largely alone. Along with a small handful of electronic music-focused events taking place around the country - including a newly established event series at the pyramids in Giza where the likes of Carl Cox and Black Coffee have made appearances - Sandbox is leading the charge for Egypt’s new dance music era and showing why, in its 10th year, these types of events are more in demand than ever.

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In May, Sandbox returned to its regular coastal site with a packed three-day music programme. Sharing the same Red Sea coastline and arid desert landscapes as its sistering resort destination Hurghada just further south (where an estimated five million tourists flock each year), El Gouna is much quieter but shines at this time of year with the return of Sandbox. The site itself sits amongst that desolate terrain, with stages carefully crafted to the topography of the land, even billing itself the first-ever festival to use sand as a means for stage design and sound isolation.

By day, the Sandbox site is a lush, open expanse stretching into the sea. On top of its daily beachside music programme, Sandbox offers a place to cool off under the burning desert sun with a span of activities nestled into the waterfront – yoga, breathwork, meditation, and other holistic classes are on the shelf to purge yesterday’s hangover. By night, Sandbox reels 5,000 visitors into a showy playground, with six stages primed and prepped for night-long takeovers. Of its 5,000 yearly visitors, 32% of the crowds travel in from abroad, a figure that Sandbox founder Tito El Kachab says is on the rise annually.

“We’re growing, especially regionally in terms of Arab countries, but we’re making headway in Europe too,” he explains. Tito quips that the line-up - which this year features the likes of DJ Tennis, TSHA, and Soichi Terada - doesn’t meet “Europe’s standard announcement time”, meaning less Europeans will be tempted to book a last-minute trip over to Egypt with the bill dropping just a month before showtime. But that’s okay, because Sandbox embraces its local crowds. “The hype is growing, but we’re not really growing in capacity. With more people, the festival changes character, so we want to keep it this size.”

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Take one look at the roster and you’ll see exactly why that hype is growing outside of Egypt each year. Plenty of major international stars are here to perform to boutique crowds, and they’re given the same length slots as local, emerging artists. “We’ve always had a 50/50 split of local and regional talent, it’s important to us that everyone gets billed equally across the whole line-up,” says Tito. “We’ve given local artists later slots, and it has proved successful as those stages are always packed late at night.”

A large swathe of Sandbox’s local talent is put up on the festival’s new Secret Stage, which, as the name implies, is hidden on the festival grounds and requires some hunting down to find. This year, the stage is tucked away at the back of the site behind an unassuming doorway, only given away by the punters trickling in and out as the night passes. Inside is an enclosed but open-air stage twinkling under the Egyptian stars, where local artists take the spotlight over three days.

Amongst the local artists opening the Secret Stage on Thursday night is Cairo-hailing Hassan Abou Allam, who locks in with a selection of bass, breaks, and glitchy techno from start to finish. “I had complete freedom in playing the music that I liked,” Hassan tells Mixmag after his set. “It's always a pleasure to play at Sandbox.”

On the international end of the scale, artists from the likes of Sweely, TSHA, and Chloé Caillet are left in charge of the warm-up on night one, each deploying feel-good house bumpers across the evening. Chloé Caillet, who provides the final set of the night over on the main stage packed with plenty of unreleased tracks, says she felt “right at home” on stage, and even met a few new fans. “This was my first time performing at a festival in Egypt and it really was so special,” she explains.

On Friday, crowds are sprawling through the site as the sun falls down behind the mountains. Suze Ijó steps up to the Sandbox Stage, one of the festival’s largest and longest-running open-air stages perched next to the sea, lending lower frequencies to the night. Before passing over the ropes to Japanese polymath Soichi Terada, the pair embrace, and in he goes to deliver a soul-stirring live performance running through piano house to buoyant disco. Over on the Groovebox Stage, an enclosed, multi-levelled space and another fan-favourite location that has stood the test of time (and some sketchy DIY adaptations, per Tito), Detroit’s DJ Holographic is holding down the fort, bringing the night to an ecstatic close.

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Cairo-born artist Omar Fayyad shifts Saturday into gear with a selection of heads-down house and 2-steppers over on the Secret Stage. On the festival’s final day, it’s the local talent that really shines through, particularly over at the Selectbox Stage, an intimate on-site club kicking the BPM up above 130. Cairo’s Maria Saba shells techy wobblers and breakbeats late into the night as passers-by peek into the miniature club room, some carousing in. “The organisation at Sandbox is insane,” Maria tells Mixmag. “It’s amazing to see a festival like this happening in Egypt on the Red Sea, I’m really glad to have been a part of it this year,” she says. Adding a little UK sensibility to the night’s close, Call Super picks up where Eclair Fifi left off in the Groovebox, punching through bouncy house and slower chuggers into the wee hours.

From its international bookings right down to homegrown talent, Sandbox gives Egyptian dance music fans a rare but necessary opportunity to get in front of their favourite artists from all over the world in one space. With few festivals similar in this part of the world, it's no wonder Sandbox has become so revered by fans, who return year on year and even induct their friends and family into the Sandbox legion. It’s a festival for Egyptians, run by Egyptians, and a rare chance to be part of something bigger. “It’s a release," says Nadine. “We need Sandbox to feel free."

Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Assistant Editor, follow her on Twitter

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