Mahraganat, or festival, music, also known as electro-folk or working-class rap, is all the rage in Egypt, changing the nature of song and wedding traditions across the country. It has also given birth to a new Egyptian form of dance that has burst onto the world stage. However, some see this music as vulgar and turn up their noses at its creators.
The songs came under fire after a concert at the Cairo International Stadium to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The concert hosted popular Mahraganat singer Hassan Shakoosh, who sang a song using words that critics say overstep the moral values of society like “drinking alcohol and smoking hashish.”
Famed singer and Musicians Syndicate president Hani Shaker was then quick to issue a statement banning Mahraganat on the grounds that “all sections of society reject this rage that threatens Egyptian art and culture.” Shaker explained that the lyrics included “negative meanings and promote immoral behaviour” that is not in sync with the Syndicate’s mission and “overstep the moral values of society.”
MP Salah Hasballah went even further when he slammed Mahraganat as being “more dangerous than the corona virus” and called on parliament to hold a debate on the issue. Other MPs joined forces and said that this type of “low-taste” music should be banned “to protect public taste.” The Supreme Council for Media Regulation is also considering a ban on TV shows featuring Mahraganat singers.
According to the ban, Mahraganat singers will not be allowed to perform in clubs, cafes, hotels, concert venues, or on Nile cruise boats. But the ban seems unlikely to affect the popularity of the songs, which are still available online, driving millions of fans to dance to their beat.
I was driving recently on Ramses Street heading to Giza with a friend and asked him to choose some music to play during our commute. I hinted that I liked Mahraganat. “This one’s new,” he declared, putting on a song, but a few bars in I realised that I had already heard it blaring out of cars, tok-toks and microbuses for days but didn’t know who was singing.
“It’s called Bint Al-Giran [Girl Next Door] by Hassan Shakoush,” he said. When the song was over, I asked him to play it again three times.
A few days later, a Facebook friend, an Egyptian businesswoman living in Canada, was praising the song in one of her posts, saying that since she had heard the song, she could not get it out of her head. The same thing happened with another friend, a young broadcaster at an online radio station who publishes on Instagram while she is driving to the tunes of Mahraganat.
The waiter at my favourite traditional coffee shop in Al-Dhaher in Cairo who is in his 20s agreed. He is called Sharabeya because of where he lives, the working-class district of Sharabeya, and he also adored bint al-giran and breaks out into song as he nimbly manoeuvres around the tables serving drinks.
This song has thus drawn fans of different ages and social classes. Then it came second in the top 10 of the most listened to songs on the SoundCloud music-streaming platform, with more than five million listeners in one week and more than 45 million since the song was released. It even surpassed a song by billionaire businessman Elon Musk, which came in at eighth place. This must be a landmark for Egyptian Mahraganat music.
Shakoush, who sings a duet song with singer Omar Kamal Bint Al-Giran, also has another song called Shams Al-Higra (Migrant Sun) with famous Mahraganat singer Hammo Bika, which came in at seventh place. Bint Al-Giran has more than 70 million views on YouTube, and Shakoush received YouTube’s golden shield after subscribers to his channel climbed to more than one million.
This form of music first appeared towards the end of 2007 in the Cairo working class district of Dar Al-Salam among the area’s young people. Singer Amr Haha composed the first song with the help of friends who also contributed vocals, calling it Salam Carnival. The music evolved into a rap style of folk music that also blends in rap beats and techno melodies, or what is known as electro-folk music with a local flavour by using music apps that add the singer’s voice. The lyrics are mostly about life in working class areas in Egypt, problems of poverty, marginalisation, and friendship. The genre burst out onto the music scene in 2011 and has continued to be popular until today.
The reason is mainly due to the fact that it is not costly to produce, does not need studios, and does not rely on sophisticated equipment. Instead, it uses apps that are downloaded for free from the Internet, something that has played a key role in popularising Mahraganat music, which now has a massive audience and millions of views on YouTube. Al-Wisada Al-Khaleya (Empty Pillow), for example, reached two million views in less than one week.
Mahraganat music is popular on television, radio and even in cinema, and film producers rely on it in many films in order to promote them.
Okka and Ortega
WHAT’S IN A NAME? The name comes from mahragan, or festival, because the songs mainly rely on a fast beat, dancing, and being blared out over speakers.
You cannot listen to this music with the volume turned down because you will want to dance no matter how sorrowful the lyrics. The most famous Mahraganat bands are Okka, Ortega, Madfaageya (Canons), Etihad Al-Qemma (Top League), Figo, Fareek al-Ahlam (Dream Team) and Hammo Bika, and the most famous producer is Figo Al-Dakhlawi.
