Transmission through toktoks

Fatema Niazy

A few years ago, Maḥraganat, a branch of Shaʿby music, appeared on the surface out of disenfranchised urban areas. Its appeal lies in the roughness of its electronica infused beats, profane language, relevance to everyday mundane life or nonsensical rhyming lyrics,[i] as opposed to the more common themes of over-romanticism, patriotism and what not.

Numerous accounts, which include the latest documentary “Underground/On the Surface: Raise Your Hand if You Love God,” tackled the rise, history, and evolution of Maḥraganat; yet, access, innovation, transmission, and technology remain un-discussed issues. Little attention has been given to the channels, which have aided the spread of the music itself, and the way it has gone viral. What are the different modes of dissemination in use by Maḥraganat artists? What was the major catalyst for Maḥraganat’s popularity? Did they become organically popular through their environments and the permeability of these environments or is their popularity created through distribution and production labels? And where is Maḥraganat situated in the contestation between mainstream and alternative cultural production and how do they navigate these classifications themselves?

A significant trait of Maḥraganat artists is their ability to self-produce entirely, which is the gem of various independent musicians. In a conversation with Yousef Atwan, the vocalist of an indie/independent band called Like Jelly, he mentioned that the middlemen were disappearing in the process. He was referring to the predominant commercial structure of the music industry, where record labels act as producers, distributers, booking agents and license providers. He elaborated that Oka and Ortega, two prominent Maḥraganat artists produce their own music and use available technology as distribution channels.

He gave an example of “Haty Bossa Ya Bet” a Maḥraganat song that was recorded in Ortega’s room with a webcam microphone and mixed on a pirated version of Fruity Loops, a sound editing program, which Oka taught himself to use. Afterwards, the artist uploaded the song to online forums. But Internet penetration around the release of the song was only at 36 percent while the mobile penetration rate was 112 percent in 2012. Atwan explains that the song was mostly transferred through Bluetooth and memory card readers on phones, computers and finally cheap technology such as sound systems and card readers installed in toktoks (three-wheel motorized vehicles that are cheap transportation means) and microbuses. This elucidated the function of cheap technology to sharing culture, as an important trait of the debate on the broader Internet as a facilitator of culture dissemination.

But cheap technology disseminating the tunes of Maḥraganat artists is only the beginning of the story. How this music reached the consciousness of this writer and her surroundings is a different evolution.

In April, I attended a “We are the 8%” concert at the Greek Campus as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). Cairo’s Downtown is space of a middle-class community of residents, but also a hang out for diverse groups for its cultural capital. In recent years, the landscape has been arguably evolving toward more gentrification with the private sector and the state engaging in various urban regeneration projects. The Greek Campus and D-Caf exemplify this tendency. The Greek Campus has become a space for independent music performances after the American University Cairo rented it out to venture capitalist Ahmed El Alfi, who turned it into a technology and entrepreneurship hub. D-CAF brands itself as “Egypt’s only international multi-disciplinary contemporary arts festival”.

When I paid the LE50 entry ticket, I thought of how this fee shaped the audience inside. I was particularly perplexed as the very environment and subculture this concert music emerged from is one where free or cheap access has been a formative trait for dissemination.

While cheap technology was the first step propelling Maḥraganat artists to fame in some form of a self-acquired popularity, they increasingly found their way into the mainstream, through the assimilation of various players, producers, and filmmakers, tuned to the independent scene. While Maḥraganat is barred from public radio stations due to the “vulgarity” of its content according to Wezza, a Maḥraganat artist from the band “We are the 8%,” they are being featured in mainstream films such as “‘Abdo Motta” as well as popular advertisements. In a review of the film “Electro-Chaabi,” a documentary shadowing several Maḥraganat artists such as Safat, Alaa Fifty, Figo, Okka and Ortega from between the period of March 2011 to December 2012, journalist Maha El-Nabawy describes how footage of Maḥraganat artists talking about how media repudiated them is juxtaposed with footage of them being featured intensely on mainstream media.

