Ted Swedenburg on Egypt's post-revolution music scene

Egypt's Music of Protest | Middle East Research and Information Project

Great article on music and revolution in Egypt, by Ted Swedenburg who runs the great Hawgblawg. Here's the bit of my favorite style, mahragan, of DJ Amr Haha, Ortega and Figo fame:

If one were seeking an Egyptian parallel to rap music, then one’s attention should be drawn to the genre known as mahragan or “festival” music, which started to appear on YouTube in 2007. The music has been also called (mostly by outsiders) techno-sha‘bi or electro-sha‘bi. About one half of Cairo’s population lives in ‘ashwa’iyyat, “haphazard,” unplanned settlements that teem with the poor, working and lower middle classes. Sha‘bi music, rooted in the ‘ashwa’iyyat as well as the traditional popular quarters of Cairo, has long been derided as unsophisticated at best by Egypt’s educated elites. But many educated Egyptians listen to and appreciate sha‘bi music, if apologetically, and so several sha‘bi artists have crossed over to mainstream culture, to wit, Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim, Hakim and Ahmad ‘Adawiyya.

Mahragan is at once deeply rooted in sha‘bi practices and something quite new. The rhythms that drive mahragan are for the most part resolutely sha‘bi, but are often produced electronically. Over the sha‘bi beats that urge onlookers to shake their belly-dancing hips, singers chant or sing and occasionally rap, their voices most often distorted by synthesized autotuning. A DJ on computer and mixer, and on occasion, electronic keyboard, provides a heavily electronic musical soundtrack. Mahragan artists began to make names for themselves by playing at weddings in popular quarters, where they were appreciated not only because of the novelty of their music but also because it was cheaper to hire a singer and a DJ (and perhaps an additional percussionist) than to book the traditional troupe of musicians and dancers. Mahragan artists spread their reputations beyond their neighborhoods by circulating their home recordings via YouTube. They also began to organize on their own parties in their urban working-class neighborhoods. The name mahragan (festival) seems to refer to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the electro-sha‘bi parties and weddings, which resembles that of mulids, Egypt’s famous saint festivals, which typically are celebrated in popular quarters and are patronized by millions.

If the artists who performed at Tahrir in early 2011, and who continue to play there in ongoing protests since the uprising, mostly manifest veneration of the country’s national revolutionary repertoire, the usual attitude of mahragan artists to that tradition is one of irreverence, humor and even sarcasm. This sensibility is on full display in the mahragan song “The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” (Al-Sha‘b Yurid Khamsa Ginay Rasid) by DJ ‘Amr Haha (or 7a7a), from ‘Ayn Shams, and DJ Figo, from al-Salam City. The song opens to the slow strains of Egypt’s national anthem, “Biladi, Biladi,” penned by Sayyid Darwish, played on an electronic keyboard. The anthem quickly begins to grind down and then is abruptly halted with an electronic crash, as the beats of sha‘bi darbouka take over, and a vocalist (probably Figo) chants,

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 People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” both invokes the famous slogan of the Arab revolts, and at the same time, the people’s (and especially the people of the sha‘bi quarters) exhaustion with it.

Here's a link to the song.