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Electro Sha’abi: Autotune-Rebels in Cairo

Mahragan is the digital version of Sha'abi, the popular party sound of Cairo's satellite suburbs. The lyrics talk about banalities of everyday life and revolution-weariness – in biting sarcasm and with a big sense of humour. In Electro Chaabi filmmaker Hind Meddeb dives right into the middle of the hypermasculine electro sha'abi-world. Come to 5. Norient Music Film Festival [1] on 10. January 2014: watch the documentary and dance afterwards through the Electro Sha'abi night with MC Sadat, MC Alaa 50 Cent, DJ Ramy, the Cairo Liberation Front and surprise-acts.

Mahragan («festival») music was born in the urban slums of Cairo that teem with the poor, working and lower middle classes: in the ‘ashwa’iyat (the «haphazard,» unplanned settlements), in the city’s traditional popular quarters, and in the shabby apartment blocks built by the state in the city’s satellite suburbs. These rough neighborhoods, where the majority of Cairenese reside, receive little in the way of government services other than police harassment and security crackdowns on its young men. The «respectable» middle classes fear and denigrate such neighborhoods and avoid them at all costs.

Homemade Dance Music

Out of necessity, the denizens of the popular quarter are self-reliant. They scratch out livings in the informal economy and they organize joyous wedding parties and mulids (saints’ festivals), blocking off narrow neighborhood streets to set up improvised stages and folding chairs. For decades, the musical genre of choice at the wedding party or farah has been the highly percussive sha‘abi, which is made for dancing, is loud and infectious, and has long considered unsophisticated and vulgar by Egypt’s educated middle and upper classes.

Just a few years ago, enterprising young musically-minded men from the popular quarters began to experiment with keyboards and inexpensive computer programs, mixing all sorts of electronic sounds over sha‘abi beats. The vocalists’ chants, singing, and on occasion, raps, were distorted and enhanced by synthesized autotuning. Electronic musical accompaniment was produced or sampled by a DJ on a computer and mixer or an electronic keyboard. All over infectious and unstoppable shaabi beats, produced by percussion instruments and/or samples. Hence the alternate names for mahragan, employed most often by outsiders: «techno shaabi» or «electro shaabi.»

Wedding Music Goes YouTube

Mahragan artists began to make reputations, and a bit of cash, for themselves by playing at weddings in popular quarters, where they became a draw due to the novelty of their sound and the brash energy of their performance and because they were cheaper to hire than larger sha‘abi troupes.

Mahraganists also organized parties in their own neighborhoods. Perhaps as early as 2007, they broadcast their home recordings to a wider audience via Youtube, and listeners converted them to mp3s. Soon mahragan tunes were blaring over the sound systems of the thousands of tuk tuks (auto rickshaws), microbuses, motor scooters and taxis that clog city streets and convey citizens and goods.

Celebrating Manhood

Electro sha‘abi parties are carnivalesque, thunderous, garish, celebratory, good-humored, heavily masculinized, rough-and-tumble affairs. Strings of light illuminate the alleys as crowds of young males dance intensely and aggressively to the music, shouting the names of DJs and the choruses, shooting off bright flares and fireworks, excitedly pulling off their shirts. If it’s a wedding, off to the side and separated from the men are the women, some in higab, many of them dancing too. The singers or MCs, garbed in skinny jeans, sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, sing and chant about subjects of concern to slum youth.

Depending on the occasion, they might chant the praises of a football club, or express skeptical support for the revolution, as in DJ Amr Haha’s and Figo’s

The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit:
The people want something new [to think about]
The people want five pounds’ phone credit
The people want to topple the regime
But the people are so damn tired.

Vulgar Banalities

They frequently sing about the mundane, as in «I’m Really Tough», where vocalists Oka, Ortega, and Weza of the group Eight Percent name-check their hood (Matariya) and versify about religious faith, envy and the evil eye. Mahraganists casually employ profanity, as on ‘Amr Haha’s «Aha al-Shibshib Da‘» (Fuck, I Lost My Slipper), whose extremely obscene and virtually unrepeatable expression «aha» created a sensation in a country where «bad» words are strictly taboo in music. They celebrate everyday pleasures of life in the popular quarters, as on MC Sadat and DJ Vigo’s «I’m Stoned»:

I’m stoned, I’m drunk…
Dear Mr. weed dealer, give me two bags,
cuz I invited my friends for a beer and two joints.

Mixed Classes in Trendy Clubs

Recent events in Egypt have created unique openings for this loud and raucous music of the popular quarters, as social turmoil has brought together different segments of society in unprecedented ways. Middle class taxi riders who hear «Fuck, I Lost My Slipper» in the car are now keen to attend electro sha‘abi shows at trendy nightspots like Cairo’s downtown Greek Club. Mahragan artists perform at venues like Al Azhar Park, previously reserved by state authorities for «respectable» performers.

New songs on Youtube by artists like ‘Amr Haha and Eight Percent can quickly gain views that number in the hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even several million. Mahraganists like Oka and Ortega have penetrated the mainstream, appearing on television talk shows and even the movies. And now, there are the occasional appearances abroad, in Europe.

Uncertain Future

But mahragan remains rooted in the youth of the popular quarters and the working classes. It retains its spirit of irreverence, its vulgarity, sarcasm, good humor and willingness to aim biting satire at authority figures, and it could give a fig about middle class niceties. Recent mahragan songs have expressed worries about the future of Egypt’s «revolution». In Hind Meddeb’s documentary Oka and Otega wonder whether it has been stolen: «We started strong but the end is unclear. We might also ponder mahragan’s future, now that the military has again seized control again and now that some mahraganists have «crossed over» into the mainstream, but it is hard to imagine that such a vital and deeply-rooted cultural and political force will be easily vanquished.