Many consider the "Mahraganat," or electro-shaabi songs, which have appeared in lower-income neighbourhoods and informal areas over the past decade as a sign of deteriorating tastes.
However, this opinion dismisses many points that must be considered before making a categorical judgment about this musical genre or seeking to evaluate it.
First of all, it must be recognised that there has been, for about a century, a genre of songs that represent the world outside the official or classic shackles determined by the intellectual elite.
For example, in the 1920s, songs heard in popular cafes and bars were characterised by vulgarity, something that was out of the ordinary at the time, especially for the middle-upper class. It was also at this time that the classical musicians were attempting to define proper music genres as being those that were much more conventional and refined.
Sometimes, however, we saw performers who fused two genres, oscillating between classic and popular music. Among these was the musician and composer Sayed Darwish. Alternating between music genres during the first half of the 20th century, he became an iconic figure, representing the Egyptian musical identity in all its forms. Darwish was followed by other big names in the field of song writing, such as Zakariya Ahmad and Dawoud Hosni, who in fact paved the way for Umm Kalthoum a few years later.
During the early years of Umm Kalthoum's career, she followed in the footsteps of Mounira Al-Mahdiya, Fathiya Ahmad and Naima Al-Masriya, presenting songs that can be described as "light music." However, Umm Kalthoum quickly passed this phase and completely erased it from her artistic journey.
Having said that, after the 1920s, Egyptian songs always touched on one of two parallel routes: the official one, conforming to the standards of the ruling class, and an unofficial one, specific to cafes, bars and weddings, which were linked to folklore. One of the main characteristics of the latter genre is its ability to move beyond the canon in order to touch on social customs, while proclaiming an erotic audacity, which is considered acceptable in a festive context. The two paths have always existed in parallel, without ever opposing each other. On the contrary, they intersected on many occasions.
Thus, a star of satirical monologues like Chokoukou, who was often dressed in a galabeya, in fact managed to convince a great musician-composer, like Mohamad Abdel-Wahab, to collaborate with him. The same pattern goes for dozens of other popular singers, like Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud, who shocked public opinion at the time by singing Ya Shebsheb Al-Hana, Ya Retni Konte Ana (The House Slippers of Happiness, If I Only Were You).
The song would have not been shocking had its performance been limited to the Rod Al-Farag neighbourhood or restricted to the cabarets of Emad Eldin Street. But what put it under the spotlight was that it was used in movies and broadcast on the radio, which created a big controversy at the time.
However, cinema and radio, representing tools of quality-control, appealed since the 1930s to several popular singers considered as "less serious," which increased their popularity.
The other point that must be taken into account in making an assessment of popular songs is the context of the changes that occurred in the aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution, which proclaimed its alignment with the disadvantaged social classes, especially the peasant class. It was therefore quite natural that an interest in popular songs would be at the top of the priorities of the cultural programme of the revolution.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt saw the emergence of big figures in popular songs, most of them of rural origins, such as Mohamad Taha and Khadra Mohamad Khedr, who in performances wore their traditional village clothes. But there were also singers, such as Mohamad Roushdi, Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb and others, who presented the popular songs while wearing urban attire, a revealing indicator of social changes and the aspirations of some to leave the city chains.
Okka and Ortiga, two stars of the electro-shaabi music
However, the phenomenon that worried the elite was the emergence of Ahmed Adaweyah in the late 1960s and 1970s, and his fame during the years of the economic policies of president Anwar El-Sadat.
The open-door economy was accompanied by major moral changes, which widened the gap between the consumer ambitions of the middle and disadvantaged classes on the one hand, and their modest incomes on the other.
Adaweyah emerged in an artistic context where the songs were divided into three main categories. The first has remained attached to classical Arab melodies, with the aim of preserving the national identity, altered by the defeat of 1967. The second was represented by those who, under the shock of this defeat, sought refuge in Western song to express a kind of rejection and discontent. As for the third category, it manifested itself in the songs of Adaweyah as a way to express disillusionment and cynicism, hence the phenomenal success of this form of music.
Adaweyah opposed the figures of classical song such as Abdel-Wahab, Umm Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim, who remained faithful to the romantic and patriotic themes. They received their legitimacy from records and the radio. Adaweyah, however, was the expression of a parallel world, on the periphery, betting on a new medium: the radio cassette introduced to Egypt by the expatriates who left to work in the Arabian Gulf countries.
After the defeat, people lost confidence in the old songs as well as in the ruling political regime. This fact has had many political and artistic repercussions, such as Mohamad Nouh's attempts to form collective song groups. Similarly, Franco-Arab singers have adopted the fashion of Gulf songs which have been on the rise, especially in nightclubs. Popular song became the expression of those marginalised and neglected by the open-door policy. Adaweyah became their star and their spokesperson.
His lyrics expressed their dream of social advancement at a time when moral values and scientific achievement were sharply declining in the face of market laws and new trade rules.
A semblance of modernism
The state encouraged the private sector in all areas, including culture, and had completely neglected the public sector, leaving the door wide open to very commercial, sometimes vulgar, tendencies. Thus came the spread of films about sex and drugs, which were produced at relatively low cost and shot in a short time, as well as American series that highlighted capitalist and Westernised values.
Egypt then experienced what sociologist Ahmad Zayed describes in his book The Contradictions of Egyptian Modernism (2005) as "the phase of superficial modernism." This phase is characterised by a penchant for consumption and the satisfaction of base needs at the expense of authentic values. This superficial modernism disfigures traditions and cultural heritage as well as the avatars of modernism itself.
Before the appearance of Ahmed Adaweyah, there was a more official form of popular song, but the new song that the latter presented came to express a different atmosphere by evoking themes like overcrowding and resourcefulness, and by standing up against institutions. And this, in particular, stood against the state media apparatus, which dominated the landscape and which represented hegemonic culture.
This involves different forms of discrimination, as noted by Saudi critic Abdallah Al-Ghozami in his book The Literary Critique, which talks about the sidelining of several of the artists and writers of the time. In addition, composer Mohamad Qabil said at the time that the success of Adaweyah’s tapes, which sold in huge numbers, made him a spokesperson for taxi and microbus drivers.
Adaweyah was the subject of all the accusations levelled today against the Mahraganat singers. In the eyes of critics, these songs did not make sense, but there were millions who liked them and who found in them a consolation capable of making them forget their painful reality.
Adaweyah and his successors, classified as popular singers, were criticised by a traditional elite afraid of "losing its privileged position." This is why this elite was loud in its criticism of the culture of the masses and why it did not embrace the richness and the diversity of the phenomenon.
* This article was originally published in French in Al Ahram Hebdo's 27 November 2019 issue
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture