The Mix 008: Moktar - Music - Mixmag

The Mix 008: Moktar

Egyptian-born, Sydney-based DJ and producer Moktar takes us on a sonic journey through his dual realities for The Mix and speaks to Fraser Dahdouh about UK influence, his early chillwave career and the importance of speaking out

  • Fraser Dahdouh
  • 11 April 2024

There's an antipodal tension to Moktar’s productions, pulling his sound out of any specific place and time and urging you to think about what the music represents. Arabic folk percussion is jerked into arrangements with floating references and histories of the dancefloor, teetering between melancholy to woozy, top-heavy breakbeat with delicate precision.

Born in Cario, but raised in Australia, Moktar Sharouny grew up "surrounded by music," primarily from his father — ochestral conductor Emad el Sharouny. Growing up with traditional Arabic music, and watching his father gave Sharouny a "desire to create, to move people with sound" he says. "The rhythm of traditional Egyptian tunes, with the work of my father’s arrangements. Watching him definitely ignited something within me."

"At the time I never really paid attention," Moktar continues. "I sort of took it for granted. My dad was a lot more active when I was younger but because of my internalised racism, I tried to stay away from Arabic music. I guess I just wanted to be accepted. It was his influence shaped my passion and set me on this journey to share my love for music with the world."

Sharouny would enter the dance music sphere after spending the best part of a decade playing the guitar as part of a chillwave duo — though after enduring the constraints of chasing radio plays, Moktar found home in the broken beats of UK dance music, and inspiration from hybrid acts such as Mount Kimbie. Negotiating a path between his influences has not been simple, having been immersed in his musician father’s own classical folk compositions during his upbringing, Moktar has had to break with conventions in writing his melodies to make the switch to dance music work.

The narrative nature of his DJ selections has shone through from his early funk and hip hop fuelled mixes - featuring Arabic grooves, vocals, and motifs. Spending his teen years skating and listening to indie music, he attributes his late discovery of hip hop, funk and soul to an awakening to a world of music where identity wasn’t something to be suppressed. His syncopated, percussion-forward compositions are a more direct nod to diaspora life and ruminations on his Middle Eastern heritage; the driving force behind the musical project that began with his STEEL CITY DANCE DISCS debut, ‘Silk’, in 2021.

While an orientation toward traditional Arabic sounds could be viewed as playing it safe, relying on nostalgia, or more seriously - an attempt to reproduce orientalist tropes by ignoring the contemporary club sounds coming out of the region — Moktar's sets involve a far broader sonic palette of the Middle East than instrumentation. Through his utilisation of modern vocal clippings, Moktar offers crowds oral testimony of colonial violence and displacement, demanding solidarity from those attending dancefloors today in the face of these enduring histories.

Read this next: Arabs Do It Better: the party championing Arabic music in the Holy Land

His 2022 EP 'Immigrant', also on SCDD touches on this, with tracks that progress from the tabla and oud-laden breakbeats of Al-Duqqi – named for the district of Giza in which he was born – via a title track that evokes the disjuncture and intensity of a citizenship test and alienating experience of migrating to Australia.

The success of this deeply-personal release has seen Sharouny develop a die-hard fanbase both at home and abroad, with Moktar having graced the decks of Sugar Mountain, Waterworks, Strawberry Fields and an upcoming slot at Barcelona's Sónar in June — while club crowds at The Warehouse Project, Fuse, Phonox and more have also been treated to his immersive, groove-laden sets.

Now riding off the back of a jam-packed Australian festival season, a BBC Radio 1 debut and his first release in two years 'Hatgawez' - a 160 BPM reimagining of Saad El Soghayar's wedding anthem - we sit down eleven hours apart from one another to talk boycotts, his father's opinion on his music and how being an outcats in his teens has shaped his sound. Check out the Q&A and latest edition of The Mix below.

You've had a pretty jam-packed Aussie festival season this year, how do you feel now it's drawing to an end?

I’m doing well, it’s been a pretty wild season where I’ve just played Pitch Festival, which I’d call our version of Waterworks in Sydney. A lot of us ended up going b2b at this club called the Ivy on an all-night, which was fun - I went back to back with Skin On Skin and Sam Alfred. This part of the year in Australia is like when the UK has Field Day, right at the end of summer when people start rinsing those last few weeks into the bigger festivals as the summer ends.

