After sneaking its way into the mainstream through movies and TV series, Egypt's once-underground 'Mahragan' genre of music has proven extremely popular among the majority of music lovers in the 100-million-strong country.
Mahragan (or Mahraganat) music can be heard today almost anywhere in the country: on the streets, public transportation, or weddings.
Love it or hate it, the genre has become ubiquitous and undeniable, and has even transcended social class. So, the artists who create this music are demanding their art be taken seriously as a legitimate art form.
"If you don't acknowledge our music, we will not recognise your art," shouted a famous Mahragan singer Hamo Biko from inside the Egyptian Music Syndicate headquarter, and warned of a "revolution" if the genre – which has brought him fame and wealth – is not allowed to flourish.
"Swimming in a sea of treachery, the scoundrel's coast is overflowing with wicked hearts, and there is no safety to be found on land." These are lyrics from the Mahragan smash summer hit 'Faces are colors',' which has been covered by mainstream artists.
In Egypt, being a popular singer is not enough qualification to be granted a license to perform at public venues. No matter how many millions of viewers stream your releases daily or how many street weddings you perform in, the law requires any live music performer to have authorisation from the Music Syndicate.
This has presented a problem for up-and-coming Mahragan artists, who have found trouble gaining acceptance from the old guard of Egyptian music.
"How far we have fallen. We are experiencing a new level of chaos," said the current head of the Music Syndicate Hany Shaker, a longtime star singer whose career first saw success during the era of music giants like Umm Kulthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Abdel-Halim Hafez.
'Bring me Vodka and Chivas' is a song with over 100 million views on YouTube by Hamo Bika and his band, where the first chorus goes, "I'm the youth minister. I have a claw and a tusk. No, I have no friends, my friend is the pound."
Hamo Bika, whose has nearly a billion total views on YouTube, recently made the news after making a live-stream video from the syndicate headquarters where he slammed the syndicate for "preventing" artists like him from joining by demanding exorbitant entry fees.
Bika later apologised to syndicate head Shaker, whom he had lambasted in the video, and asked that the veteran singer take Mahragan artists "under his wing."
"I am not against the Mahragan style or its singers, but they should at least choose their lyrics carefully," said Shaker, announcing that new regulations are being discussed by the syndicate to adjust the criteria for entry into the syndicate, which requires that singers pass singing tests.
It is not yet clear when these new regulations would be adopted, but the issue of accepting Mahragan singers into the syndicate has already generated controversy within the music community, much of which considers the new genre lowbrow and eroding public taste.
Others, however, are arguing that this is a matter of freedom of expression and that no one should impose any specific form of music on the public.
'Mafish Saheb Yetsaheb' is one of the Mahragan genre's first and most popular tracks. The song's first verse starts with, "Friends can no longer be befriended. Men are no longer men. If he is a tough guy, then so are we. Show your weapon in its glory. If you cut me, I will cut you and ruin your face."
'Give me a microphone and I will blast'
It all started in 2008 in several working districts in big Egyptian cities like Cairo and Alexandria, where ambitious youth used only a microphone and a simple audio interface cracked on a cheap personal computer to make their voice heard.
The songs' lyrics were laden with themes of macho posturing, lust, drugs, alcohol and weapons, often using heavy slang and not necessary rhyming or being logically consistent. The songs convey a sense of reckless behaviour, sometimes wrapped in street ethics and values, and often touching on one of the genre's favourite topics: treacherous friends.
Often lacking the time or resources to learn how to sing in tune, Mahragan artists utilise digital pitch-correct plug-ins (widely known as auto-tune) adjusted for Arabic quarter-note scales. The technique is mastered only by the few producers.
"Give me a kiss, girl. Give me a piece, girl," Oka and Ortega sing in one of the earliest Mahragan hits to make it to the mainstream. After almost a decade of stardom, the duo is expected to pass the syndicate exam, with the syndicate head saying that they are better than some of their counterparts.
Almost a decade ago, before trends gained popularity on social media, the ideal marketing platform for the newly born Mahragan genre was the tuk tuk, one of Egypt's cheapest and most widespread forms of public transportation. Tuk tuk drivers, many of whom are teenagers, were quick to take a liking to the genre, which they felt spoke to their worlds.
