Afropop is pleased to unveil a new series of guest posts, offering coverage of music scenes by writers who know them best. Our latest installment comes from Cairo, Egypt. Ferida Jawad, who teaches Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Netherlands Flemish Institute, and who is currently researching Egyptian popular music, brings us the story of mahraganat, the fast-paced dance style revolutionizing Egyptian popular music.
Emanating from the poor, disenfranchised urban classes of Egypt’s capital and other big cities, mahraganat (festivals) is a dance music that combines tunes from traditional music of the popular classes, known as shaabi, with a score of foreign influences–primarily electro, hip-hop and trance. The music is often accompanied by heavily Auto-Tuned, melodious rap vocals of predominantly young male MCs, who sing in their local dialect in plain terms about the issues they deal with as an age group among the poorer class.
At a recent screening of Electro Chaabi, Hind Meddeb’s documentary film about Cairo’s mahraganat scene, at the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Egypt’s capital, mahraganat stars Amr 7a7a, Sadat and Fifty, who were present at the event, were bombarded with an array of questions that ranged from general interest in this field of music to questions laden with either a total lack of information or outright prejudice against the music and its artists.
This is nothing new.
What is new, however, is the way in which the artists responded to these questions. While at the first screening of the same film in fall 2013, the same artists from El-Salam City on the outskirts of Cairo felt attacked and answered defensively, they now stood their ground with confidence, composure and pride.
This attitude should be attributed to a number of successes the mahraganat artists have enjoyed at various levels, both in spite of, as well as thanks to, prejudices and misconceptions surrounding their music.
Initially popular at weddings, the mahraganat songs were initially perceived as shocking, mostly by the older generation. No one had previously sung so explicitly about things such as wanting to feel up a girl, using drugs, or feeling hopeless about a future because of a government that totally neglects the neighborhood you grew up in. But to the younger generations, the music was and is a breath of fresh air, an outlet for a score of emotions. Nowadays, mahraganat dominates the wedding scene, not only in lower-class neighborhoods, but at all levels of society. Even the middle and upper classes, who traditionally consider the music of the popular classes as something vulgar, can no longer party without mahraganat.
The effect mahraganat has had on the wedding scene is, however, just as profound as the success the artists have had in this field.
Ahmed Karakib used to work as a party planner before becoming the manager of mahraganat band El-Madfa3gya in Salam City. He recalls, “Previously, wedding entertainment entailed a belly dancer with some musical accompaniment or a DJ at the most. Since the mahraganat appeared, more and more people want a mahraganat band to perform, which requires much more. Now, you see that apart from the band itself, there are dancers, managers, stage-builders, sound and light system suppliers and operators, drivers, carriers, and much more photographers and video makers than before, who are also specialized in using Photoshop. It’s a huge business that employs many.” So, in popular neighborhoods, the mahraganat have in fact created work where there were little to no employment prospects.
Mahraganat music has also changed the very nature of popular weddings. Previously, weddings were mainly a family affair where people were invited. Nowadays, if word gets out that one of the famous mahraganat bands will be performing at a wedding, the entire neighborhood will show up, and young people will even travel from one neighborhood to another simply to catch a glimpse of their stars and dance to their music. Diesel, the extremely versatile beatmaker and one of the MCs of el-Madfa3giya, and manager Karakib, speak laughingly of weddings at which they perform, where passers-by will actually come into the wedding with their grocery bags, and stick around just to see them. “The only difference between a concert and a wedding nowadays is the ticket,” says Karakib.
But it is not only the wedding scene where the mahraganat artists have been successful. The neighborhoods where this music developed had little to offer young people in terms of social space. Entirely devoid of discos, clubs or even youth centers, there are only a few cafés where youth can hang out. As the popularity of the mahraganat grew through computer downloads and Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, its makers became eager to share their music with their peers in live performance. They decided quite early on to organize concerts on their own. Starting out with totally improvised means, makeshift stages and secondhand sound and light systems, mostly in open spaces between apartment buildings, they created a space for young people from these neighborhoods to go out and enjoy themselves.
In this enjoyment, yet another significant change was brought about by mahraganat music: a new form of dance was born. Combining traditional Egyptian styles with moves drawn from breaking, crump and hip-hop, young men express their anger, frustration and happiness in an extremely powerful and energetic dance form. Much more expressive and explicit in its celebration of the male body than the traditional male dances of the Middle East, it has been criticized severely. Masses of young men who remove their T-shirts and dance barechested, clad only in constantly dropping low-waist jeans and boxers were seen as ushering in the end of morality. But the dance has taken over, and not only among men. Slowly, but steadily, young women are adapting the male dance moves to a female form that is now also specifically related to the mahraganat, more expressive and aggressive than the hyper-feminine traditional dance of women in the Arab world.