That’s hard news for UK ears right now as we inch towards the end of a long and wet winter…

Yeah, you’re used to it man. We’re not made for it!

Things got going for you pretty quickly after your debut single ‘Silk’ dropped on Steel City Dance Disks in 2021 – what's the backstory to this release and what was the journey like to get there?

I guess I’ve been pretty heavily involved with music over the last 10 years, this project was taking the next step towards club-focused music. It was a sharp turn from what I was doing before, as I come from a background of live music. Even having a release with SCDD — I mean, I didn't know much about the scene, even where to play and the places in London associated with the sounds I draw from. When you’re in live music, you can get pigeonholed - that’s your world and that tends to be all that you tend to see, it shapes your algorithms and your whole life exists within it. The opportunity to be part of the electronic music scene has been great, every day has been super generative, asking what I can do next and how I can improve my production or mixing whilst working on upcoming releases.

Can you tell me a little about your live music days? Does that have much of a bearing on the way you work today?

I used to play the electric guitar in a chillwave duo, it sounded a bit like early Flume — there was a time when we thought we might be able to do it full-time. Like many things it didn’t work out and we went our separate ways, but it was a really formative experience. I learned a lot, and we met a lot of cool people. But I don’t think it ever felt right, you’ve gotta find your feet and see where you belong. I think the two worlds, those two parts of my life... they’re pretty different. We were much more focused on getting more commercial plays I guess, and working with another person can be a limit to your creativity. I had one taste, he had another, and sometimes you're creatively clashing.

As I got older, I found myself wanting to make something that was a little more meaningful, because we’d wound up making music for radio rather than for ourselves. I got stuck in that world. It can happen quite easily to people. Once you get your first radio play you start wondering “How can we do it again?” rather than “How can we make music that we like?” I think it’s a very common mistake. But I learned a lot from it, from going on tour to using Ableton – that’s been a huge help.

If Moktar as a project is you pivoting to explore themes you were more creatively interested in, what was it that pushed you towards electronic music in the end?

I feel like it was Mount Kimbie for me, their earlier stuff in particular emerges out of the club scene. I’m pretty sure they started off as DJs, then people like James Blake and Floating Points – I was really attracted to getting stuck into both worlds where they could do the live stuff and DJ.

Even with 'Silk', there are are a lot of live elements - I played guitar and bass for it. It’s definitely what I’d like to continue to do as I move forward, I’d definitely like to build on a lot of those elements and make a record that would be played outside of a club context. Of course, big artists are doing that right now, I mentioned Floating Points, but Four Tet does it all the time, even Djrum and Leon Vynehall. I’ve taken inspiration from all of those guys; they just do what they like and don’t just stick to one thing.

When it came to releasing 'Silk', a few folks I know had a direct line to the STEEL CITY DANCE DISCS guys, only a few people knew what I was working on at the time. My manager then came to me and he suggested that we should hit [Mall Grab] up; he thought it could be a mutually beneficial arrangement as he knew they were looking for a slightly different sound on their roster, with something that would resonate really well in the UK as well as Australia.

Being part of SCDD has opened doors I never knew existed. It's all about the community, the vibe, the passion for underground music. And let me tell you, being a part of that scene, it's like being part of a family. We're all pushing boundaries, challenging norms, and creating something truly special together. It's not just about the music; it's about the culture, the movement. And I'm grateful every day to be a part of it.

Read this next: Listen to a playlist of skateboarding tracks curated by Jenkem and SCDD

Why do you think the UK sound struck such a chord with you?

I’ve always been into the UK scene, I see the music from the UK as a real source of inspiration, with The Streets having a great effect on me early on. I think that comes out naturally in all of my production, even though I try to morph my Arabic background in there, I think the main source of my production is always going to be structurally more westernised – then I add my flavour. The UK also has a big influence on Australia in general, of course, whether it's music or football. We’re definitely more culturally connected to you guys than anywhere else in the world.

Are there any venues you have visited that have had a big influence on you?

