There is a new underground music style quickly gaining popularity in Egypt, especially around the suburbs of Cairo. It's known as mahragan, or also referred to as mahraganat (the plural form), which literally translates as "festival music". Sometimes it's also just referred to as techno or electronic sha'abi. As the last name implies, this new style of music is rooted in Egypt's sha'abi music (sha'abi meaning "music of the people").
Mahragan music can typically be recognized by its distinctive sha'abi beats that are overlaid with an electronic melody which is commonly improvised by the DJ, and singing that is frequently closer to U.S. style rap. As far as the production of the music, it is almost entirely digital, with a DJ on a computer and mixer, occasionally a keyboard, and the singer's voice often distorted by synthesized autotuning. And what the singers are singing about is definitely new as well. The lyrics range from humor to sex to religion to political rants, and oftentimes include slang and vulgarity. Something typically taboo and unprecedented in Egypt's conservative musical and cultural past.
Like most belly dancers, I've been familiar with sha'abi, and sha'abi songs been a frequent staple in my classes for many years now, but mahragan itself only recently crossed my path. While this new genre of music has roots that can be traced back as far as 2007, it really only started to become popular shortly after the Egyptian revolution in 2011. And for myself, I was first introduced to this style of music a short while ago during Seattle's International Film Festival while watching the documentary Electric Shaabi, which documented the music of some of the rising stars in this genre. The documentary showed glimpses into the lives of the artists, including exhibiting the poverty-ridden neighborhoods encircling Cairo that most of them came from, neighborhoods such as Salam City, Matareya, Sabteya, and Amareya. Here's the trailer of the documentary:
The movie also highlighted how this style of music has become popular at weddings and street festivals in these neighborhoods. As highlighted in the documentary and on YouTube video clips, these street festivals have a rave-like atmosphere, with large groups of people gathering to particpate in wild and aggressive late-night dancing, almost always by men only. If any women are in attendance, such as at a wedding, they are segregated into their section or even behind curtains or screens, with the genders never dancing together.
Embracing this form of entertainment in these suburban neighborhoods is becoming increasing popular with younger generations, and not to mention, frequently also cheaper. Or at least it was until many of these fore-running artists started making names for themselves. And in fact, in many instances, where once a traditional band with a belly dancer would have been hired for a community event, such as a wedding, it is becoming more popular for Egyptians in these suburban neighborhoods to now hire these young men to DJ and sing. As the genre and artists have gained popularity, it appears that the trend may even be slowly catching on in urban and upscale weddings as well, evidenced by a YouTube clip of two of these popular artists, Oka and Ortega, singing at what appears to be the wedding of famous Egyptian singer and film star, Tamer Hosny.
So who are the artists producing this music? It's likely safe to say the most popular and well-known are the aforementioned Oka and Ortega, who have been able to penetrate the mainstream with television and movie appearances, and have gained international fame outside of Egypt. They are now frequently booked for events throughout parts of the Middle East and Europe. Other artists on the rise are Shehta, MC Sadat, Wezza (or sometimes spelled Wiza), DJ Figo, Amr Haha, and Islam Chipsy. Oka, Ortega, and Shehta also collaborate together in a band called Tamanya Fil Meya, or "Eight Percent". My understanding is that Wezza used to be the third member of Tamanya Fil Meya, but was later replaced by Shehta.
Well, I don't think you can talk about music without actually listening to it, so let me share a couple of clips I found online.
This first video is Oka, Ortega and Wezza's hit song Ana Aslan Gamed.
This second clip is from MC Sadat's own wedding. Can you imagine this being your wedding reception?!
A third clip is from a street festival of Islam Chipsy playing the keyboard. The video and sound quality is not that great, but watch at least the first 30 seconds to notice the crazy and unique technique he has for playing the keyboard. It's like an adaption of how a DJ would scratch and mix with a record. I have never seen anything like it! There are some better quality videos of him on YouTube, but this one gives you the up close and personal of his hands.
And a final clip of Oka and Ortega, with a third performer, who appears to be Shehta, also intermixed with some shots of DJ Figo (at 2:15 in the video) wherein you can get an idea of the street-style feel of the music, complete with crazy stage climber. The performance starts at about 1:30. Since I'm not an Arabic-speaker, I can't tell you what they are talking about at the beginning of the video.
Personally, I like the music. I like it a lot in fact. While I've grown to like classical Egyptian songs over the years that I've been immersed in belly dancing, it wasn't love at first listen. But with mahragan, I like the upbeat, make-you-want-to-dance, raw and fresh sounds of these artists and their music. I like that they are pushing boundaries and voicing their own opinions during a time of political and cultural upheaval in Egypt. Although, a word of advice to dancers, I would exercise caution before including these songs in your performance sets, as songs could contain cursing or other lyrics that may be offensive to some listeners. Be sure you know your song and your audience before including.
Being relatively new, there isn't a huge amount of material on the Internet, at least in English, available for researching, so I'm definitely interested in hearing from readers. What do you think? Do you like this new style of music? What else do you know about it? Please share in the comments!
Picture Credit (Top): Movie still from Electro Chaabi, directed by Hind Meddeb