Already well before the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011, Mahmoud Refat, who runs 100 Copies Music label and music space in Cairo, recognized the artistic nature of mahraganat music. Refat played a pivotal role in helping the music and its artists transcend the wedding entertainment business by first of all organizing concerts for them. “They needed to perform in spaces that are natural to artists–concert halls and the like–instead of just weddings, so they could be seen by more people than just wedding-goers,” says Refat. “Later, we also went into the studio with them, to offer them a more professional environment for music production.”
It was through the concerts in downtown Cairo and the participation of the mahraganat artists at the Downtown Contemporary Art Festival DCaf that the music started to gain a wider audience. First, it spread among activists, who found an outlet for their emotions and frustrations in this music, and later it became generally appreciated as the ultimate party music.
Consequently, a number of clever commercial producers used mahraganat to sell products ranging from mobile network membership to Viagra. Soon enough, the artists appeared on television shows where an effort was made to discuss this modern phenomenon as the new youth culture and they acquired a spot on Nile FM radio. Then the film industry, which traditionally exploits the music of the lower classes by putting a song or two into films for box office gain, approached a number of mahraganat performers to produce songs for a few holiday blockbusters. Virtually all those who developed the music in Cairo were in a film or two: DJ Figo, Sadat and Fifty, and el-Madfa3giya, all from Salam City, and Oka and Ortega from al-Matariya. Although the young mahraganat artists definitely made money out of these opportunities, the makers of the commercials and films gained infinitely more.
A few mahraganat singers have starred in leading roles in films that relate their own stories. First to do this were Oka and Ortega in the film The 8 Percent, that failed so miserably that their popularity as mahraganat artists has plummeted dramatically. Sadat and Fifty starred in the feature film The Festival that tells the story of how they came to develop mahraganat. Although they received severe criticism for their performances in some of the Egyptian newspapers–one of them referring to their performance as “kids’ play”–they have since grown more successful, and consequently have participated in a couple of other films, though not in leading roles (they are reportedly doing yet another at the time of the writing of this article).
However, this attention placed on mahraganat by the music and film industry in Egypt is not a very large factor in the artists’ new-found confidence. They appear well aware of the fact that most of this attention has more to do with the industry exploiting a new fashion for financial gain than an actual appreciation of the art. In a talk show about The Festival, Sadat made it very clear that one of the strongest recognitions of his art–aside from Refat’s 100 Copies Music–came from abroad.
As early as 2011, Sadat traveled to London for a concert, and more followed in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, while many articles and studies were written about mahraganat by foreign journalists and researchers. Through this type of contact, Sadat discovered not only that people enjoyed mahraganat there, but also that he and his peers were being taken seriously as performing artists. (Afropop Worldwide was a part of this early attention.)
The contact with the world abroad was not devoid of misperceptions surrounding mahraganat, though, demonstrated by the array of terms used to define the music. There were those that associated it with something familiar to the poor urban classes of the country such as shaabi (popular) or electro shaabi, or with something foreign like Egyptian hip-hop, or with something explicitly political like “the voice of the revolution.”
This was a point of irritation for MC Sadat, now possibly the biggest star of the field: “We aren’t the product of the fall of the regime. We have been making the music since way back in 2007 and already then we were discussing our lives and the society we live in…. I’ve been telling all these people to stop using all those terms. We made the music and we gave it a name: mahraganat. Call it that. Just that.” However, the positive effects of the contact with foreign countries far outweigh the negative. Particularly the exchange between the London electronic scene and the Cairo mahraganat that was set up by London-based broadcaster Rinse FM and Egypt’s 100 Copies Music has been groundbreaking. Central to Cairo Calling, as the exchange has been called, is again Mahmoud Refat, who had already initiated a number of projects with the mahraganat performers. Wanting to maximize the benefits for the artists, he handpicked a group that represented every aspect of
the music to travel to London. Those participating in the project are Sadat, MC and lyricist of Amr 7a7a’s crew; DJ Figo, MC as well as a creator of mahraganat music; Diesel, also both an MC and music composer; and Kanaka like Diesel member of el-Madfa3gya, a lyricist and MC.
In Britain, they were received by London and Bristol DJs Kode 9, Artwork, Faze
Miyake, Pinch and Mumdance. The first phase of the project took place in London, where the Egyptian artists came into contact with a different type of music, grime to be specific, cooperated with the British DJs, and performed at the London Boiler Room. In the second phase, the British DJs visited Cairo’s 100 Copies Music, and Alaa Fifty and Islam Chipsy from Cairo joined the project as well. “The cooperation was extremely successful,” says Refat. “Producers on both sides learned how the other builds up a song, works with samples, etc.” Diesel, one of the mahraganat producers in the project, says: ‘We had the chance to hear an entirely different kind of music–grime–and see a different way of production. And although we do not speak English very well, we were able to communicate through the language of music.’ https://soundcloud.com/platform/100-copies-presents-cairo
Sadat too speaks with appreciation about getting to know another type of music: “It was
very useful to learn I can perform my lyrics to different music and beats. It changed the
way I perform now.” But the project did not only lead to an exchange between the U.K. and Egypt. Refat explains: “In the second phase in Cairo, it also produced very nice collaborations between the Egyptian artists that perhaps would not have come about without Cairo Calling. For example, British DJ Pinch did a couple of tracks with Sadat and Islam Chipsy who had not worked together previously. The result was that the three artists did their thing and created something new.”
