Peter Holslin owns the dog that looks like Anwar Sadat.
Since late last year I’ve been living in Cairo, the capital of Egypt. I’ve been studying Arabic, I’ve made a lot of friends, but I still feel like my eyes haven’t completely adjusted to my surroundings. Edward Said once called this city “gigantic and confusing”—it’s the biggest metropolis in the Arab world, home to over 20 million people. The streets are crowded, cars are honking constantly, prices are going up. In my neighborhood a man who operates a donkey cart yells about the price of tomatoes going crazy. But maybe we’re all going a little crazy here. Sometimes it feels like a struggle just to have a clear head.
The music of Cairo reflects this intensity. The clamor of the city seeps into in ambient experiments and shaabi street jams. Nationalist messages run through children’s cartoon songs and political anthems alike. Even in the irresistibly cheesy tunes of pop stars like Amr Diab and Shereen, one scholar has tackled deeper questions of identity and gender politics.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the best songs I’ve come across in Egypt so far:
Mohamed Mounir– “Baree'”
This is a deep cut from one of the kings of Egyptian pop music. Mounir’s fans literally call him “El King,” and his presence on the cultural landscape stretches far and wide—among his biggest hits in recent years include an anthem for the 2011 revolution and the theme song to a popular children’s cartoon called Bakar, about a Nubian boy from Mounir’s hometown of Aswan.
Any fan of Gary Wilson or Madlib will immediately be drawn to “Baree’.” The song is guided by the kind of plugging beat that lo-fi nostalgia junkies have been trying for years to recreate in their bedrooms, while the organs and horn hits capture the joy of winning big on The Price is Right. The song title means “innocent” in Arabic, yet in the lyrics Mounir describes a man free of all burdens—possibly to his own detriment. In one verse, he compares himself to the foam of the ocean waves, to a moon without a country. “Night after night passed / wall after wall face me,” he sings. “I know my name, but not who named me.” For all its joy, the song also alludes to the sadness of exile and statelessness, leaving you wondering how long innocence can truly last.
Sadat & Alaa Fifty– “Enjex”
Everywhere you go in Cairo you’ll be rudely confronted by a style of street music called mahraganat. It booms out of taxi cabs and autobuses. It’s played at street weddings in working class neighborhoods. It’s loud and formulaic, mostly consisting of sing-songy Auto-Tuned raps and shaabi rhythms made on FruityLoops. The genre has gotten quite a bit of media attention in recent years, but many Egyptians can’t stand the stuff, dismissing it as just more vulgar noise you have to deal with in a city that’s already too crowded and clamorous.
There are softer versions of mahraganat, better suited for the masses (like this catchy hit from the group Shubik Lubik). But then there’s “Enjex,” in which all of the core elements of mahraganat alchemize into something spectacular. As producer Amr 7a7a lays out a frantic computerized beat, Sadat and Alaa rap their asses off, delivering a crazed mish-mash of boasts and street slang in a futuristic Auto-Tune gloss. One of the common critiques I’ve heard of mahraganat is that the lyrics don’t make sense, but serious students of Egyptian Arabic would find these verses a gold mine for vocab, in much the same way you’d learn from studying the rhymes of Ka or Young Thug.
The Dwarfs of East Agouza– “Baka of the Future”
This band has everything going for them. There’s that name, which is amazing and weird. There’s the fact that one of the members is Alan Bishop, a vaunted figure in the world of punk and experimental music and a co-founder of the influential label Sublime Frequencies. And there’s the music, in which all common sensibility is subsumed in a moody swirl of saxophone skronk, guitar noise, and drum machine rhythms.
When I saw the Dwarfs play at Zigzag Cafe in downtown Cairo last October, it was the first time I’d ever seen people dance to experimental noise. Their potent sound is captured well on their 2016 album Bes—especially the single “Baka of the Future,” which swells and takes bizarre detours over nine and a half minutes. The guitars bend and percussion builds up steam, all of it circling around a central melodic line performed on an instrument that sounds like it could’ve come from another planet.
Ola Saad– “Nuba”
This nine-minute composition comes from Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, a compilation originally put out in 2013 by the local label 100Copies. It reflects two important things that local journalists have pointed out about music in Cairo—the prominence of sound art and experimental noise in the local scene, and the prominence also of women artists who’ve been pivotal in building the local community and pushing things forward.
Saad is an alumnus of an influential digital sound art workshop that used to be held at Helwan University, and “Nuba” shows her powerful command of loops and drones. Percussive metal flickers like echoes in the night over churning electronics. A shambolic rhythm gathers together with handclaps and drums. Harsh clouds of sound slowly drift in, and overall the mood is dark and foreboding—the song title means “disaster” or “calamity.”
Abou El-Leef– “Taxi 2”
I listened to this song over and over before coming to Cairo. The hook built out of a honking car horn and the funky synth bass line set to a drum machine beat got me all excited to make my way to this busy metropolis. Then I arrived here and showed the song to my Arabic teacher, and she broke the news that “Taxi 2” is actually about getting the fuck out of Cairo. “Weddini Bareez!—Take me to Paris!” Abou El-Leef sings.
The lyrics are clearly tongue-in-cheek, as this celebrated local singer and longtime Cairene draws exaggerated comparisons between his hometown (chaotic streets, clerks jockeying for bribes, “scary” air pollution that makes schoolchildren age prematurely) and the fancy capital of France (clean streets, organized traffic, regular folks drowning in caviar and crispy chicken). But the song also hits on bitter sentiments I’ve heard repeatedly in my time here. Though Cairo itself endures, many still dream of going abroad for new opportunities, disillusioned by economic disparities, social and political pressures, and an overall sense of chaos to daily life.