From Cairene Alleyways to European Festivals: The Journey of Mahraganat

Though its birth does not precede five years, Mahraganat music has surged into a phenomenon, invading Egypt’s sonic atmosphere and beyond. This phenomenon has crossed borders and seas and made it into the European and international acoustic vernacular.

The adolescents who, five years ago, huddled in the streets of Matariya and Salam City on Cairo’s margins, hoping for nothing more than the chance to perform at a wedding or two every week, now roam Europe, from festival to festival. There, they bring to the crowds that fervent rhythm that has brought this musical movement such a huge following in so little time.

In the Beginning There Was the DJ

At the turn of the millennium,  the DJ had begun to make an appearance at Egyptian weddings. DJs emerged as an affordable alternative to live musicians at weddings, and their rise in popularity coincided with the spread of computers in Egypt, and the attendant affinity that primarily young men developed towards this rising profession.

Amid the economic stranglehold that the cassette tape industry imposed on chaabi music at the time—dominated as it was by industry “heavyweights” such as Amro Diab and Mohamed Fouad—the rise of the DJ all but eliminated the genre that relied on weddings as its main source of livelihood. Yet, the spread of computers and various recording programs marked the genre’s salvation. As the twenty-first century kicked off, a new generation of chaabi singers emerged, such as Mahmoud El-Leithy and Mahmoud El-Hosseiny and others, who relied on their computers to record their material, to evade the costs of studio recordings. It was this generation that was the first to make use of electronic sound effects in their music.

And Then Came the Mobile Phone

After computers, there came the eruption of mobile phone use, and before 3G internet, mobile phone stores would sell monophonic tunes that were coded into the phones using the phone’s keypad.

Amr, a young man from Ain Shams, worked in one such store. One day, for the sake of experimentation, rather than code a hit track onto a phone, he decided to compose his own tune. As luck would have it, this tune became a famous ringtone in the neighborhood, and in time Amr was approached by a chaabi singer, asking for permission to use the tune for one of his songs.

Amr went on to develop his musical and technological skills, adopting the moniker Doctor Amr Ħaħa, the composer of “El-Shandarbolla,” one of the first tunes that could be characterized as a Mahraganat tune.

Like electronic music, Mahraganat music relies on a base loop, but unlike Western electronic music, the loop is usually an oriental beat. The loop is cut through with rap-like vocals, backed up by a mix of sound effects and loud noises.

Ħaħa would later go on to work with dozens of artists who would in turn become the ambassadors of the genre; Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Oka & Ortega, to name a few. He was also known to occasionally collaborate with Alexandrian Mahraganat musician Filo.

These musicians cut out the role of production companies, choosing instead to resort to more democratized technologies to record their music, and releasing their creations online for free, relying on their income from live performances at weddings to earn their keep. Others, however, were not satisfied to leave it at that.

Mahraganat Economics

Despite its immense popularity, Mahraganat music is still derided as lowbrow, and the state fails to recognize its performers, as the majority of them are not members of the various musical syndicates—a legal prerequisite for live performances in Egypt. These prevailing attitudes culminated in Mahraganat songs being banned on state television and other mainstream channels, while radio hosts make sure not to broadcast “that kind of thing.”

Yet, against this, Mahraganat music has expanded well beyond its economic and production circles, consolidated by the emergence of alternative production companies, such as 100Copies. The company began as a production studio for electronic and experimental music, and provided Mahraganat singers with a platform to record their music. On occasion, the studio would produce songs for these artists at a symbolic cost, in exchange for the rights to the songs, which were released for free on YouTube. 100Copies relied on a model wherein they would reap advertising profits from YouTube when these songs went viral or catapulted into popularity, in addition to selling the song electronically on other outlets.

Musical groups such as Oka & Ortega and El-Dakhlaweya focused their efforts on trying to go to the silver screen, and appearing in on-screen dramas, such as the popular show “Fifa Atata” starring Mohamed Saad, and the films of Mohamed El-Sobky and Mohamed Ramadan.

