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Music

Mahraganat

Echoes of the Battle

By Ahmed Naji
Translated by Humphrey Davies
Mahraganat music has provoked a major debate between its detractors and its supporters. It has gained huge listening and viewing percentages and been subjected to violent attack from the media and officialdom. In this article, writer and music critic Ahmed Naji examines the growth, evolution, production models, and most prominent makers of Mahraganat, as well as the paths it is taking toward becoming an established musical genre integrated with other forms of local and world music.

Commercial singers feel an earthquake under their feet, and struggle to understand why mahraganat is more in demand than “real songs.” The middle-class media platforms will continue to describe them as artistically decadent. They will make no effort to hide their contempt for and mockery of the class and cultural level of mahraganat singers and the residential districts from which they hail.’

I met Amr Haha for the first time about eight years ago. We were at El Sadat’s house and Alaa Fifty was with us. Neither stopped talking and singing, but Haha, sitting at the screen of the laptop on which mahraganat music was born, spoke no more than three sentences in the space of an hour.

That was 2012. The revolution was in the streets, the country was in flux, and a new music was being born. Haha talked to me about his relationship to music, which began while he was working in the cell phone business. In those distant days, selling cell phone ring tones was common. You would go to a phone store and choose a song, and the technician would install it as a ring tone on your instrument using simple electronic codes. 

Haha developed his skills to the point where he could use the phone’s keyboard to produce melodies that not only mimicked famous songs but combined them. Sometimes he would compose his own tunes too.

He took a drag on his cigarette and told me about how it all began, in 2010, when he woke up from his afternoon nap one day with the remnants of a strange dream still fixed in his mind. He then used the keyboard to write and score the tune that would later become known as “El Shandarbulla.” Haha would upload the tune onto the internet, where it caught the ear of the young mass audience, including El Sadat and Fifty, the duo who, with Haha, would make the tune their own and shape the first wave of mahraganat.

The main instrument in mahraganat is the computer; the keyboard provides the strings with which it is played. It falls, therefore, into the category of electronic music. However, it does not limit itself to the Western electronic music repertoire. Instead, it mixes its rhythms and melodic phrases with Eastern rhythms. Haha loves to introduce himself as “a distributor of Eastern beats.”

Mahraganat came from the streets, its factory lower-class weddings in the big cities. In 2012, we would hear on the tongues of mahraganat singers statements such as “We are the music of the streets”, and in the course of scattered interviews during that period, El Sadat would often say, “We are the voice of the poor and their neighborhoods.” While this discourse was part and parcel of the revolutionary fervor of the moment, it was also an expression of a crisis of identity these artists were facing. Makers of electronic music would not acknowledge them because they did not speak English, and the hotels and night clubs would not give them space. The existing shaabi singers likewise, refused to acknowledge them, at the beginning, because their songs lacked the traditional, blues-like mawwal element, with its couplets and repetitions. Their spontaneous response was to split off and start a new type of music that they could develop from scratch and to present themselves as the voice of the marginal urban areas that ring the large cities.

Most mahraganat singers began with lower-class weddings. El Sadat was a dancer at weddings, Okka and Ortega worked as DJs and as sayyits or nobatshiya. The sayyit/nobatshi echoes the voices of the audience and the singer at such weddings. He holds the “iron” (the mike) and repeats the salutations called out by the audience every time one to them gives money to the performer. Sometimes he plays the role of backup singer.

Before the appearance of mahraganat, weddings of this sort were led by a DJ, or a band plus a popular singer or two plus one or more female dancers. Then the mahraganat whirlwind came along and it all changed. No more music groups on stage and instead of the dancers, it was young people from the audience who danced.  The weddings turned into parties devoted exclusively to young males, as the older men weren’t at ease with the music or the new atmosphere.

As the music changed, so did the dancing. Ismail Fayed, the critic and writer specializing in contemporary arts, tells me how in 2008 he met a Spanish researcher who had come to Egypt and tried to document the breakdance phenomenon, especially in lower-class areas.

