Mahraganat artist Sadat (right) and Teklife's Taye - Youtube still from Ayez eh, 100Copies Music official channel
CAIRO - 9 October 2018: In a yellow shirt, denim overalls, loose-hanging suspenders and a red cap, DJ Sadat shouted into the microphone at a concert in Downtown Cairo last spring, “let’s hear some noise in the place!”
The audience at the Greek Campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC) was going wild as DJ Sadat showed off a few popping moves. US band Teklife soon joined him on stage, and DJ Taye awed onlookers with his footwork and chaabi fusion mahraganat music, also dubbed “electro chaabi.”
“For some people it’s completely new, other people who listen to more hip-hop and rap could probably appreciate it. But at one point, I think everybody kinda got what’s going on between the rapping, the dancing, and the live DJing,” Taso, the band’s record producer, tells Egypt Today.
Teklife's DJ Taye (left) and DJ Taso in Cairo - Mohamed el-Hossary
Mahraganat first emerged in Salam City, a slum area in Cairo, in around 2007. Wass, one of the producers of Teklife, says the relatively new subgenre reminded him of grime, an early UK electronic style, when he first heard it. DJ Sadat, in turn, says, “they [Teklife] are very good, and I’ve been listening to this kind of music for a long time. It’s mahraganat [more electronic than usual] localized for a European audience.”
The spring concert was in line with the US Embassy’s American Music Abroad (AMA) program, which collaborated with the acclaimed 100copies label to provide a grant for the production of a duet between Sadat and Taye. The result was the clip ‘Ayez eh?’ (what do you want?), which has been viewed more than 1.4 million times since it was released in spring, and calls on audiences to avoid negativity and people who bring you down.
The concert began with classical Arabic covers that the audience all knew, but that stood in stark contrast to the loud, fast beats and dancing when the mahraganat musicians took the stage. In recent years, this has become the ambience of most events drawing Egyptian millennials, from weddings to Nile cruises.
Although mahraganat artists might not speak a foreign language, they follow international music and dance to develop their art, even imitating Western dance moves in their own interpretation. Many Western musicians have shot Youtube videos dancing to maharaganat in the adapted versions of their music.
“We don’t speak the same language, but music is a universal language. We both speak tones and I feel real rawness from where mahraganat and footwork come from,” Taye says. DJ Taye notes that both mahraganat and Teklife are futuristic, progressive, and experimental, alike in their electronic tunes, rap and dance moves.
Taso also explains that Teklife’s music and mahraganat share “the drums, the clapping, the energy; our music has a faster tempo, but if we slow it down or they speed their music up, I’m sure you’d find a lot of commonalities,” Taso argues.
“It is the only kind of music that presents social issues rather than love,” says DJ Sadat whose most-watched song on Youtube, Dracula, recounts his journey as the Dracula of his area and a fatal threat to all his rivals.
The DJ argues that even Egyptian popular music tackles love rather than the society: “We have spent too much time on romantic music, unlike Ismail Yassin and Shukuku, who presented social issues in a comical fashion. You could say mahraganat has the same message; the youth wanted someone to speak for them.”
Ismail Yassin (right) and Shukuku (left) in the movie Lailat al-Eid
Yassin (1912-1972) and Shukuku (1912-1985) did not produce music that could be at all comparable to mahraganat, however, what the pair has in common with mahraganat artists is that their lyrics are generally long; they seem to “talk” to their audience. Their body language is amusingly expressive, although mahraganat is accompanied by dancing moves unconventional to Egyptians, such as robot dancing, popping, crotch grabbing, and varied choreography emphasizing keeping one’s hips open.
Mahmoud Refat, the artist behind 100copies, has been of great support to mahraganat musicians. He emphasized that he does not interfere in their music, but gives advice when it comes to “juvenile” lyrics, profanity and misogyny.
100Copies founder Mahmoud Refat (back) and popular keyboard master Islam Chipsy (front) during the Insomnia music festival of Norway – Youtube still from ARTE Concert official channel
“The subject matter [in mahragant] is raw, uncut. A lot of our songs aren’t about love and heartbreak and cheesy things like that. It is about the reality we’re living every day; that’s what our music reflects,” Taso explains.
The YouTube views on mahraganat artists such as chaabi keyboard master Islam Chipsy, and DJs Sadat, Figo, Diesel, bands such as Sawareekh (rockets) and Madfa’giya (artillerymen) do not at all match the numbers of TV and radio interviews they get. And although millions watch mahraganat videos on YouTube in the Arab world, many of which lack an actual video clip, the music remains an exclusive genre of Cairo slums.
Mahraganat duo Oka and Ortega are arguably two of the few artists who have been acknowledged by the Egyptian media and are frequently seen on TV. Today no longer considered part of the underground scene, their top-viewed song on YouTube, with over 150 million views, is ‘El’ab Yala’ (play, boy), which recounts the story of a young man who wants to repent, but “the devil” tempts him back into his bad habits. When the devil tells the singers to “play, boy,” youth on the dance floor jump in ecstasy, as if encouraging him to “play” rather than repent.
Helping bring mahraganat to the world is 100copies, which has helped Islam Chipsy and other mahraganat DJs to perform in France, the UK, Portugal and other countries.
The song ‘Ayez Eh’ meant more for Teklife than commercial success; it was an opportunity to work on a different style, and Taso said he would incorporate mahraganat music in his future products.
“The scales that I used here in the melodies aren’t the most common ones in our country, so for me it’s really fun to accentuate these frequencies in the local area and create anamalgamation of what I love and they love. It’s amazing working with someone who makes music that you’ve never made before,” he added.
US band Teklife left a small fan base behind them after the AUC concert and their song Ayez Eh. To this audience, Taso says, “I want them to know that not every American is the same. We’re not all the same people, but for those of us who are here representing where we’re from, we got a lot of love. So, I hope they can see, understand and appreciate that. It would mean a lot to us if that’s what’s received from what we gave.”