There are too many to count. From the iconic clubs of Sydney to the legendary dance floors of Berlin, each venue has its own unique charm and energy. But if I had to pick one, it'd have to be this little underground spot in Sydney called Club 77 – a hidden gem tucked away. There's something magical about that place – the raw energy, the sense of freedom, the feeling that anything is possible. It's moments like those that remind me why I do what I do – to create memories, to bring people together, and to share the music that moves us all.

Last year when I spoke with Toumba he explained some of the differences between the diaspora scene and those living and working in the region, eschewing traditional Arabic instrumentation and samples in production for a focus on microtonality and timbre

I feel like a lot of the current Middle Eastern artists like Toumba, and especially a lot of those in Egypt, are way more experimental rather than making a traditional dance record. That scene has been quite close to the Dekmantel sound and has gained a load of respect in the underground scene. I think my approach has definitely been closer to the commercial side of things as I feel like I’m a bit more connected to that.

You were involved in live music etc over the past decade but then comes this pivot to electronic music and DJing – what was your experience with that and what was the scene you were in?

I had always DJed but always at house parties, when I released the EP with STEEL CITY DANCE DISCS I realised – aw shit! – I’m gonna have to stop ripping YouTube to MP3. I got really into and really enjoyed making mixtapes and live mixes. The last three years have been heavily involved with really trying to create my own sound – I tend to genre hop sometimes, but I think people have come to expect that when they see me and enjoy it – I get really bored you know. When I make a mixtape though I get it to sound seamless and try to have fun with it, break the rules a little bit.

Genre-policing is as weak as it’s ever been right now, I don’t know what the reception would have been like 5 or 10 years ago but my sense is that crowds were less receptive to genre-hopping. I’m interested in how you perceive your DJing style developing since you started out, have you self-consciously switched to selections you considered more serious than what you’d play at house parties?

I've definitely broadened my view of club music, I’ve always been a big fan of percussion and use it a lot in my sets – then I realised there were hard drums, there was bass music, and the dubbier side. Being able to find other artists from the Middle East doing the same thing and getting inspired by them, I try so hard to keep trying to find fresh new music from the Middle East but it gets tricky as I’m always trying to find fresh new music from the region as there's only so much out there. Though I try to play Arabic-sounding stuff sometimes I have to lean into other things to keep it fresh…. I’m probably a little addicted to buying music and spending a little too much on records. But now I’m starting to realise that I’m never playing the same set – at all!

I just can't do it, every new space, each new city I change the set a little bit as people resonate differently to certain things – you know Bristol is a different place to London. In Bristol, you could definitely get away with going bass-heavy, playing a lot of breaks. They love drum 'n' bass there, whilst I’m not a drum and bass DJ, I can get pretty close sometimes. Maybe it's just the crowd I was playing to, but that’s what I’ve always heard about Bristol. London on the other hand, I feel is pretty close to Australia, so I feel super at ease playing out there.

Does your dad listen to your music?

Yeah, he respects it. It’s not his scene but he likes it. It's not something he’d listen to, but he’s a musician so he understands that this is something that has its own qualities.

Does he see his influence on your melodies and percussion?

He’s pretty critical, the way he views the music lends itself to him suggesting “Why didn’t you add this, or that?” as he has a very critical way of thinking. He has his own system of how music should be thought out and written out; he views it from a classical perspective. One day, I would actually love to work with him, being able to hone in on that Arabic folk sound would be awesome, to cut a whole record like that.

Does he have a favourite of your tracks?

Yeah, he likes 'Lemon'. He loves the festive tabla from that track, he doesn’t say much but he gives me a little thumbs up, maybe “this is good.”

On the 'Immigrant' EP you got a bit more political, remarking on your own sense of racialisation while growing up in Sydney followin the 2005 Cronulla race riots. How did that impact you at the time and where does the Immigrant EP sit about those feelings?

Growing up in that era definitely produced a lot of hurdles for me, it’s a very white part of Sydney and it’s a famous beach south of Bondi – you're close to Sydney but still a bit far removed and much whiter. It definitely shaped what I’m trying to achieve, and what the content of my message is. Having grown up through that, it stirred a lot of tension between the Arab and white communities.

In that post-9/11 era, it made things pretty tricky as an Arab, you weren’t really given a chance. You can even see today that with social media and all of the evidence of what happens in the world people are still so far removed internally in their way of viewing other cultures and I feel like the fear of understanding a culture is usually what drives people to be quite hostile towards it.