According to the researcher, the moves and steps of breakdance, linked to American rap and hip hop culture, had made the shift to Egypt, but steps and moves taken from such popular Egyptian dances as the knife dance had been added to them. Little by little, male dancers replaced female dancers on the stage and the new dance became associated with mahraganat and shared in its popularity. Fayed sees a number of reasons for the apparently irresistible spread of mahragant dancing, especially at weddings. “First, there is nothing alien about breakdance.  A large part of dance repertoire, in general and in Egypt in particular, is based on the reenactment of battles, but instead of killing your opponent you overcome him with your skillful moves. This appears clearly in the stick-fighting dance, for example. The second reason is the withdrawal of a public female presence in Egypt. Beginning in the nineties, “Oriental dancing” at lower-class weddings had turned into a kind of striptease, where the dancer would wear something like a bikini and perform a series of seductive moves. The Oriental dance as performed by Dunya, for example, or Fifi Abduh had gotten expensive, and if you wanted to watch it, you had to go to a five-star hotel. This left the field open for mahraganat dancing.”

With the overwhelming success of mahraganat singers, the cultural and arts production machine began to take notice. The emperor of down-and-dirty popular moves, Ahmad El Subki, hurried to invest in mahraganat’s success, inserting it into his movies and supporting especially the Okka and Ortega group, as well as El Madfaagiya (The Gunners) and El Dakhlawiya (The Guys from El Dekhila) from Alexandria. Mahraganat crashed the cinema industry, but the winning mix came with Muhammad Ramadan, who performed in a number of movies based around the character of “the regular guy,” “the thug,” and “the poor Upper Egyptian”; in each movie, he sings a song along with a mahraganat singer that becomes the movie’s theme tune and promotional jingle.

Singers who took this route became a part of the commercial entertainment and music industry in Egypt. They obtained licenses from the artists’ unions. Wedding halls in five-star hotels opened their doors to them. Advertising companies jostled one another to make contracts with them. With the open doors, however, came stereotyping and the demand that they play the same music every time and even maintain the same image and character—that of the poor young man who wears mismatched but fabulous clothes.

All the preceding resulted in the singer Muhammad Ramadan emerging as one of the most prominent voices of commercial mahraganat—a well-loved star, supported by the state and its institutions, indefatigably repeating the same song to the same music and proud to be wearing Versace boxers.

The other route was represented by El Sadat and Alaa Fifty, who were unable to find space in the commercial market because of the revolutionary tone of some of their songs at that time. They sang that “The Revolution Continues” or “The Cops Are Killing Us.” The doors of independent experimental theaters and foreign cultural centers were, on the other hand, open to them, and they joined the ambassadors of mahraganat to the world, carrying the form to Europe and collaborating frequently with European musicians.

Among the first arts producers to take note of this new music was Muhammad Rifaat, whose 100 Copies company had for years been a multifaceted studio and production operation putting out everything from experimental electronic music to Arab rock songs. Rifaat picked up on the new sound in the arts called mahraganat and wanted to introduce it to Europe and to the Egyptian cultural and artistic elite by including it at festivals (the original meaning, as it happens, of “mahraganat”) with a contemporary artistic stamp; or, in short, to introduce it to Cairo’s “Downtown” scene.

Then darkness fell on the city. Blood on the streets. The prison-ghoul gulped thousands into its maw but was not satisfied. The state reasserted its control over public space, and from 2014 on street weddings began to be restricted. Many theaters and cultural institutions closed their doors. The state handed control of the arts to the Musicians’ Union, and the Union’s president bestowed the policing on singer Hani Shaker (aka “the Prince of Sentiment”). Shaker began by trying to impose his hegemony over the field, pursuing, above all, the mahraganat singers, sometimes claiming that they did not have performance licenses or membership in the union and sometimes accusing them of promoting the use of drugs and corrupting public taste with their vulgar language.

The ease with which mahraganat can be produced encouraged hundreds of young people to enter the field, and quotation became a basic characteristic of their music, many recycling the same rhythm over and over. Words, therefore, became the touchstone of mahraganat. The music of mahraganat songs might all be similar or even based on melodies from any old musical genre, but only Hammo Bika could sing the words of “the Shameless Poet” that go: She was on fire and raring to go/Your rivals lined up for their turn/So you gripped the bed real hard/Afraid you were in for a burn/ . . . He’d sell his mother for a piece of hashish. (Song: We’re Going to Let Off a Nuclear Bomb).

The words of mahraganat songs are direct; they do not have to pass a censor. Their poets come from outside the cultural and musical milieu, and their lexicon clings to the asphalt of the street. Their ambition is to give voice to the marginal areas to which they belong and to valorize local speech.

Many mahraganat songs are written to order. For instance, “Islam Sannufa” comes and makes a deal with singer X to sing at his wedding. He makes a down payment and asks for a special song, and singer X then commissions his personal poet to write one for the wedding. In its traditional form, the mahraganat song begins with praise of the groom’s closest buddies and friends, then directs its praise at the groom, followed by a couple of lines about the treachery of friends. Then comes the strongest part of the song, the battle, when the singer starts dumping on an unnamed enemy or describes a battle conducted with machetes and the “automatic.” It ends with greetings to the groom, his friends, and the singer’s friends.