The music is now used at the opening act at some weddings and other events as a cheap means to entertain the guests. It has changed the face of some Egyptian weddings and spurred fans to start a new dance craze. However, despite such humble beginnings, Mahraganat music has made its way to the upper classes as well, often by being shared on the app TikTok. Today, some Mahraganat singers go on tour in Europe and the US.
Even so, the mainstream media has often been snobbish towards Mahraganat, describing its audience as being uneducated or not having sophisticated tastes. The music’s producers have hit back by pointing to their vast number of fans and followers. It’s the fans who put a mahragan singer opposite a top interviewer on television to talk about his musical journey, and the fans are the reason journalists now write about the trend in the newspapers.
Mahraganat producers use the Internet as a marketing tool to reach their audience, since the majority of fans are Internet users. The Internet can also be a means of evading monitoring by the traditional media, which at times has muzzled the singers entirely. Some edits demanded by officials are not popular with listeners, but on the Internet the singers can write and perform as they please. Many critics despise this genre of music, and only a handful support it as a new form that speaks for a certain class in society that has no other means of expressing themselves in the arts.
Most young people from all classes are interested in Mahraganat music, and new moves have been invented on the dance floor. Older people often find the music vulgar and a nuisance, saying that it has a negative impact on the young and is the polar opposite of authentic Egyptian music. Others believe it is a new genre that is distasteful to some but adored by others, especially young people.
Fayrouz Karawya, an Egyptian sociologist, explained that Mahraganat music has marked the beginning of the decline of the previous genre of singing. “The controversy is because older musicians feel they are losing their symbolic power, something that was already seen in the case of the popular singer Hamid Al-Shaaeri and his song Lolaki in the 1980s. We forget the uproar and indignation this song caused, but now we even consider it a classic although at the time it was considered tacky and vulgar.”
“This time, the new musical trend began in poorer areas of Cairo, and it has opened the door to exciting developments when combined with other genres and has developed its own lexicon that addresses all young people. Middle and upper-class listeners complain of profanity and violent content, adding that the music is crude and unsophisticated,” she said.
“Variations of the format have evolved, until it achieved fame under the name ‘electro-folk’, and listeners from outside the Arab world became fans. Because it is available on SoundCloud, it has been able to attract foreign listeners who are now more accustomed to the genre. On YouTube, followers of Mahraganat are mostly Egyptians and Arab nationals.”
For Karawya, the music should be taken on is merits.
“Art is in the eye of the beholder. Music that contains violence, hatred or gender discrimination is one thing, but this music has its own particular poetry. Some describe the music as crude, seeing its producers as vulgar and detesting their behaviour. But the question is why certain circles believe they have the right to regulate art by banning it. In fact, it is the popularity of the music that has protected the singers from elite disapproval,” she said.
DISTRIBUTION: Karawya pointed out that Internet distribution had meant that the music has been able to evade many controls, even on copyright enforcement or pirating protected content.
“The Internet in Egypt is accessible to anyone who can pay, and it is not as some believe a moneymaker for all. Music ratings are often false, however, and may be created by fake accounts on certain sites. No one can really say who is the most successful or most listened to musician today, except by judging which genre is the most popular, in this case Mahraganat,” she said.
“There is the cultural elite, of course, that wants to retain its position in society and combat what it feels is the deterioration of the musical and cultural industries. For such people, Mahraganat is like a scapegoat to hang all their disappointments on, as they now have to hand over the baton to the younger generation.”
“Mahraganat is a part of youth culture, which should take its place alongside other genres. But in our case for some it is seen as threatening and frightening,” Karawya concluded.
Music critic Mustafa Hamdi adds that coming second on SoundCloud does not mean Bint Al-Giran is an international hit because the rating is based on app users in Egypt. “We are 100 million people in Egypt, and Mahraganat music is all the rage here, and this explains why there have been so many clicks on the Internet,” he said. “But this does not mean the song has international impact. It’s due to the large fan base of the genre in Egypt that has helped the song to reach its present rank.”
However, he concedes that most of Egypt’s music production in recent years that has travelled overseas was Mahraganat. “This genre is new and different, and it has broken the traditional forms of Egyptian song in terms of lyrics and melody. It’s not tacky, but it is an expression of a new taste in music. Cultural snobs who turn up their noses at it are detached from reality. Instead of pointing fingers, we should look into the cultural and social causes for this form of music. Condescension is a superficial way to react, as this is a music which has brought together fans from across the social and cultural spectrum.”
“There are two reasons for this. First, it is a new form of music, and while the lower classes may feel that Mahraganat lyrics speak to them, the upper classes may find them entertaining. Second, the success of this genre has impacted other forms of Egyptian singing, and established singers who have understood the shift in taste have started to incorporate words from Mahraganat songs, including Amr Diab and Samira Said,” he said.
In explaining this success, the new distribution provided by the Internet had played a major role, Hamdi concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.