Over the last few years, a new music scene has flourished in the working class suburbs of Cairo, a kind of electronic dance music that’s evolved from popular folk chaabi, characterized by cut and paste edits, autotune, lyrics filled with humor and social commentary and spiraling BPMs. Known as Mahraganat (festivals) or electro chaabi, the genre could be an unconscious rebellion against the heavy weight of the country’s great musical heritage. Electro chaabi’s wild chaotic whirring melodies are a liberating separation from the rules and structures of classical Arabic music forms, but there’s real passion in their delivery. Though there are elements of reggaeton, grime, dancehall and even sufi music, it’s a fusion of sounds that can’t easily be boxed in.
A whole new scene of artists has emerged over the last few years including DJs and MCs armed with just a basic PC, a microphone and some rudimentary software. Their tracks are produced in home studios and spread online. With a lack of music venues, or even places to hang out for kids in Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods, the electro chaabi scene has become somewhat of a release. Performances take place mainly across the Egyptian chaabi wedding circuit, in celebratory raves across the country.
DJ Figo is one of the scene’s pioneers. Hailing from the Cairo suburb Salam City, it was his “Ana Baba, Y’lla” (I’m Daddy, Let’s go), also featuring artists Amr 7a7a and Sadat al-Almy, that launched the scene not long after the 25 January Revolution. Other stars of the movement include Sadat and Alaa Fifty Cent, also from Salam City. Their hits include “The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit,” a mocking play on the slogan of the revolution (The People Want the Fall of the Regime). Their brilliantly titled song “Aha el shibshib daa (Fuck, I’ve lost my slippers!), alongside producer DJ Figo, is a sonic mash-up with swaggering high speed computerized beats and a stop-start rhythm.
Though virtuoso keyboardist Islam Chipsy doesn’t like to associate himself with the electro chaabi movement, as a classically trained – and exceptionally talented – musician, he’s certainly part of the wider movement of new chaabi sounds coming out of Egypt. Part of the Egyptian trio EEK alongside two primal drummers, Chipsy whirls through complex groove-filled melodies on his keyboard, at times hammering it like a djembe, feeling out the chords with every part of his palm, fist, fingers. He’s a true pioneer.
In the Cairo downtown offices of 100Copies, a record label and platform for the alternative Egyptian music scene, 20 year old Ahmed Elseweasy (aka Souissy) sits alongside his manager and founder of matb3aa.com, Mahmoud Matbaa, and Mahmoud Refat, mastermind of 100Copies, wearing a beanie hat and a cheeky smile. He’s become one of the latest rising stars of electro chaabi. His father a Quran reciter, Souissy had a strong connection to music growing up and is rooted in the classical – growing up surrounded by Sufi music and Egyptian greats. He got into electro chaabi in his late teens via DJ Figo. “He was the first from the scene I heard and he inspired me personally,” Souissy says via Skype. “Coming from a classical background it was inspiring for me – in it there is no fear or shame in changing the tradition. It is not based on any rules, just energy and attitude. You have all the freedom.”
The first song Souissy produced was for a friend’s wedding party, singing about the neighborhood and his friends. Since then he’s collaborated with everyone from DJ Figo to Sadat, gathered hundreds of thousands of followers and managed to prove to his parents that being an electro chaabi artist is a credible career. “At the beginning of course they were against it, but when they saw my commitment and started seeing me on TV and offers from new movies coming in, they started to think it was the right thing for me to do,” Souissy says.
What started as a scene limited to the Cairo suburbs has spread throughout the entire country and beyond. Two documentaries, Hind Meddeb’s “Electro Chaabi” and Salma El Tarzi’s “Underground/On the Surface,” have further popularized the scene. “The scene has already spread from Alexandria to Aswan and Port Said. It’s exploding everywhere, even with more energy than Cairo,” says Refat. “Around the country it’s very different. It’s like they have big rock stars coming to the city; everybody comes.” A lot of these artists have begun to see music as a real career possibility to be taken seriously. “I always thought I’d have a job and sing now and then. Right now I’m giving all my time and efforts to music. I am not thinking of having a job. Music is my life right now,” Souissy says.
Electro chaabi is the success story of the digital music revolution, with working class artists reaching huge audiences online and achieving success without big budgets, professional recording studios or the aid of record labels. If the A&R man wasn’t already dead, then this is his nail in the coffin. The underground music scene has essentially reached the over ground with some of the biggest hits of electro chaabi reaching millions of views on YouTube. Online platform matb3aa.com has become the main portal for sharing music. Anyone can send mp3s to the site and it’s uploaded without classification or bias and available for free download. Artists’ success is not monopolized by record labels. Rather, it is audience controlled and as a result, far more dynamic. “I think the secret of its success is that it’s free of charge. Its not making money and it has no structure of the ordinary music establishment,” matb3aa.com’s founder Matbaa says. “I don’t judge anyone, the traffic decides what stays and what goes.”
Until a few weeks ago, Souissy was recording in a humble home studio, but having recently signed to 100Copies, his recording process is soon set to upgrade. He joins a roster of electro chaabi artists now on the label including Islam Chipsy and Sadat with a planned compilation in the works and a series of concerts beyond the wedding format planned, taking their music to new, and most likely more middle class, crowds. But for a genre characterized by its grimy primitive production, will its polishing mean losing the very spirit that defines it? Souissy doesn’t think so, “It’s about time to start thinking differently and more professionally about chaabi music,” he says. “Its not changing our attitude and culture, it’s just about trying to have a form, being in a studio and a good environment. We were not really stressed about the quality of our own studio, but now we started to look at things differently, that this is our career and quality matters.”
Now that everything’s fallen into place, the dreams from those Cairo suburbs are big. Pushed forward with some healthy competition between crews, the scene continues to expand and it’s interesting to see where the organically made scene might evolve. Souissy for one hopes to further integrate the spirit of his classical background into chaabi music – fusing together the two – and has big dreams to move beyond the Egyptian scene. “I would like international recognition, to spread my music across different countries with the same intensity that’s happening in Egypt,” he says. Back in the country though, the biggest achievement of these young electro chaabi stars is to have given kids from their neighborhoods hope. They’ve found a way to create their own mainstream music that, for once, is sung in their own words.