Not having a true understanding of what I was doing or eating, then it seemed dangerous and you got bullied for it or you would have people that didn’t really like you as they considered you as not worth their time. Being an outcast – that really helps That definitely, as I got older, made me not want to hide from that anymore, and I really wanted to push what I was doing through music. Pumping that message to really promote my culture, feel strong about it, and not hide from it.

Was your experiences and ideas of musical practice in your teen years shaped by this sense of being an outcast? Was music a way of escaping or engaging it?

Music was always number one – after skating – as a form of escape, but I also grew up with a lot of white friends. I didn’t have problems with racism with them as we were quite close, hanging out and being part of the group would help. But think subconsciously I pushed a lot of my heritage away anyway and didn’t want to impose it on people in my life. You know, I grew up listening to The Smiths, Joy Division, and even The Wombats.

I didn’t even get into hip hop until after school, I really got into ‘90s hip hop and then you learn about where their influences came from and hear blues, funk, soul, and disco – you realise this music isn’t coming from white people. Even just running into Habibi Funk, his collection of music and what he brings out blew my mind, I didn’t realise people from the Middle East were making that sort of music and I felt this real sense of connection, that universal language tracing those same influences. So, I feel that people are more receptive to world music now.

Read this next: "Maintaining the essence": Toumba is taking Levantine-inspired club music to the next level

2023 was a big year for you, having toured all over Europe, playing some major lineups and venues — who are the people that shaped the standout moment of that journey for you?

I was pretty lucky, one of my first shows overseas was with Mr. Scruff, who kind of introduced me to the idea that this could be a viable, long-term project. He’s a bit older; he’s been in the game for a while. It was a bit of a wake-up call to see someone who is not just very invested but takes it really seriously. So, I learned a lot from him and we still chat every now and then, we’re always sharing music so I pick his brain a fair bit.

Otherwise, going to places like UNFOLD has been really cool, that could be the club that is actually pushing the energy that people think Berghain is doing, it's cool to see the UK community supporting this sort of scene. I remember going there by myself and I had a lot of fun, I don’t normally love hectic techno over long periods but I got really invested in it on that day. The scene, the people there, that was so friendly.

I spent the last two years coming to live in London for 3 or 4 months each time, that taught me a lot about the scene and the people, what works and what doesn’t in certain areas, as each bit of London has its own thing. Whether you're in the East or South, the people change, the culture changes and what works changes. We don’t really have that in Australia, it’s quite tight, it’s generally live music or Mall Grab-influenced techno.

Last year I missed the opportunity to play Glastonbury as I had the opportunity to curate a show back home where I’d invite Nooriyah down to Sydney which I really wanted to prioritise.

You've been vocal about the role artists must take in active solidarity to Palestinians — particularly through the use of boycotts and publically speaking out against state complicity in the ongoing violence in Gaza. What has this commitment meant for you as an artist?

If you have a platform I think it's important to be able to get that message across. Even if it's through DJing, some people might not understand that as it may be considered a "haram" thing. If you’re from a Western country, it's one of the best ways we can do it as well — I really want to push the focus onto what is happening. Ensuring that people do understand that it’s not about us out here in Australia or in Europe. I don’t want people to forget that this is going on just because we’re at a festival.

Now that I’ve vocalised a lot of this, I’ve seen some of the ugly sides of the music scene as well. You understand the people are trying to profit off of this or would like to avoid working with you. For my upcoming UK tour this June, I’ve only been booked for two shows whereas last year I was booked for fourteen. It can be quite scary but you’ve got to stay strong and keep the community with you, you’re stronger in numbers and we’re definitely having an effect. I feel that a lot of the people in the industry sit in the right place but a lot of folks are being silenced, it really shows the difference between last year and this year and how rapidly it's changed for me.

There's this power that electronic music, as a modern music-from has to take samples from everyday life, samples of oral testimony, and relocate them into an emotionally rich environment. This can be heard in the recording of your Meredith set among others, what's your process behind selecting archival audio for these moments and what is the politics of that?

I try to go for clips people will relate to, at Meredith, I knew people would relate to a certain sound so I clicked on that by giving them a sound they’d be interested in hearing alongside a really clear message. I think it's important to create that atmosphere, as a DJ you're creating that environment for people so you need to set the mood and create a really strong memory for people.

