JellyZone’s founder, Donia Shohdy, completed a degree in editing at a film institute in Egypt and worked in the field for the majority of her twenties before moving on to engage with her affinity for music. Music was always a part of her childhood; Donia used to play the flute at the Cairo Opera House and went on to develop an interest in jazz during her teenage years. “My parents used to listen to a lot of music and all of it was very different and from across lots of different genres. They mostly listened to underground artists so I developed a love for all kinds of genres, including local music.”
What started as Donia throwing house parties in her home back in 2015, simply so that people could dance, let loose and have a good time, turned into arguably one of Cairo’s coolest and most accessible, experimental party series. “When I first started throwing parties it was just about having a good time, until I realised that I enjoyed throwing them and was good at it. I knew how to plan a good line up and when to shift the energy.” One of Donia’s main priorities in curating these spaces was to make sure that all kinds of different people, whether they ran in the same circles or not, could feel safe and enjoy themselves. “I enjoyed being able to serve people in this way and found it fulfilling to create a good, safe time for them to party and feel happy.” As well as safety, it was important to Donia that JellyZone parties be financially accessible to more people. “I used to go to parties around Cairo and I noticed that some were very expensive, and the ones that were affordable and played good music were rare.” Having pionpointed this gap in the market, JellyZone’s party series was set up for success and was able to draw in an eclectic crowd.
The party series has another clear goal: to prevent and protect against the occurrence of sexual harassment during any JellyZone events. 9 in 10 Egyptian women are survivors of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, parties are often a breeding ground for this behaviour. “A lot of the parties end up being places where sexual harassment happens and I didn’t feel that organisers were taking it seriously,” says Donia, while emphasising the importance of combatting this in the spaces she curates. Many of JellyZone’s party goers have expressed feeling a sense of comfort and safety at JellyZone parties that they’ve been to.
Where a lot of Cairo’s parties were filled with house and techno, Donia was more interested in bassier, tribal and reggaeton music and more experimental forms of club and dance music that amalgamated genres and was less rigid and repetitive in its structure. “This is the kind of music that I delved into and started listening to a lot, where it was experimental and genre-defying. I listened until I found the sounds that I liked as a DJ.” Donia started DJing in 2017, around the same time as her first JellyZone party, which took place at a long gone venue called Underground. “I felt like DJing came naturally to me, maybe because I had spent a lot of time listening to music, I had a huge bank to draw from.”
“When I was planning JellyZone lineups, I didn’t feel that there were many DJs in Cairo playing the kind of club music that interested me, so there were just a few of us filling the line ups and we were working a lot of parties.” Many of Cairo’s most famous and frequented party venues are plagued by elitism and exist behind what, for most, is an unaffordable pay wall. “When I threw the first few JellyZone parties, the thing that made them stand out was not only the music, but the more accessible price and the less strict (elitist) entry policies.” JellyZone’s patrons represent a more diverse group of Cairo’s party lovers who seemed to respect the space and treat each other well. “I found that most of the people who came to the parties were cute and kind, and maybe feeling alienated from other party spaces. We didn’t have problems like sexual harassment as the space seemed to draw in the people who were trying to escape the usual set up.”
“I like for each party to have a theme that’s communicated well through the name and the artwork that’s released. I used to use silly and funny titles and visuals, often in Arabic, which wasn’t usual for the party scene”. A lot of Cairo’s party scene is dictated by wealthy lovers of house music and melodic techno who prefer to communicate in English and may not take parties with Arabic communication as seriously or deem them to be worthy of checking out. What, for some people, makes JellyZone a party they may choose not to go to, for others makes it the safe haven that they’ve been looking for; a space where they can party safely with their friends and listen to a wide variety of music that’s both global and homegrown.
In the beginning, Donia wasn’t focused on building a brand that would grow, she was mainly concerned with making sure people had a good experience. She used to make the artwork herself, and would receive criticism from people who felt that it needed to be more clear that her posters were for a party. Once the party series started gaining popularity and momentum among Cairo’s underground scene in 2019, Donia started commissioning local artists to work on the visuals of a party from start to finish and make sure the theme was cohesive, immersive, exciting and most importantly, experimental. More recently, every line up includes a VJ who works closely alongside the DJs to bring the music to life and create an even more immersive experience.
As some of JellyZone’s original venues are no longer operating, each party starts by finding a venue. “I find it exciting to create each party and get inspired by the space to make a new and different experience.” For many party organisers like Donia it’s getting harder to find venues. Let alone the fact that when you have been able to throw it all together, the government and local authorities often get involved in suppressing events that include music and alcohol. Whether it’s through noise complaints, representatives from the musician’s syndicate shutting down parties with unlicensed acts or unfair taxation that often leaves organisers at a loss, every party comes with its series of problems to solve. Despite this, Donia has thrown JellyZone parties across venues in Cairo, Fayoum and Alexandria.
Though she loves creating memorable experiences for people and is gifted at bringing creatives together to build the visions for each party, Donia is unsure when asked about the future of JellyZone. “The one downside of the kind of parties we throw is that we don’t make a lot of money. We’re artists, not promoters. We think about it from an experiential point of view, not thinking about profit. So, a lot of us are struggling to keep doing it.” It’s difficult for independent artists and organisers to continue curating spaces. Regardless, Donia intends to continue making it work by expanding JellyZone’s scope to include more virtual events and curated experiences.
“There are so many more DJs now than when I started back in 2017, there were only a few of us in the underground scene back then.” Now, Cairo’s underground music scene is teeming with DJs, VJs and artists who are making names for themselves and experimenting with music and visual art as experienced and curated in the context of Cairo. When asked about some of her favourite DJs and VJs to work with, these are some of the people Donia wanted to shout out :