Long Live the Sonic Arabic Revolution
by Joost Heijthuijsen
Big revolutions always start on the fringes. In relative obscurity something happens, it gets bigger, and then it explodes. The same might be happening in Egypt at the moment. If you read your newspaper or check your blogs you will know something about the political situation and how difficult it is to judge as a foreigner about what’s happening there. But electro chaabi (or Mahraganat) might give you some insights on the subterranean youth culture that’s happening there. And besides that: it’s great music. To Western ears it sounds like an Eastern version of Aphex Twin going mad on cracked computer software and playing at a rave.
How did we get hooked on the new sounds? At a panel about the future of music journalism at the Incubate festival in Tilburg, The Netherlands, John Doran from the web magazine The Quietus was asked a question about the future of music journalism and the internet. “There are dance music scenes less than 300 miles away from London which don’t get written about by journalists,” he said. “We need to concentrate on covering new musical forms happening in easily accessible modern cities which are crying out for attention first. As we speak there are new musical forms cropping up all over the globe. They’re on blogs, they’re on YouTube… Some of the most exciting music I’ve heard in years is happening right now!”
Somebody in the audience asked: “Name one!”
“Let me tell you about Islam Chipsy”, John said. Islam Chipsy introduced us to a new world. He plays the keyboard… No, he fires tone-clusters with his fists from a Casio synthesizer. It looks and sounds incredible. Like nothing we’ve ever heard. Sonically it’s very low-tech, like Konono No. 1 or Jagwa Music. We knew those artists but could not find anything more about Islam Chipsy. And when we clicked on YouTube a whole new world of obscure artists and YouTube channels opened for us. All the communication was in Arabic. All the sounds were pre-genre, pre-production and the scene seemed to be pre-industry. Behind our laptops we could feel the freedom, fun and cutting edge aspects of the sound. Raw. Intense. DIY. And we got an idea of the producers names.
Via Google translate we found blogs like the excellent www.matb3aa.com and www.showqna.com that share the newest tracks. And after getting the artist names right we started looking for them on Facebook. Here we found our first batch of tracks. We gave them new, Western names, to create some kind of logic to ourselves. A friend asked us to DJ at a big house party, which was quite a difficult situation. We could not find enough tracks, and even thought about mixing electro chaabi with other genres like dabke. We decided to stay true and work harder to find the right tracks. Maybe producing a mixtape would bring us in contact with the original producers, so we could even get more tracks.
Oh, and there was this performance at Kindergarten, the house festival. If we would play radical electro chaabi to an audience that does not know anything about the context, it would feel totally weird. It would also feel totally weird if we would play the music in our “Western” clothes, so we decided to emphasize the superficiality of the situation: Caucasians playing Arab music. With lyrics they don’t understand. That’s why we’ve started dressing up in Arab clothes. We were inspired by artist provocateurs like The KLF and engaged artists like Scritti Politti. We stole our colonel from Public Enemy. We started parties. Parties are a powerful tool in revolutions. And parties show another aspect of the Arab word to Western club kids: the fun and the energy and the humor. During performances we often give away vodka. Kids ask us if Arabs drink and if it’s allowed. Of course people drink in the Arab world! Greek alchemists working in Alexandria even invented distillation!
With the mixtapes and with the shows we started to find our way in the scene. And by doing so we finally found our way into promoting the music. We’re not experts, we don’t speak Arabic, and our aim was never to be DJs. We just want to bring the message to as many people as possible and want to learn from the Arab perspective. We got in touch with Egyptians. Joost made a trip to Cairo with John from The Quietus to cover the scene. It felt like pioneering. Like a work of fiction, where every character adds another dimension to the story. And the story is being told now.
Electro Chaabi is not only music, but also the new youth movement in Egypt. It’s a new music, fashion, and dance, even a new language. And it’s exciting because it is still developing relatively autonomously from the Western music industry. Of course the artists are inspired by American hip hop and European house- one of the leading mc’s even calls himself Allaa 50 Cent. We are often asked what the music has to do with the revolution. The answer is quite difficult. The music itself is a revolution. The movement is a movement itself. Of course it uses the same democratic tools like Facebook the “other” revolution uses. Of course it reacts. But electro chaabi seems to be a sustainable and creative system in itself. We now try to bring some of the Egyptian artists over to Europe. We now try to play more shows. All with the same political idea: when we promote it as a true form of art in the West maybe it will also boost the social status of the artists in Egypt. When we promote it in the West we can bring a different view on the Arab world to Western audiences. The view that in Cairo kids also like to be creative and also like to party. Them and us. It’s all the same. Let’s celebrate that!
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Cairo Liberation Front hits the road this month, performing throughout the Netherlands. As part of the Incubate festival, CLF will be hosting Electro Chaabi Wedding Party, a simultaneous wedding party in Cairo and in Tilburg (NL) on September 21st. The simulcast will include Tilburg performances by Sadat and Alaa Fifty Cent, two of electro chaabi’s pioneers.
28/09 / W2 / Den Bosch
05/10 / The Village / Horst
12/10 / Festyland / Volkel-Uden
17/10 / ADE / Amsterdam
08/11 / IAMTHECITY / Amersfoort
16/11 / Perron55 / Venlo