Network for Youth in Transition


Out of Egypt’s Chaos, Musical Rebellion

By BEN HUBBARD Published: May 11, 2013
CAIRO — One washed towels in a barbershop. The other sold fast food. Some nights, they would grab the microphones at outdoor weddings and try out raps they had written, only to earn a hail of stones.
Egypt's Music Revolution
Bryan Denton for The New York Times

MAKING MUSIC Muhammad Salah, center, known as Okka, and Ahmed Mustafa, right, known as Ortega, danced to their tracks in a Cairo suburb recently as their drummer played.

Bryan Denton for The New York Times

The singing is fast, often improvised and heavily doctored with Auto-Tune.

Now they are among the fastest-rising stars in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and its largest music market. Under the names Okka and Ortega, they play sprawling shows in Egypt and abroad.

In just a few years, these and other young musicians have created a new genre of youth-driven, socially conscious music and forced it on the Egyptian soundscape.

Their music predated the political revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and most of the musicians did not join the uprising in Tahrir Square. But the turmoil since has left Egypt’s huge youth population searching for voices that address issues they care about.

Half of Egypt’s 85 million people are under 25, and many found what they were looking for in the raucous, defiant new music known as “mahraganat,” Arabic for “festivals.” The songs’ addictive beats helped, too.

“We made music that would make people dance but would also talk about their worries,” said Alaa al-Din Abdel-Rahman, 23, better known as Alaa 50 Cent. “That way everyone would listen and hear what was on their minds.”

The music is a rowdy blend of traditional Egyptian wedding music, American hip-hop and whatever else its creators can download for free online. The singing is fast, often improvised and heavily doctored with Auto-Tune.

The songs have racked up millions of views on YouTube and have won their creators international shows and appearances in Arab films and television commercials. In Cairo, their sound is everywhere, blasting from taxis, rocking boats on the Nile and jangling from cellphones.

The music’s swift rise from the alleys of neglected Cairo neighborhoods to car stereos and high-class weddings and even television commercials reflects the profound shifts in Egyptian society since the revolution. More people are looking for open discussion of social issues and willing to reach across class lines to find it. Like the revolution, the music came from young people who looked at their lives and did not see much to look forward to. So they made noise, spread their ideas through social media and were surprised by the results.

Mr. Abdel-Rahman and his partner, the singer Sadat Abdel-Aziz, 26, grew up in the Cairo neighborhood of Medinat al-Salam, a poor, drug-ridden district of rundown apartment buildings. The pair have always had two musical goals, they said, to talk about life in their neighborhood and to make people dance.

“I could sing at a street party, dancing, but touch on the situation that I am in and that we all feel,” Mr. Abdel-Aziz said on a recent evening, standing in the trash-strewn, unpaved lane leading to his apartment, his long braids tied behind his head.

In 2008, the pair teamed up with a shy young man named Amr Muhammad, who had a knack for manipulating sound with pirated software. Now a sought-after sound guru known as Amr Haha, he is widely credited as one of the prime creators of the mahraganat sound.

The group’s early songs dealt with hashish, sex, friendship and deception, not politics. That changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted in January 2011, and Mr. Abdel-Aziz sang a song called “The People and the Government.”

“The people and the government, the machine guns and clubs Egypt rose up, and even those who didn’t steal dove into it I’ll talk about those standing, the survivors and the dead I’ll talk about the church, the mosque and the Brotherhood.”

Young revolutionaries, seeking a soundtrack to their movement, sought them out. They were soon invited to perform abroad and at fancier Egyptian locations.

They have since tackled other social issues, often with a healthy dose of mischief. When sexual harassment and abuse became an issue at street protests, they addressed the subject, perhaps not as women’s groups would have liked, with a song called “Hit on Her, Yes. Harass Her, No.”

And as Egypt’s economy slowed, they subverted the famous protest chant — “The people want the fall of the regime” — with a more worldly demand: “The people want five pounds cellphone credit.” (Five Egyptian pounds is about 70 cents.)

The rise of a musical style considered the domain of the poor has surprised many, including Mr. Abdel-Aziz’s neighbors, though they understand the appeal.

“People found something new in the music,” said Ayman Abu Bilal, 41, a butcher who watched Mr. Abdel-Aziz grow up. “You don’t understand three-fourths of the lyrics, but then you hear a something good and realize the whole song relates to you.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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