On Mahraganat and Cairo Concepts

Peter Holslin goes in on 3Phaz and Tor5y's intriguing new project.
By    May 29, 2019

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Peter Holslin found love at Kazaz.

Cultural interpretation is a long, painstaking process. Not everybody has the patience or humility to stick it out for the long run — but over the past several years, the Swiss DJ Phil Battiekh has proved himself a passionate and thoughtful champion of the Egyptian street music known as mahraganat. Since first going to Cairo in 2012, he’s followed the music closely and formed partnerships with artists in Egypt, carving out his own place in a thriving scene that has become an unstoppable force across the country.

This booming, auto-tuned genre first emerged in areas like Imbaba and El-Salam City, far from the city’s centralized neighborhoods and gated-off suburban compounds. But the music has seemed destined to blow up from the beginning. Mahraganat (every track is referred to in the singular, as a mahragan) is raw, loud, and rowdy. All the beats and slang are Egyptian, but the production draws from the digital DNA of global genres like dancehall and hip-hop. As innovator Amr Haha told me in my interview with him for online music magazine Ma3azef last year, he took influence from artists like Kanye West and T-Pain when he first started making beats, using Autotune to correct the pitch of MCs — helping untrained singers launch to the status of street heroes as they mastered the art of rapping with superhuman agility and aggressive intensity while hitting all the right notes.

Mahraganat in some ways represents a reversal of the power imbalances present in corny forms of 80s and 90s-style “world music” or street cred-hungry artists like Drake: Rather than Western pop stars appropriating ideas from underground scenes and marginalized communities, here are artists from Egypt using digital tools, techniques and references from global pop to create their own music, with their own beats, in their own language, on their own terms — getting rich and famous in the process.

The rawness and specificity of mahraganat has helped make it that much more alluring in the eyes of people not from the mahraganat scene, including a whole host of Western journalists, academics and DJs like Battiekh. That includes myself too: I spent two years in Egypt from 2016 up until last December, and I first learned out about Battiekh after reading an interview with him in Ma3azef as part of my daily Arabic lessons.  

Phil Battiekh always appears in photos with an illustration of a watermelon pasted over his face: Translated into Arabic, his name literally means “In the Watermelon,” a play on words that alludes to the cross-cultural nature of his work. But he lets the music speak for itself on Cairo Concepts, a new compilation and multimedia project he put together in collaboration with artists from Cairo, the United States and Australia. The collection showcases different takes on the ever-evolving genre: Some of the tracks, like DJ Plead and Alaa Fifty’s “Ana Ho,” are straight mahragan bangers that would likely go over well blasting out of a Cairo taxi cab or Nile party boat. Others, like Haram and Nustaliga’s “Blessed,” use ideas and styles from mahraganat while incorporating other, more avant-garde elements.

“As a mahraganat DJ I’ve been following the scene very closely for the past six years and noticed the major impact it had in and outside of Egypt. More and more club producers are incorporating or referencing mahraganat elements in their productions as well. It was very interesting to see what experimental artists and club producers draw from mahraganat and how they use it,” Battiekh tells me. “That’s why I decided to create a release based on musical concept systems of mahraganat, which also lead to the title of the release. The compilation is meant to present musical ideas inherent to mahraganat as they are subjectively perceived by the participating artists from in and outside of the mahraganat scene. Ironically, mahraganat is already a highly appropriative genre in itself in the way it draws from other genres and uses certain musical tropes in ways you wouldn’t always expect.”

DJ Plead, a Lebanese-Australian producer, starts the collection off right with “Battiekh 3,” a psychedelic riff on the classic maqsoom beat, ever-present in mahraganat as well as other Egyptian shaabi songs: A drum machine aims directly for the chest, while gooey synths, acid house textures and doumbek fills add to a festive feel. Philadelphia-based DJ Haram takes things in another direction, laying down a clattering, cement-cracking club beat and traditional-sounding sample over throaty raps courtesy of Cairo crew Nustaliga.

The next two tracks go for a Cairo audience. “Ana Ho” is a festive, synth-driven anthem that takes a similar approach as Oka wi Ortega’s 2014 smash hit “Dal3 Bnat.” Nustaliga’s “Mezmar” meanwhile is an instrumental jam bursting with keyboard drones, ney synth-flute, wild drum fills and jaunty, orchestral-style hits. The track is not a mahragan, but actually another shaabi style that centers around an instrument called the mizmar, its reedy tone often imitated using keyboards and synths while other members of an ensemble fill in with booming percussion.

Cairo artists 3Phaz and Tor5y bring their own deconstructionist takes to Cairo Concepts. 3Phaz is a mysterious and elusive DJ who has released some dope DJ mixes over the past year or so, and Tor5y is co-founder of the IDM- and experimental-leaning club night JellyZone. They represent the more abstract, challenging side of Cairo’s dance music scene, and their tracks use shaabi rhythms and tones as points of departure for exercises in chopped-and-screwed slow motion, devious dub bass, stop-go dynamics and inverted expectations.

Putting a compilation together is an act of creative interpretation no matter which way you cut it. In the past, some Western artists have been content with polishing up an “ethnic” sound by plugging in a vocal track over a more familiar techno or hip-hop beat. Other labels simply rip directly from cassette tape or vinyl in an effort to present a glimpse of the “real thing” (or at least a foreign curator’s idea of what that is). Cairo Concepts takes a different route. Rather than invalidate mahraganat’s charms by fusing it with crowd-pleasing, chart-topper fare, or treat mahraganat like some artifact frozen in vinyl crackle, this collection underscores how it’s a living genre — always changing and growing as artists from inside the scene and out riff on different ideas and aim for greater heights.

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