Some singers write their own words, but there are also unnamed poets whose words have shaped the mahraganat lexicon, such as “the Shameless Poet,” “the Poet of Passion,” and “the Crazy Dervish.” Some stick to the traditional structure of the mahraganat song and some refuse to write to order and think that directing greetings to the crowd at the wedding is the singer’s or the sayyit’s job, not the poet’s.

The speed with which mahraganat songs are created, find an audience, and are distributed, and the repetition of melodies and themes, mean that they are short-lived. A song appears, gets to the top of the charts and vanishes within a few days, to be replaced by a new song cloned from the preceding hit. This chaos stems in part from the absence of any legal framework to the world of mahraganat. There are no contracts, no production companies, and no intellectual property rights. As a result, disputes are always in the news, like the one over the song “The Girl Next Door,” whose tune is taken from a song by Muhammad Hamaqa. The mahraganat production framework is  located outside that of the  rest of Egyptian music and songs. From one perspective, this gives it freedom, as there is no censor to review the words; from another, however, the artists forfeit the benefits of their hard work, as there are no laws to protect their creations.

The state has placed public music venues under siege. At the same time, the development of the internet has given impetus to song and music platforms such as Spotify, Anghami, and Deezer, and these have taken music-making in general, and mahraganat in particular, to a new level.

“K” works as a music editor for one of these platforms. He explains, in simple terms, how the business now works:

  • You make the music, then upload it onto one of the music-selling platforms, such as DistroKid, TuneCore, or CD Baby.
  • You upload the song there and you specify the rights of those who had a role in its creation, i.e., 40% for the producer, 60% for the singer.
  • The platform takes charge of selling the song and collecting the earnings from the various music platforms, such as Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, TikTok, Google Play, TIDAL, and Tencent.

All this means that the distribution of Arabic music is now, for the first time, in the hands of global companies that work without censorship by Arab regimes, without paying taxes, and without the artist having any authority to audit their figures, ascertain their rights, or generally know whether they’re coming or going. Most importantly, the artists have no ability to negotiate with these entities.

In an article published by Mada Masr under the title “Spotify, Anghami, and the Song Distribution Services: Lost Paradise or Slum Housing?”, Charles Aql explains how these companies exercise absolute control over the returns on song sales. He says, “Spotify estimates the earnings on the transmission of one song one time to one user at between $0.006 and $0.0084, i.e., a profit of less than one dollar (80 cents) if you listen to an album with ten tracks ten times. This is then divided between the broadcasting and the production companies, generally at 30% to 70% respectively. When the production companies get their earnings from the broadcasting companies, they do not distribute it equally to the artists, i.e., each according to his share times the number of plays, but rather each according to his contract with the company, which will depend on the artist’s negotiating skills. It follows that Taylor Swift’s earnings on one play of a song will never be the same as the earnings on one play of a song by a singer of middling fame with the same company. The most popular artists have the clout to obtain higher percentages during the contract process. In this way, the rich become richer and owners of less well-known content are destroyed.”

Hammo Bika will never earn as much as Taylor Swift, but he will for sure make more than a major popular star such as Mohamed Mounir.

During an interview with Lamis El Hadidi, when she asked him how much he earned from YouTube alone, Bika answered that he made 80,000 Egyptian pounds per month. One can only wonder what the figures are for the rest of the platforms.

This money goes directly into the pocket of the mahraganat singer and not into those of the distribution and production companies, as it would have before. Not surprisingly, singers who are union members are up in arms and use all the weapons at their disposal to attack the mahraganat singers, especially now that mahraganat has attracted the attention of the middle and affluent classes. In this respect, things have reached the point at which the government itself once invited singer Hasan Shakush to perform “The Girl Next Door” at a major event.

Commercial singers feel an earthquake under their feet. One of them, Rami Sabri, even asked last year, “Why don’t people listen properly any more? Has the public changed so much that mahraganat is more in demand now than real songs? I mean, what happened? I wish the public would appreciate more the effort and hard work that we put in. It’s just not on that the new big thing should be mahraganat. It’s a disgrace!”

Despite his enthusiasm for the new music and mahraganat, “K” does not believe that it will last long with the same strength and breadth of appeal. In his view, it is “a musical trend that will consume itself and keep producing the same themes over and over again, and the public will quickly become bored.” He gives as an example Hammo Bika, who, after a meteoric rise, saw his popularity-meter needle dive and figures decline.