Yet, another camp chose to chart a different course; with the Arab Spring came an upsurge in attention from the media and the West towards the region and its cultural production, creating a pathway into European concerts and festivals. Among the most prominent musicians who tool this course was Islam Chipsy, who evolved his music to include additional visual aspects, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized faces of the genre abroad.

Mahraganat emerged during a boom in cultural production, in an atmosphere that was far more celebrating of diversity, providing young people with an outlet to express themselves amid revolutionary spirits and a proliferation of violence that has continued to this day. This was reflected in the lyrics of Mahraganat songs, which often avoid sentimentality, but rather express the difficulty of surviving in a treacherous environment, as related in 2015’s hit single, “Mafĩsh Săħib Beyetsăħib.”

As time goes by, more stringent measures are imposed to restrict the space for broadcasting Mahraganat, such as the granting power of arrest to the then-head of the Musical Syndicate, Hany Shaker. While the future remains uncertain, one thing that seems to be clear is the inverse proportionality between official tolerance towards Mahraganat and its popularity.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Fate of Revolutionary Art in Egypt

In 2003, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave for the first time his lecture entitled “Fifteen Theories on Contemporary Art” at New York’s Drawing Center. In his lecture, Badiou explains the determining features of contemporary art, including a definition of what he calls “non-imperial art.” Badiou bases his definition on Antonio Negri’s theory of Empire as a modern, deterritorialized system that rules a global political economy—the concept of “Empire” represents control through a capitalist system and state-based legal authority. In art, as in politics, this imperial system has produced rules that now govern the world of art. These rules harness revolutionary endeavors, coopting it to become a part of the vast production mechanisms of artistic merchandise.

Three main strategies buttress this system of artwork production around the world. First is the prevalence of intellectual property rights worldwide, which restrict artists’ ability to create collaboratively. Second is a constant focus on the same artists and creative individuals. Last a particularly defined protocol for the evaluation and appreciation of artists. This protocol is based on the number of awards received, the size of an artist’s sales, or even the most “views” or “likes” in today’s world of online art and social networks.

According to Badiou, however, art can be “real and non-imperialist,” functioning outside the logic of Empire. It can even challenge this logic of rule and undo its grip. In one of the theories introduced in his lecture, Badiou explains: “Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.”

In 2011, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) translated Badiou’s lecture into Arabic and published it in Egypt. ACAF is one of the most active centers of arts and culture in the country and one that has played a vital role in creating an environment suitable for knowledge, learning, and discussion amongst the country’s artists. ACAF provides an oasis in a desert environment; arts education in Egypt is stifled by strict censures and terribly outdated syllabi.

In 2012, ACAF organized a three-day conference entitled: “Art and Change,” which featured a talk by Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The conference provided a rare opportunity for Egyptian artists to discuss the political and social scene in the country, as well as try to understand the place that the arts and artists would take in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.

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The year after January 25, 2011 witnessed an exponential growth in public arts. Suddenly, public art was present on most streets; public squares and parks were filled with free concerts. The monthly AlFan Midan (Art is a Square) festival, a music festival in Abdin Square in Cairo and a number of other squares in cities around Egypt, was established. The festival quickly became a place for a number of artists and musicians to sing freely, with no censorship whatsoever. Graffiti also took off in Egypt at that time, fostered by galleries and arts organizations.

Egypt’s artists were the happiest they had been in a while. They were calling for fewer restrictions on the Ministry of Culture and presenting plans that would enable everyone to use the Ministry’s facilities, not just state-approved artists. At that time, dreams of freeing arts and culture in Egypt of all censorship and cultivating creative and artistic freedom across the board were beginning to take flight.

These days ended with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power. Shortly before former President Muhammad Morsi took office, ACAF shut down its headquarters and stopped all its activities—to this day, Baroni refuses to comment or explain the reasons behind that. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise, the arts and culture scene soon came under their attempts to grasp full control, with the appointment of a minister who most artists and cultural figures agreed was bent on stifling the arts scene in Egypt even more.

