Friday, June 01, 2012

Soraya Morayef on Egypt's Mahragan (Underground Shaabi/Shaabi Techno) Music Scene

Jadaliyya recently published this terrific article on the underground but now bubbling to the surface music scene which outsiders (like myself) have called techno shaabi but which is known locally as "mahragan" (or sometimes, mahraganat, the plural form), which translates as "festival" music.

Morayef tells us that it's the music of the popular quarters, of the microbuses and the ta'amiya stands. It is rooted in Egypt's "shaabi" music, the beats are pure sha'abi, but the sound is provided by DJ's jamming lots of electronica. The singing is shaabi as well but often heavily auto-tuned. The lyrics are full of humor and slang and are often very direct. Exceptionally and unprecedentedly direct, in fact, in their use of curses and vulgar language. Particularly in the case of the amazing Amr Haha (also spelled 7a7a).

Morayef describes Haha's new song, “Aha el shibshib daa’!” or “Fuck, I’ve lost my slippers!” Part of the impact generated by the song is that swearing is something that has long been taboo in Egyptian music. I remember discussions with Egyptian friends when I lived in Cairo ('92-'96) who were interested in rap music and were amazed by all the bad language. It seems that "mahragan" artists like Haha, and in fact perhaps particularly Haha, based on the evidence (all his music available on youtube) is responsible for breaking through that taboo. The song also gets its traction among audiences by its focus on the mundane, the loss of a slipper. Morayef states that mahragan music often, or at least sometimes, has an oppositional edge. Haha and his posse (including Sadat and DJ Figo) mix the popular slogan “yasqut yasqut hokm al-‘askar,” or “down, down with military rule,” in their songs.

Elliott Colla, in his article "The People Want" in the latest Middle East Report (just out), shows how 7a7a, while supportive of the revolution, is also able to poke fun at it slogans. And I quote:

in one particular song, entitled, “The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit,” 7a7a pokes fun at the slogan “the people want” even as he champions it:

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 
It’s hard living hand to mouth 
The people have said their word 
And Tahrir is their place

While 7a7a uses the same musical pattern of the slogan, he also adds rhyme where none existed before. Moreover, unlike the slogan, this song can only be pronounced in the vernacular. And like the sounds of the words, the lyrics also refer to a very local urban experience of poverty. This song also draws into question the tiredness of the slogan and the term -- “the people.” More precisely, 7a7a points out that “the people” is a rhetorical figure. In other words, 7a7a’s riff on revolutionary rhetoric suggests something very important, namely that the most powerful metaphor employed during the uprising was that of “the people” itself.

For a great account of Amr Haha playing at a wedding in a popular quarter, check out this account by Sarah Carr.

Morayef also discusses the group Tamanya Fil Meya or "Eight Percent," which includes DJ Ortega, Wezza and Oka, from Cairo's popular quarter Matariya. In their song "Ana Aslan Gamed" (I'm Really Hard), she says, they:

sing about their neighborhood, about faith and superstition, envy and the evil eye, and black magic. The lyrics flow like a conversation about an average day in their life as Oka, Ortega, and Wezza take turns in singing verses, while the others echo or call out to their neighborhood. In fact, the structure of their songs and the flow of their singing are very similar to rap music: street culture, roots, pride, ego, and prayer combined with a heavy rhythm and a raw energy.

What is also notable about this video is that it shows Eight Percent performing "Ana Aslan Gamed" not in Cairo but in the southern city of Aswan, and so, the crowd is full of young Nubians. We learn, then, that the group has a sizable fan base outside of Cairo, and as well, that mahragan groups are performing in concerts, not just at neighborhood weddings and parties (which was where they got their start playing).

I am really bowled over by "Ana Aslan Gamed." I find it quite beautiful, and at this moment, it's my favorite of all the mahragan music I've heard. The footage is quite remarkable as well, and it's from a forthcoming (2013) film about mahragan, called “Underground/On the Surface/Raise Your Hand if You Love God,” by director Salma El Tarzi. Please check out the film's blog for more information about the film (and even if you can't read Arabic, it's worth checking out the youtube vids, which feature clips from the film.)

Morayef tells us that mahragan music gaining a growing middle class audience. I was amazed to read her description of Haha and company performing at the Greek Club, one of my favorite establishments in downtown Cairo, but very much a place favored by middle class intellectuals and artists. The fact that shaabi, and in particular, electronic shaabi, is being performed in such a space, is testimony to how far mahragan is moving out of its origins in Egypt's popular quarters.

The more attention I pay to mahragan the more I hope that it blows up internationally, like kudoro or baile funk. It certainly is worthy of the attention. And it is about time for the world to recognize the incredible creativity, humor, tenacity and art of Egypt's lower and working class youth.

Mahragan is also good tonic, for moments when one get depressed about Egypt's ongoing revolution. It will cheer you up, and make you optimistic about the energy of Egypt's youth and its masses.

(I became aware of mahragan -- without knowing what it was called locally -- last fall, and have been struggling to make sense of it. I posted about it here, here, and here. So glad to read Morayef's account.)


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