Sadate, Amr Haha, Figo, Oka and Ortega, the inventors of electro chaabi in Egypt, represent a new generation of artists who are at once connected with the rest of the world and attached to their local traditions; their music is a hybrid sound mixing chaabi, electro and rap. Born in the poorest neighborhoods of Cairo, electro chaabi became, one year after the revolution, a social phenomenon, bringing the preoccupations of the poorest inhabitants to the heart of the city, inspiring huge commercial successes like the film Abdou Mouta, whose hero is a drug dealer, its original sound track made by electro chaabi musicians – 20 million seats sold at the Egyptian box office! Thanks to the success of this music, beyond the ghetto where it came into being, the residents of these districts are enjoying unprecedented recognition. When I discovered these musicians in 2011, nobody knew about them, they were only famous in their own neighborhood. This film is about their journey, from being nobodies to stardom.
Electro chaabi made its appearance several years before the revolution and has helped to demystify the machinery of dictatorship by wittily evoking the corrupt practices which were poisoning everyday life. This freedom of speech was first possible because the movement was limited to marriages in ‘informal’ (i.e. illegal) neighborhoods, precisely where the State and the police were absent, beyond any media network (this music was first not broadcasted on radio or television). But as it spread through working-class areas, it was the harbinger of a momentum in the offing, and in Tahrir Square, certain electro chaabi refrains were borrowed in the form of slogans chanted by the crowd.
A mosque and a church on the land of the Nile
Muslims, Christians, thoroughbred Egyptians
Listen to my story of revolution
Which shaked the world
How many martyrs died before our eyes?
Crushed by the chains of tanks
They really took the piss out of us
They changed governments
And promised us the good life
But it was just an illusion
Who benefits from this revolution?
MC Sadate, Story of Revolution
Emancipation of the body and unspoken words, much more than a simple musical phenomenon, electro chaabi is a salutary discharge for a youth haunted by the shackles that the Egyptian society imposes. In a conservative and religious society where bodies are restrained and where the sexual life is constantly controlled, the dance frees repressed energies. Life is constantly contradictory in its desire for freedom, the need to let off stream. While certain subjects are carefully avoided, electro chaabi relieves repressed words. The lyrics, sung back by the crowd would shock anyone stuck in the thought that Egypt is a strict conservative, religious country. One of the first hits of electro chaabi was the “haram life” song:
I’ve taken the road of vice out of vice
To forget my open suffering
I thought I was eternal
Time passes too fast
The days go by and pull me onward
I’ve never fasted
I’ve never prayed
I could have but I haven’t done the pilgrimage to Mecca
Even when I had plenty of money
I haven’t done any charity
Impossible to tread the right path
But it doesn’t stop me being happy
My reason has gone up in smoke
My heart is empty, I’ve lost faith
Is there still time to find the right path.
Under tents, lit up multi-coloured balls hang as decoration, dozens of dancers carry out spectacular performances in a setting worthy of a Bollywood film. Although the party has the allure of a festival, this scene actually takes place during a wedding. The attendees are under thirty, represent the majority of the population, and literally take weddings hostage; making them loses any resemblance to a family or religious festivity. Because in the cramped space of the illegal neighbourhoods, there is neither concert halls, nor nightclubs, the only space where the followers of electro chaabi can meet, are the weddings. The party takes place in an open space, the stage is installed on the street, the neighbours are all invited to the wedding. This music liberation takes place in an extremely codified space which had been governed for a long time by the generation of the parents and the grandparents. In Egypt, the marriage represents the entry to grown-up life. Only after getting married, young people escape parental control.
Before the wedding, love stories brew in secret. They are often impossible: the girls are very watched by their family which protects jealously their virginity; the young men have more and more difficulty to gather the necessary money to pay the trousseau of the bride and to have housing. At 20, few are those who can answer to these conditions. In the illegal districts, we get married later and later. In the meantime, broken hearts and unsatisfied fantasies become the favourite subjects of the hits of electro chaabi. Since the 50s, in their film and musical tradition, the Egyptians sing love in all its forms. These impossible loves feed the poetic and musical inspiration. The Egyptians thus live daily with this paradox: forbidden, watched, the love becomes an obsession, the subject of all the conversations, so much that the Egyptian dialect is filled with expressions. A taxi driver will not hesitate to say to you: " your presence decorates with flowers Egypt! ", " You are honey " while you have hardly just gotten out of his car. In the ordinary language, we use proverbs, which speak about love: " Follow your heart so that your face shines for the rest of life.”
While shooting the film, I asked the musicians how they would call their movement. Unable to answer, they simply described the mixture of genres, which they were experimenting with in their songs. I suggested the word “electro chaabi”. They liked the idea. Since the film was released, the name has been adopted, especially the western countries.
Of the 20 million inhabitants of greater Cairo, more than 60% live in informal neighborhoods. In the Egyptian media, they are presented under the sign of rude violence, like all such areas where law and order have broken down, marginal zones, which dodge State control and scare people. This is where electro chaabi came into being. What is involved is not just a music scene, but a social phenomenon. These musicians are well aware of their pariah situation in an ultra-liberal and corrupt Egypt, which despite Mubarak’s fall, is still being governed by the army. The arrival of the Internet has profoundly changed attitudes. From now on, young people who cannot travel for economic reasons, and because borders are closed, are, in spite of all that, in contact with the rest of the world. They go onto the Internet looking for electro sounds, which they then re-invent, and they are becoming visible for everyone by putting videos of their performances online. In these neighborhoods, inventiveness, creativity and socio-cultural ferment have all seen the light of day without any financial support or encouragement, but on the contrary, in a state of denial and persecution. This is possibly where the originality is forged, in the emergency of life. The situation is reversed, the model is no longer a magnified west, but a here where elsewhere is a partner and not a reference.
This music embodies the political revolt of a whole generation. Forty years after the birth of rap in the United States, the stars of electro chaabi are linking back up with the origins of hip-hop: they are making a popular protest music, challenging authority, which is up in arms against discrimination and injustice.