Many of the stars and creators of mahraganat have also noted this repetition and cloning and the way in which the media pigeon holes them within a restricted artistic model, according to which Hammo Bika, for example, is heir to the model established by Shaaban Abd El Rahim. This has led them to move toward other musical genres and mix the mahraganat experience with Egyptian and Arab rap, which is fast gaining popularity.

Hammo Bika, El Dakhlawiya, El Madfaagiya, and Abduh Seitara still stay within the outlines of the image of the mahraganat singer that took shape ten years ago. Others, however, such as El Sadat, Ortega, Shubra El General, Alaa Fifty, and Zuksh wi-Inaba, have gone in a new, more experimental, direction.  They have moved away from the image of the mahraganat singer at the lower-class wedding and combined mahraganat with rap and hip hop to begin a rising new trend. Credit for this should go specifically to a new generation of music distributors from different musical backgrounds, such as Totti, Marawan Mousa, Wizza Muntasir, and, of course, the most famous name in the world of music distribution, the star-maker Ahmad Ashraf, known as Molotof.

Molotof studied editing and was not originally a fan of mahraganat. He was closer to techno, trap, and Western hip hop. The turning point in his life came when he saw the movie Electro-shaabi by Tunisian-French director Hind Meddeb, which documents the rise of mahraganat music against a background of the noise of the street clashes and battles that followed the Revolution in 2012 and 2013. Molotof says, “The movie made me think that the techno and trap I was knocking myself out over were nice and everything but they weren’t from here, weren’t from our culture. At the same time, we have mahraganat right here—something of our own. I really got into it and began listening carefully to mahraganat and I thought, This is the music I want to do.”

Molotof believed that rap and mahraganat were linked by a common thread and by combining the two he created a personal voice that falls somewhere in the middle and is known as “Molotof,” a voice that Molotof himself defines as “a music that carries within it an echo of Upper Egyptian folklore, techno, and dark acid, with overtones from the world of hip hop.” Molotof takes a moment to choose his words, then goes on, “It’s music with a high energy charge but it isn’t dance music. It’s an energy that stems from the excitement of revolution and rebellion. It’s anarchical in structure and it’s the sound of street clashes, anger, depression, sorrow, and joy—every contradiction together at the same instant.”

The first song experiment to achieve wide fame and carry Molotof’s name was I’m One of the Leads with Alaa Fifty. More experiments followed with mahraganat stars from El Sadat to Shubra El General.

Mahraganat has imposed itself on Egypt. This said, it remains a totally male sound. There is a complete absence of female voices and indeed of any female presence at any stage of its making. And whatever commercial success you may achieve, and even if you become Muhammad Ramadan and revel in your millions and your Porsche, the official institutions of the state and the middle-class media platforms will continue to describe you as artistically decadent. They will make no effort to hide their contempt for and mockery of the class and cultural level of mahraganat singers and the residential districts from which they hail. They are, in the words of Dean of Egyptian Musicians Hani Shaker (age 67), “the proven fathers of society’s cultural and moral decline.”

Molotof

Came from the world of electronic music to change both the rap and mahraganat music scenes. Strongly recommend his songs, especially those with El Sadat.

Shubra El General

One of the strangest vocal experiences in mahraganat, especially at the level of the words, which he writes himself. Has his own private lexicon and topics far removed from those that dominate in mahraganat—topics enveloped in an atmosphere of mystery and welling up from a place of nightmares. Sometimes combines words from the street with phrases from classical and modern Arabic poetry.

General Okka

After the break-up of the duo “Okka and Ortega,” Okka has shone, displaying his skill at the making of music suffused with a shaabi repertoire. The literal definition of “deceptively easy.”

Alaa Fifty

For many years, Alaa was backup singer to El Sadat. Following the duo’s break-up it took dozens of experiments of various kinds for him to find his own voice. We recommend all his songs produced by DJ Totti or Marawan Mousa.

El Sadat El Alami

The “Trailer Monster” who every so often changes his skin. Born in Madinet El Salam and still insists on living there. Converted his private studio into a launch pad available to artists from all over. Has fostered so many experiments that he has become known as “the Daddy of the field.” We especially recommend his album “Music of the Twenty-First Century.”

El Madfaagiya

Kings of the successful mix. One of the longest-lasting bands. They began at the bottom of mahraganat and have arrived at a blend with its own character, something between mahraganat and rap.