What a shaabi! Dutch DJ spreads NA music and awareness across Europe
Aiming to paint a better picture of the politically troubled country, Joost Heijthuijsen, a 35 year-old Dutch music producer founded a three man DJ set dubbed Cairo Liberation Front dedicated to playing Egypt-born mahragant music across Europe, exposing the music to a much wider audience. Rooted in the urban working-class, the music is also known as "electro-shaabi," it is an unrelenting torrent of synthesizers, chanting and rapping about street culture, touching on sex, drugs and poverty.
Derived from the Arabic word for festival, the mahragant music genre originated in the lower middle class, suburban areas in Cairo, such as Ain Shams, Al-Mataryia, and Al-Salam district in the past few years.The music has been produced by youth who have been exposed to various kinds of musical genres and subcultures, ranging from Hip Hop and RnB to House and Techno, not mention the classical local Arabic music.
At first, the genre found audiences in wedding parties and celebrations taking part in the street, where the DJ is hired to produce a song with the name of the groom or the bride in the lyrics. Afterwards, the genre progressed to act as a sign of loyalty to different local neighborhoods as musicians started to get into feuds. This helped the scene attract more attention from journalists, music activists, and documentary filmmakers.
Self-taught DJs circulate their home recordings on their laptops via downloadable files and YouTube, with song themes ranging from personal relations, poverty, sexual harassment, drugs, and lower class youth problems, infusing traditional Arabic rhythms and Egyptian humour and punch lines. Mahraganat is low-budget music for the masses.
Indeed, the new sound has flooded Cairo’s underground music scene since the 2011 revolution, spreading across the country and transcending its urban working-class roots. The genre gained even more attention and criticism, as commercial film producers started to feature the songs into their films.
Joost Heijthuijsen visited Egypt for the first time last April to explore the underground scene of mahragant music.
He is hoping producers and Western media will pick up this electro-shaabi music and bring a new voice from the Arab world.
“The regular things you see in Western media about the Arab world for the past 10 years has mostly been about fighting people, but it’s such a beautiful culture, with a lot of exciting, positive stuff happening,”
Heijthuijsen told Reuters during a telephone interview. Heijthuijsen was first introduced to the genre by watching YouTube videos of Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy in 2012, and then trawled Arabic forums and Facebook groups for music to use.
"I thought if we started promoting it in the West, it might get more attention, and might be seen as an art form rather than just some stuff local kids do on their computers," the Dutch DJ told Reuters.
Cairo Liberation Front, which consists of Heijthuijsen, Yannick Verhoeven, 22, and Joep Schmitz, 23, has just released its ninth electro-shaabi mixed tape on music sharing website SoundCloud and recently announced five tour dates across Holland. They have also played in Belgium.
Like their Egyptian counterparts, the Dutch DJs add a large dose of humor to their music. During their concerts, Cairo Liberation Front dress up in traditional Arabic-style clothes and play footage of the Egyptian uprisings with a view to provoking a reaction from their audiences.
“When we perform, 50 per cent of people hate it and 50 per cent really like it. As long as we have that, it’s good. It’s too superficial to only be pleasing and not to be teasing,” said Heijthuijsen.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian scene is still developing and facing both criticism and appreciation. Artists are not only entering the political sphere by producing songs commenting on current events, they are also engaging with the country's popular culture.