The new genre, named Mahragan (translated to "festival," or "hullabaloo"), quickly gained steam, making its way into movies and TV series and gaining popularity among the upper classes. Today, the genre has come to dominate the mainstream, and is used in ads and marketing campaigns by mega-corporations.
"Give me a microphone and I will blast. This is a sweet gathering that brings all around," sing El-Swissy and Kanaka in a track with El-Madfageya.
With its simple characteristics – the auto-tune, the dry beat samples and mixing, the repetitive melody, the powerful breaks, and the monotonous rap-like vocals – the Mahragan rapidly gripped the taste of a generation, taking over not only its mother genre Shaabi, but even mainstream pop.
'Learn music or shut up'
Head of the Music Syndicate Shaker has said that "there is no inherently flawed music, but the lyrics are full of intolerable words and meanings."
Others have argued that in addition to the lyrics, some of the productions constitute a "crime" against the art form of music.
Fathy Salama, the only Arab Grammy-winning music producer, has gone even further in his criticism of the genre.
"What started as a creative fusion of Western styles like Rap, Trap or Hip Hop with the Egyptian rhythm has turned into a vapid commercial enterprise of impertinence, insipidity, silliness and ignorance," Salama told Ahram Online, insisting that anyone involved in music must have minimum criteria of knowledge and skills.
"Leave me alone," chanted Kosbara and Hangara in their early 2019 hit, which won them much infamy.
"The syndicate's testing criteria must be changed in general, but for the Mahragan style, the performer must at least be capable of singing rhythmically and in tune."
Salama, the "godfather" of many top underground bands and musicians and who played a vital role in shaping mainstream pop in the 1970s and 80s, suggested that specific measures be adopted by the syndicate to address the issue.
"If [Mahragan singers] fail the syndicate's test, they should take an elementary music course organised by the syndicate for a month or two to focus on ear training more than music theory. If they refuse to learn, they must be banned," Salama said.
"This type of ignorance has to stop. There must be boundaries. Many of [the Mahragan singers] have turned very commercial and don't want to learn. This must be controlled by the law, an emergency law, because the public has become incapable of evaluating [music] due to the degradation in public tastes."
An early performance for two of the Mahragan pioneers Sadat and Figo in London
Mahragan is 'a message of hope' in which the country should invest
Ahram Online spoke to Mahmoud Refaat, a top producer of Mahragan music and a supporter of its artists through his project 100Copies.
Refaat described the controversy as "a classic conflict. The older generation verses a wave of change by the youth."
"The main message that the Mahragan genre delivers to the youth is one of hope. It is a big business that the country should bring under its umbrella and reap its economic and moral fruits," said the internationally-recognised musician.
Refaat has toured across the globe with Mahragan and Shaabi musicians including pioneers like Amr Haha, El-Madfageya, Figo, Fifty, Sadat, Islam Chipsy and many others, producing songs, performances, intercultural workshops and documentaries.
"No, No" is one of 100Copies Studio's biggest hits with singer 'El-Sawareekh'
"The syndicate's role should be limited to protecting the rights of musicians, not to act as an arbiter of taste or impose any specific style. Let the crowd make its own choice," Refaat argued.
'Cultural collapse' left the door open for the Mahragan
Iconic Egyptian violinist and composer Abdo Dagher, who played an essential role in shaping the Arabic music scene for six decades, told Ahram Online that there is problem of a lack of quality in music production.
"These boys are finding work because there is nobody else out there. In recent decades, not a single artist in Egypt could be compared to Umm Kulthoum, Abdel-Wahab, Karem Mahmoud, Mohamed Qandil or many others of these generations," the co-founder of the Troop for Arabic Music said.
"There are no real singers, Quran reciters or Islamic chanters. Egypt hasn't had culture for decades. We've lost God's gifts since the 1950s. Before then, we had the best science, literature, and icons of art."
"We have opened the door for these boys to dominate the music scene because of the lack of culture," said the internationally-celebrated Dagher, who has collaborated and taught successive generations of Egyptian and Arab musicians.
"Show me your mettle, I will not back down. I am under the influence of Apetryl (pharmaceutical pills).The girl we fell out over, has spread her legs under your watch,"says one of the many Mahragan songs by unknown artists online. The song has garnered tens of millions of views.
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