- By Sam Shaw
Often economics is used to reference the health or status of a country–but yet sometimes the best metric of change is music. During the French revolution, “rescue” operas were commissioned by the government to idealize the tenets of populist revolt; the 90’s Grunge movement in the United States immortalized the yearnings of extreme individualism during a decade of disillusionment.
Egypt, in the throws of a protracted revolution, has developed its own peculiar sound, colloquially called Mahraganat, or Electro Sha’bi to outsiders. As a bootleg genre, it first started to develop in the streets of the Egyptian ‘Ashwa’iyyat’: the network of improvised and impoverished settlements around Cairo. Characterized by crude synthesized beats paired with scattered rap vocals, Mahragan embodies its origins of hardship. It would be a surprise then to find that this new style is typically associated with wedding ceremonies, where it is often more affordable then the traditional Zaffa procession.
After the formative period for the genre, consisting of door-to-door CD circulation, artists began finding acceptance through their spontaneous gigs in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. With Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, the historic control over public demonstrations has been relaxed allowing prominent Mahragan artists to perform for larger audiences, and in turn appeal to the country at large. Since 2011, many popular songs written as odes to the rough life in the ‘Ashwa’iyyat’ have been replaced by more socially aware lyricism, with much of the subject matter surrounding Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, posing a risk to a flagging presidency with an approval rating of 47 percent. In the words of one Electro Sha’bi artist,
The people want something new [to think about]
The people want five pounds’ phone credit
The people want to topple the regime
But the people are so damn tired.
The future of Mahragan, as with all fledgling genres, is tenuous at best; and yet it is hard not draw a parallel between it and the hip-hop movement that arose in the U.S. during the 1970s as an artful expression of life in the Bronx. Perhaps Mahragan can follow suit and serve as a refreshing social commentary reflective of the youthful unrest in Egypt’s capital.