Electro-Shaabi has entrenched itself into common culture — blaring out of microbuses, on TV ads and featuring in almost every single movie released. But is it just youngsters making noise, or is the genre here to stay?
By Passant Rabie
I t’s a quiet Saturday night on the streets of Downtown Cairo. Past Talaat Harb Street, a crowd slowly shuffles into a narrow, low-lit alley that leads to one of Cairo’s popular pubs, After Eight. As the place fills up, excitement takes over this relatively homogenous crowd of young, upper- to middle-class boys and girls.
Sadat, in his late twenties, dressed in an ice-cap and a dark hoodie, passes through the small venue, high-fiving a few who recognize him. As soon as he gets on stage, he grabs the microphone and starts belting out a highly synthesized blend of modern rap with old-school Egyptian street music.
The same sounds have been creeping into our everyday lives over the past couple of years. Back then we would catch the beats from a motorcycle or microbus weaving through traffic or hear them playing in the evening on the doorman’s handy cassette player. Today, it’s everywhere: in TV commercials, at weddings and in the movies. The sounds that started out in small neighborhoods and informal housing areas on the outskirts of Cairo have found their up way through the trendiest parties for upscale Egyptians and exploded into the mainstream.
Shaabi, or popular, music, is rooted in the working class of the 1980s. It came at a crucial time of change in the country, when former President Anwar Sadat put an end to the socialist policies put forth by his predecessor President Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, Egypt had lost musical greats such as Om Kolthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Farid Al-Atrach, who were famous for softer, classical songs of love. As a result, there was a shift in Egyptian music from fantasy to realism.
And nothing was more real than the everyday woes of Egypt’s working class, struggling to make ends meet. Derived from the language heard on the street, shaabi music is typically crude and irreverent, which is why it received a lot of criticism when it first came out and was not allowed to be played on radio stations. But the singers were not looking for approval from music critics, as they had already gained it from the streets where shaabi music was being sold on original and bootlegged cassettes.
Popular singer Ahmad Adawiya was perhaps the first widely known artist of the genre. Emerging from Mohammed Ali Street, Adawiya was the typical working man who started off as a plumber and later became a waiter at a local café. He spoke out against social injustices and government policies — and people listened.
Other singers who emerged from the same genre include Hakeem, Shaaban “Shaabola” Abdel Reheem and most recently Abo El-Leef. Currently signed with Nile Record Productions, Abo El-Leef has often been credited with reviving the folk art form in a contemporary manner, and the humor he incorporates in his lyrics has made him a popular artist not only among lower classes but with the nation’s elite as well.
Sounds from the underground
Meanwhile, shaabi music in the underground scene was developing with foreign influences like synthesized sounds, a blend of rap, electronica and pop — hence the label electro- or techno-shaabi. A few artists started making it out of their small neighborhoods and into the limelight of mainstream music, performing at the so-called shaabi weddings. Held in a back alley or a street corner, shaabi weddings are essentially a big party with loud music, dancing, a performer, alcohol and hasheesh. Another performance opportunity would be at mahraganat (street festivals); the artists set up their equipment on the street and start playing music, drawing large crowds of neighbors who would break out into dance in front of their doorstep or in their balcony.
This is where Amr HaHa, one of the more prominent DJs and music producers in the genre, got his start. “I started performing in mahragan shaabi in 2003, before the revolution, not after like some people think,” says HaHa.
In his early thirties, the DJ is surprisingly soft spoken and quiet offstage, and a perfect gentleman who opened doors and pulled out chairs for me. His tame behavior reflects nothing of his unforgiving music that holds nothing back, most notably his song “Aha el shibshib da’a,” or “F***, I’ve lost my slippers,” in which he mourns the loss of his favorite pair of slippers.
At first, HaHa recorded his own songs on cassettes and release them before he started performing live for people on the street. He refers to his specific style of shaabi music as mahraganat, which he credits himself for developing by incorporating auto-tune, a technology first used in Western songs to create an electronic-sounding, high-pitched tone first made famous by Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” The result is an almost hypnotic sound that’s catchy and will likely be stuck in your head all day.