Production labels played a major role in the dissemination of Maḥraganat music beyond their place of birth. In an article, musician Rami Abadir explains how those bands who deemed themselves independent were not able to further succeed without smaller indie record labels such as 100Copies. When interviewed about Maḥraganat, Mahmoud Refat, the founder of a 100Copies, described it as a “new form” of music as it is not “just sha’abi, popular music, not just world music.” He also claimed that television is not interested in it because it is not elegant enough. The label started as a way to organize festivals and concerts, while building a studio for them to record came at a later stage.

In a conversation with Kinda Hassan, founding member of Eka3, another independent music label, she mentioned that the role provided by labels like 100Copies revolve around booking concerts, promoting artists and pushing them for live performances. Hassan mentioned the example of Islam Chipsy, whose label is 100Copies and who performed at the Oslo Music Festival. He would be one of many pushed into the international scene through their labels.

But As Maḥraganat artists begin to produce in the 100Copies studio, Hassan fears that the identity of this music is transmuting, as one of its important pillars lies in its roughness. Yet, it is a natural progression, she said, as they receive some artistic direction from their label.

The concerns of mainstreaming and loss of some native traits of Maḥraganat music are voiced by others. But while writer Ayman Helmy sees two strict lines between the music of the mainstream and the music of the alternative based on market, audience and content, it would be wrong to assume a clear dichotomy. Openings or magical gates between the independent stream and the mainstream appear and disappear sporadically. Yet, for an independent/alternative/underground artist to cross over to the mainstream, he must assimilate and modify, Helmy writes. According to him, an example would be Okka and Ortega’s song “Aywa Aywa which melodically is recycled from an earlier version of “Haty Bossa Ya Bet (al-Wessada al-Khalya).” Rami Abadir argues that Maḥraganat is “a mixture of popular culture and subculture; it started with independent production, and was quickly assimilated by the major producers into the mainstream.”

It is worth noting that independent labels were born in reaction to the Egyptian mainstream music industry, which, as described by Nagla Rizk, is dominated by two record labels owning 95 percent of market shares. Not only do these labels have complete exclusive rights over the artists’ work, they also act as both producers and distributors through their satellite music channels. Additionally, mainstream artists are broadcasted on the radio, sold en masse in the form of CDs, cassettes and available online digitally. Due to the fact that record labels act as distributers and own their satellite channels, dissemination barriers are posed against musicians from the alternative scene. But one must contextualize this market oligarchy though, as a hefty chunk of the music consumed is not officially accounted for in the formal market due to pirating.

Maḥraganat was also able to spread through a certain instrumentalization of their sub-cultural condition, especially by Western cultural players. Places such as the French Institute in Cairo, hosted Maḥraganat concerts where the artists are represented as “victims of corruption, social segregation and lack of freedom” which they overcome by “partying.” A German channel (DW-TV) introduced them as the voice of the underground, the disenfranchised and the revolutionary. Different western media often interview the artists about their political views and the societal problems they face. Through this level of dissemination, meanwhile, the artists found ways to spread their music abroad by collaborating with European artists such as GoldieRocks or Kode9, Artwork, Faze Miyake and Pinch under the hospice of the British Council and led by RinseFM and 100Copies.

Opportunity is a marker of how Maḥraganat emerged from a subculture and managed to penetrate various spheres of mainstream consumption. With self-taught production skills using basic editing tools, and cheap technological dissemination gadgets, they spread fast in the spaces of toktoks, microbuses and weddings in low-income areas. But these conditions have not only been the features of the subcultures they come from; they have also acted as the features of their own mainstreaming, with various players from music labels, to media and cultural institutes investing in presenting them under the lens of the triumph of the disenfranchised.

[i] We made the sea tehineh and we wrote our names on it, over the waves we passed, nothing affects us

I will give you a flashlight on your eyes

You will see one thing twice

I want it to blossom in you/I want you to be of value?

I give you in the ceiling, tema7ar?

I give you on the floor, you will dig

I give you in the Jerken to park

I give you in the alleyway a cigarette

I give you to wear glasses

Give me a kiss gurl

Give me a piece gurl

My lover is wearing a hat

And tied a ribbon to his neck

And eating a piece of chocolate

And drinking mangoes with a straw

What in you is set correctly

Neither a rafraf nor a kabout work

Even the egg does not have a chick

So should we live or die

They made me smell an onion, I fainted, I couldn’t stand on my feet

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