The “revolutionary art” of Egypt that emerged in the wake of the revolution appeared as an artistic expression carrying a clear and direct political message. It had, however one flaw. The subject of this form of art in Egypt shifted many times, from mocking Mubarak and his regime, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. A lot of what was known as revolutionary art was therefore reactive art, and not a “rigorous mathematical demonstration.” Its expression was in reaction to political events, and was thus changing as these events changed. Where revolutionary art is meant to affect the media, it was instead guided by it. With the changing events, the art changed in response and its message was rendered an article of the past. Art became a piece of history rather than true, forward-facing, revolutionary art. If the revolutionary art of the time, be it songs or drawings or other works of art, mocked and criticized Mubarak, how does this art remain revolutionary after Mubarak is gone and a new, seemingly more violent, phase has started?

A year after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power, all these various reactionary songs, paintings, and artistic expressions that presented themselves as revolutionary pieces of art have disappeared. They have become part of the past, with their value stemming solely from their connection to the past. All of this begs the question: Was this truly revolutionary art or simply another form of consumerist artwork?

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The year the Muslim Brotherhood spent in power was difficult for anyone working in the fields of art or culture; the political struggle with the Brotherhood forced everyone to become involved. Some artists saw their independence of all political struggles as paramount, while others saw that true revolution meant not only criticizing the Brotherhood but being able to criticize the army as well. This latter opinion was vastly unpopular in the political calculations of that time, with civilian groups believing they needed the army to help remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

That year also witnessed strong alliances being made between what is known as revolutionary art and big Egyptian corporations. What started off as revolutionary art suddenly became mainstream, with large bottled soda companies and other monopolies in the Egyptian market using bands from “Al Midan” (Tahrir Square) to play in their advertisements. We are now at a point where revolutionary art is turning into commercial art. Even more so, the commercial values about smiling, happiness, and other human development values have started to creep into artistic expression, leading to horribly shallow works of art.

Meanwhile, some artists decided to go deeper underground, as far away from the noise as possible, making do with small marginal venues to present their art. One example is Aly Talibab, who patiently continued his own projects away from revolutionary rhetoric or direct political phrases. Rather, he steered that rhetoric from the collective cacophony of the art scene to his own individual voice. Instead of using his art as a revolutionary megaphone, Talibab’s work instead expresses the confusion and fear of the country’s current reality. Another example is rapper MC Amin, who presented a number of direct political songs, collaborating with Egypt’s “mahrajanat” artists to present what has become known as “rapgagiya,” a fusion of the Egyptian folk art of “mahrajanat” and rap.

Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre-January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. Right now, we see the reactionary revolutionary art of the past few years exiting the advertising and commercial market it had succumbed to after its start as revolutionary art. This revolutionary-turned-commercial art is even being thrown out by the advertising companies that have milked it dry. These new forms of art are being pushed back into the small space that they were able to grab or create after January 25.

Most recently, the Ministry of Interior has canceled the AlFan Midan festival, and repeated the cancellation even after Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour tried to intervene on behalf of the festival. The Ministry of Interior is also on the hunt for graffiti artists, and many have been arrested and handed long prison sentences for painting anti-regime phrases on walls.

This tightening of the arts scene continues with the recent law issued by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi that increased penalties for anyone receiving foreign funding that may be suspected as detrimental to national security. This law, even if not used directly to prohibit artists, will inevitably lead to the limiting of dozens of arts and culture centers, as organizations close due to lack of funding or fear of retribution. This will affect the work of places like the ACAF, which are now under threat of arbitrary closure or even imprisonment.

As for Egypt’s artists, a number of them have left the country, especially those that were labeled as “revolutionary” artists. Most prominent among these are graffiti artist Ganzeer, who is currently in Brooklyn, New York, and singer Rami Essam, whose songs became famous in the very first days of the January 25 revolution, and who recently relocated to Sweden.

Four years after January 25, revolutionary art is now one of two things. For some, it has become an endeavor undertaken in foreign lands. For others, it has become a watered-down, almost meaningless and valueless form after its exploitation by the very corporations that represent the regime that was the target of the art in the first place. While ACAF director Bassan Baroni tried to create a space that would allow artists to gain knowledge and perhaps someday create art as “rigorous as a mathematical demonstration,” Egypt’s streets and screens are now filled with dozens of artists from all walks who prefer to blend into the moment, turning the artists into an echo chamber for the voice of the masses.