“I tried it out on a track, and it became popular,” says HaHa. “We created a new style, a new type of shaabi music that combined Western and Eastern influences.”
For the longest time, however, there was a conflict over who had created this new sound, and it caused a rift between HaHa and other producers. Much like in the world of hip-hop, shaabi artists band together into different crews. We’re a crew of about seven or eight people, some are in Alexandria, Suez,” says HaHa. “Within our group, there are no disputes but outside of it, people like to say things about us and talk about our crew in their songs.”
Another famous local crew is DJ Ortega’s Tamanya fil meya (The Eight Percent). More often than not there is “beef” between different crews, and they put it out in their music by dissing, or insulting, each other on their tracks.
Sadat, a member of HaHa’s crew, says that new crews have it easy; the veterans had to struggle until the type of music they perform became a trend.
“I’m happy with the way shaabi music developed but it was an injustice to us,” complains Sadat. “We were treated unfairly because we’ve been working at this for years and we were ridiculed and insulted, but today there are new people who just became successful easily. But who put up with all the ridicule?”
HaHa and his crew were performing in street festivals until they got noticed by the music scene in London and were invited to do a concert in Hyde Park in 2011. Even though the concert was in another country, it helped catapult their career back home: When they returned, the crew was asked to perform at El Geneina Theater in October 2011.
“At first, we used to only play in shaabi areas, [and] people who used to listen to house and that stuff, they used to call it bee’a [unclassy] music,” says Sadat. “After we played in London, shaabi music blew up because now foreigners were listening to it.”
Sadat started to perform about six years ago after being inspired by musical genres from across the Atlantic: rap and hip-hop. “They spoke of their streets, using street slang and expressions,” he recalls. “It had this feel that you could say anything you wanted.”
Due to his musical influences, Sadat is one of the few shaabi singers whose lyrics venture into politics. “We’re the only ones in this genre who speak about politics, everyone else talks about women, and trivial things but we like to deliver a message to people,” says Sadat, pointing to songs such as “Esma’a Meny Hekayet Thawra” (Listen to the Story of a Revolution), which they released on January 29, 2011, following the infamous Friday of Anger, and ‘Ana Nefsy bas fi Rayes’ (All I want is a President).
DJ HaHa also believes in delivering a message to the masses, for example on topics such as sexual harassment. “I don’t just want to make people dance. I give you good music and good words to go along with it,” he maintains, complaining about being lumped with the rest of the shaabi scene. “A lot of people object to what we do, because what is popular now is mahraganat.”
“They don’t think of it as music,” adds Sadat. “They think of me as a ‘monologist’ [comedian] but I’m not here to make people laugh.”
Today, that impression is beginning to change, particularly with the wide reach shaabi music is enjoying. “Before, people didn’t pay attention to our genre because it wasn’t well known,” says HaHa. “It would only play in the street so they didn’t think anything of it, but now we’re gaining ground.”
The transition from being unknowns to getting all this attention has not been easy, and the crew fears that it’s for all the wrong reasons.
While shaabi music started off as the music of the working class, it is now being played to crowds where the everyday challenges of life in an impoverished neighborhood is not only irrelevant but perhaps also incomprehensible. And much like how privileged teenagers in suburban America began to dress in so-called “hip-hop clothes” with baggy pants and chains, upper-class audiences of the shaabi genre began to mimic dance moves that reflect a street culture that they are likely unfamiliar with. The waving hand gestures on the dance floor imitate the brandishing of matwa pocket knives and wooden sticks, sans the actual weapons.
But then again, there’s also a chance that shaabi music can help in narrowing the gap between Egypt’s diverse, and distant, social classes.
“The people who go in here,” says HaHa, pointing to the After Eight pub, “walk in the street, pass by a microbus, and when they hear something they like, they’ll go online and download it. When people interact with us on stage, then it’s the same as in the street, the hotel, the club. The music itself makes you move because it’s fast and has power.”
Sadat feels the same way, but he still longs for the streets. “There is a difference in the streets, you are not confined in what you can say. But in other areas, they would tell you not to talk about a certain issue, ‘Don’t say this, don’t talk about this.’ Still, anywhere where people listen to me, I like to perform. If they have accepted our style of music, then I can’t judge.” et