Meredith is one of those festivals where you’ll get the most supportive crowd in the world, you’re also playing to an older crowd. Most of these people don’t go clubbing all the time so you don’t want to scare the shit out of them, but enjoy playing to a crowd like that as I kind of get them as I came from that world. Maybe they’d prefer to see bands, but I really enjoyed playing that set because the crowd had me feeling super comfortable.

It's all about creating an experience – a journey that takes the audience on a ride they won't soon forget. And for me, there are a few key elements that contribute to that. I spend hours curating playlists, fine-tuning my sets to build energy, tell a story, and keep the crowd moving from start to finish. But it's not just about playing tracks; it's about reading the room, feeding off the energy of the crowd, and adjusting on the fly to keep the vibe alive.

Then there's the atmosphere. From the lighting to the visuals to the overall vibe of the venue, every element plays a role in shaping the experience. Whether it's an intimate underground club or a massive festival stage, I thrive on creating an atmosphere that transports people to another world – even if it's just for a few hours.

Is this something that you talk about with your dad at all and do you feel a difference between the approach to the political across generations and genres?

I think for my parent's generation there's a little bit of trauma so when we speak about politics, they don’t have much to say, in Egypt people get imprisoned for being outspoken and political. We are impassioned people and my family has always felt very upset about it; they have always taught me about it. You know, whenever we’d go on holiday in the north of Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh we’d always wind up getting stuck in checkpoints as we got nearer the Israeli border. I think that politically, my dad has never had a way of trying to get the message across through his music.

Is that still shaping your work? What's coming next?

It's the early stages, I’m just trying to create as much music as possible so that I can look back at it and figure out where everything is gonna go. For now, I don’t want to plan it too much. Sonically, the sounds I’m making are less for the clubs, I’m going to keep following this route and see what happens, whilst making a few club-oriented edits, scaling up a whole load of acapella from Omar Suleiman, and working with some traditional Arabic vocalists as well. I’m not putting any restraints on what I'd like to do and how I want it to sound and see where it takes me.

I always like to get into the studio with people whose music I find interesting, I’ve been talking to nour, she’s really blown up recently but yeah, we’re chatting and we’re trying to get some stuff out together. Because I have a background in producing, I’m trying to write some things with her, that’s been cool. I’m always running into people when they’re on tour and trying to get a studio session in, I recently caught up with Ahadadream over and we wrote a few things. I’m just trying to start a lot of these projects and follow through on them, which is always the hard part but I’m keeping focussed and being disciplined with the work.

Looking at my most recent release where I crafted a fresh interpretation of Saad El Soghayar's classic 'Hatgawez' was a true labour of love for me. Growing up listening to his music, I've always been inspired by the timeless melodies and infectious rhythms of Egyptian shaabi music. So, when the opportunity arose to put my own spin on one of his iconic tracks, I jumped at the chance.

But it wasn't just about reimagining the song; it was about paying homage to the original while adding my own unique flair. I wanted to capture the essence of the original while infusing it with a modern electronic twist – blending traditional Arabic instrumentation with pulsating beats and hypnotic synths. I’ve tried to make a track that's both nostalgic and forward-thinking, honouring the past while embracing the future. It's a celebration of Egyptian culture, a tribute to the music that shaped me, and a testament to the power of collaboration across generations and genres.

Can you tell us a bit about your mix?

I aimed to blend my cultural roots, as always, and my passion for electronic music — creating a musical journey that resonates with contemporary expression using soundscapes and traditional percussive sounds. I wanted to take things to a dark room in a club at 3:AM with heavy beats, driving basslines, and sonic Arabic sounds. Each track on my mix is an insight of what’s been inspiring me with my production and ongoing progression of my musical journey.

Listen to Moktar's ‘Haraka’ here.

Hassan Abou Alam - Mawgood
Scalymoth - Trashy
lilen - needing
DJ Gerard - Platform
SSSLIP - On Pillars
Teqmun - Continue
Batu - False Reed
Elpac - Hard Body
Mossambi - Reptate (Holloway Remix)
LUXE - lucky star
Tomás Urquieta - Parte 3

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