The performance the British and Egyptian artists gave during the Cairo DCaf festival in April 2014 attests to its success. A different sound was offered to audience, but also a very different performance. “The mahraganat bands no longer stood on the stage asking the audience to like them, they performed with the confidence of artists, more or less saying ‘this is me, this is what I do’.” That is a major development, says Refat.
The effects of the collaboration are profound, as the quality of music production has increased greatly, the lyrics have become more of a coherent whole, the tone of the performance has become much more confident, and the performance itself very professional. A less-expected but very pleasant effect of the collaboration is the reaction of the Egyptian audience that has welcomed the new sound and performance.
For the mahraganat artists in Cairo, the program and the experience they gained with the music and film industry in Egypt have also resulted in what Refat calls “a phase of searching.” Both Amr 7a7a’s crew and el-Madfa3gya, for example produced songs with very different sounds and a professionally shot video clip to accompany the song.
Amr 7a7a, Sadat, and Fifty produced a song with a more mainstream chorus for their feature film The Festival, called “al-Shari3 Za7ma” (The Streets Are Crowded), for example, but also in their latest tracks it is clear they are trying out new beats, lyrics, and a much higher quality of production. Amr 7a7a says he has employed new samples of Iranian, Indian and Turkish instruments that he combined into a new whole.
(‘al-Shari3 Za7ma’, Sadat and Fifty)
El-Madfa3gya came out with a new song entitled “Dimagho wa 7urr feeha” (He is free to think what he wants), in which Diesel showcased his versatility as a music producer, using very diverse beats and samples, ranging from hip-hop to rock and pop. In the song “Kafaa 7abibi” (Enough, my love), he introduced some dubstep beats and the new album will include more new sounds, he announced. The difference between their songs now and before, according to El-Madfa3gya MC Shindy, is great: ‘Previously, the mahraganat were based on mostly oriental shaabi beats. Now, there are Western and other influences.’
(‘Dimagho wa 7urr feeha’, El-Madfa3gya)
Both 7a7a’s crew and El-Madfa3gya were criticized for their new songs. Their responses to
the criticism are similar. Sadat says they wanted to change the sound so people will not grow bored, but also to show that they can apply their lyrics to any kind of music, and that they are not one-trick ponies. Diesel states that he wanted to offer something new and show how diverse mahraganat can be, while lyricist Kanaka points out how the song successfully deals with three topics that occupy the minds of youths in their neighborhood.
The change in the lyrics is striking. The songs now cover a subject in a more coherent way and no longer contain expressions that were found vulgar or coarse, even though as both Shindy and Sadat say, those lyrics were never as coarse as what many people listen to in Western music. It is obvious, however, that the mahraganat artists are more and more aware of the role they play in the lives of many youths and that are trying to send out meaningful messages. Given the present political climate in the country, however, they prefer not to deal with politics in an explicit fashion and according to Alaa Fifty actually made an effort to steer clear from politicians exploiting their music for their own purposes. “We are artists and we can discuss what we like, but we are not going to serve anyone else’s goals than our own,” he says. Perhaps the most significant message they try to convey, according to Sadat, is to the youths of the popular quarters: “We make them see that if you insist on developing your talents and putting them out there, you can in fact succeed, regardless of where you are from.” In fact, possibly one of the most important roles mahraganat music has played in the past years is that it has infused the popular neighborhoods with pride.
The mahraganat artists have come a long way and they have worked hard to get where they are today. Although prejudice is not eradicated entirely, they have gained recognition on many levels, as Refat says: “The genre is now established. Everyone has at least heard of mahraganat music.” According to MC Shindy 90 percent of the country listens to mahraganat. Whether or not this percentage is exact is not really important. Their popularity is obvious, not in the last place through the huge amount of new young artists. Literally every city, town, village and neighborhood is producing mahraganat in their own way, with their own style. This too is a new development that possibly will lead to different types of mahraganat in the long run, according to Refat.
As for their future, all parties involved are very positive. Refat explains that Universal Records has shown interest in taking on the distribution of the album that is to come out of the Cairo Calling project, while Elastic Audio has spoken about organizing a European tour for the project. Personally, Refat believes it is only a matter of time until foreign clubs will start playing mahraganat: “All it takes now is good publicity.” Shindy and Dolceka of el-Madfa3gya think the future is simpler: “As long as people want to dance and celebrate, there will be mahraganat.”