In the remote city of Madinet el Salam, an hour from Cairo, with its wide streets resembling a modernist grid, something new is emerging and has become the new sensation on the streets of Cairo.
Mahraganat, which translates as the plural of “festival”, is a form of music difficult to place under one genre. It refers to the carnivalesque atmosphere in music which is easy to label as shaabi (local) mixed with electro, but the artists who created it do not accept such description. Mahragant, they feel, is something new and unique.
It started to develop on Youtube a few years before the revolution. With no CDs, cassettes or opportunities to be played by local radio or TV channels, they started building their reputation beyond their neighborhoods by publishing amateur home recordings via YouTube. The unknown uploaders back then resorted to band nicknames and their music gradually spread throughout the local areas of Cairo, such as Salam, Matareya, Ain Shams, and have now swept through the entire country.
Twenty-six year old DJ Sadat started his career as an individual dancing performer. Unlike groups of orchestrated dancers, Sadat’s dance was a mix of break dance along with the local one. Through his moves and flexibility, he was able to work any crowd and get them on their toes. He later met his friends, DJ Fifty, Figo and Amr 7a7a (the “7” denotes the breathy sound of Arabic letter “h”) and together they started creating the music of Mahraganat. Sadat wrote lyrics for the group at first and gradually became their star performer not just in Egypt, but also in other countries. He’s the only one who has performed in London and Paris so far.
From outside, the Mahragan world looks chaotic and unprofessional. To an extent it is indeed. The production tools used are primitive and mediocre at best. The idea of copyright is almost non-existent, to the point that it’s sometimes impossible to know who sang which song first. To counter this, DJs resort to mentioning themselves in their songs, at first and sometimes throughout the songs. Still, that does not completely prevent other artists from recycling the beats or some of the lyrics.
In Mahragant, local slang is incorporated with heavily auto-tuned beats and rhythms. The usual anti-sentimental and ultra-local attitude of shaabi (local music) is maintained, while electrifying it with imported genres like hip-hop and techno. They sing about everything, with verses specifically showing pride and admiration of their neighbourhood (“Salam Festival” a long appraisal of Salam city, its men and women, the walls and streets, even its dirt was one of the first Mahraganat to surface.)
Such love of one’s neighbourhood extend to deeds, where Sadat continues to nurture ‘young stars’ who now look up to him. As for gratitude, he doesn’t charge residents of his neighbourhood during their weddings that he performs at and has continued living in the city of Salam.
Egypt’s social and political turmoil has created unique opportunities for this distinctive music of the popular quarters. Officials no longer have as much control over public space as they did before the revolution – which helps them perform in areas previously reserved for ‘stars’, and grow more audience among the middle and higher class. Still, a large portion of these classes patronize and look down on such music. Labeling it as music of the poor and drug addicts.
Even though Mahraganat was never intended to be political, the outbreak of the revolution affected the artists like it did the entire youth generation. Sticking to the joking attitude, they released a popular song “The People demand Five Pounds of Credit” intended to be a wordplay on the famous revolutionary chant “The people demand the downfall of the regime”. They have also released anti-SCAF (Egypt’s ruling military council during the transitional period) and have taken on President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. They also continue to tackle social and daily issues, the latest being harassment with their regular wit in the song “I May Catcall, But I’ll Never Grope”
Mahraganat is yet another step on the way of attempting liberation and wandering into the new found vaccum that is ready to be filled with experiments and creativity.
10 May 1990