Only a miniscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.

A Sad Melody at the End of the Road

Published for the first time on the old blog at Aug. 2013

The time for retreat is past and all the chances to avoid this path have been burned up. The incendiary speeches are escalating from every side and are morphing from incitement to war speeches. The television stations put up the slogan “Egypt is fighting terrorism” written in English and no one tells us who and what terrorism we are fighting? Are they Al-Qaeda? Ansar al-Sharia? The Al-Nusra Front? The Brotherhood? A little of this and a little of that?

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Military Supporters

We don’t know, and the soldier who is only twenty-one years old doesn’t know, but he obeys the orders of the gunman who directs him to get out of the bus so that he can be executed from behind. Likewise, someone else is led to the hearse, better known as the police truck, to die of asphyxiation.

No one stops to ask questions or demand accountability. War has its rules, but civil war falls outside the rules and the ethics of opposing armies.  Civil war has its own clear goals, and they are usually ethnic cleansing and the siege of one faction or group. This always fails. For proof you can look around yourself or in history books, or look at the performance of the Egyptian military state since July 23, 1952 to confirm for yourself that prison and prohibition have never been useful in eliminating the Brotherhood or other supporters of religious despotism.

Why, then, do we repeat the same mistakes that were made thirty years ago when Islamist groups were first released from Pandora’s box in the seventies?

The same old story that happened in the seventies is being played out right now. The military power in the seventies used the Islamist groups to get rid of the remains of Nasserism and the revolutionary left and, once it had accomplished that, the Islamist groups became a danger to this military power and it decided to take them on by force. Throughout the eighties and the nineties we saw how the state fought with unparalleled failure. The same story is being repeated by the military council and the security apparatus who refuse to try any other approach, and if anyone opposes their approach, the result is accusations of treason.

The state did not adopt any program against the ideology of religious despotism. Instead, it exploited this ideology, working to stay one step ahead of the Islamists. The most obvious evidence of this is the second article of the constitution, which Sadat put into place as part of this exploitation. In the same way, the civil state constitution will be written, under the presidency of Adly Mansour, with its sectarian articles and their comprehensive sources.

At the same time, the state left room for a faction of the Islamists to participate in the political process, run in elections, and share in power. In the eighties, this faction was the Brotherhood and now it appears that it’s the Salafi’s turn. It’s obvious that Dr. Yasser Al-Burhami is sitting back confidently waiting to gather the spoils.

In the eighties a large group of intellectuals, writers, and artists joined the state’s battle. At that time, the slogan was enlightenment fighting the forces of darkness. This proposed option of enlightenment was nothing more than a group of theses on renewing the religious discourse and leaving everything to a deeply corrupt regime without a position or a message. Now, some people are using slogans about fighting religious fascism or accepting the authority’s oppression and violence because it is the only way to stop religious violence.  But in the morgue, clothes are removed from the bodies and it becomes difficult to tell the soldiers from those who are called “terrorists” or from people who were just passing by at the time of the clashes. Even more importantly, the path that the current authorities are on has no indication of leading us over this ocean of blood to a civil state in which citizenship and equality are achieved. The committee that is working on amending the constitution decided to keep the sectarian articles that restrict citizens’ freedom of belief. Not only that, but the committee added, on the suggestions of some, an article to protect the office of the president of Egypt from protests, as though an article in the constitution could protect the president or any authority from the public’s anger.

Fighting terrorism or groups devoted to religious despotism is not a battle that we can win by liberating a piece of land or killing and arresting the largest possible number of people. It is, fundamentally, a battle of ideas and of a way of life that the Egyptian middle class chose to defend on July 30. Accepting the authority’s violence and illegal violations, and the nonsense that is taking place right now vis-à-vis the constitution means complete defeat in the battle against “terrorism” even if the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and the entire Guidance Office is arrested.