Tue, Jan 07, 2014 - Page 12 News List

The new mainstream

In Egypt, political unrest has created a revolution in the pop culture scene

by Hamza Hendawi  /  AP, Cairo

The tradition since the revolution has been for artists to routinely whitewash over old work and start anew. Now, says artist Alaa Abdel-Hameed, an informal deal has been struck among graffiti artists to abandon the practice and instead expand on existing work.

The images there speak of anger at the military. One shows a Dracula-like soldier with blood dripping from his mouth. Underneath him are skulls labeled “bread, freedom and social justice,” the slogan of the 2011 revolution. There is also the image of a chimp carrying a framed picture of a gorilla wearing a military cap, a dig at the adoration of the military leadership.

“Down with everyone who committed betrayal,” declares a scrawled slogan.

Abdel-Hameed this year tried another form of street art. He made 200 sculptures of eagles, Egypt’s official symbol adorning its national flag, and plastered them upside-down on city walls.

All but a handful have been demolished, likely by opponents of Morsi who took them as a criticism of his ouster — though in fact Abdel-Hameed put them up before the coup.

The other art form on the streets is heard, not seen — mahraganat, or “festival,” music, which emerged from the densely populated slums encircling Cairo.

“It is the only genuine musical movement in Egypt now ... It has no boundaries,” said Mohammed Gamal, author of a book on Egypt’s hardcore soccer fans known as the Ultras, who are among the most avid mahraganat fans, and a close follower of pop culture.

Mahraganat musicians, in their late teens and early 20s, fill their rapid-fire songs with street slang — often lewd — about the life of the unemployed youth trying to get by, hitting topics of love, drugs, partying and politics.

“Poverty has taken hold, we reached the stage of hunger, if the hopes go, I will stage another revolution,” goes the lyric of one popular mahraganat song.

“In Egypt, there are the rich, the poor and those who are below poverty,” Ahmed Mustafa, a mahraganat singer better known by his stage name Ortega, said in a recent television interview. “I am below poverty, but I will do whatever I like.”

Mahraganat’s style emerged before 2011, but it spread rapidly because of the loosening of societal restrictions attributed in part to the uprising. Now it is heard everywhere from weddings to the car stereos of upper-class youth.

“The country has been in a revolutionary mode, and people take interest in underground forms of music as well as everything else that is not mainstream,” said Salma el-Tarzi, who directed a documentary on the journey of three mahraganat singers from obscurity to the mainstream.

At a recent concert in the poor Cairo district of el-Marg, the mahraganat band el-Dawshagiyah — or “the Noisemakers’’ — sang one of their songs to the crowd: “Hey girl, give me a kiss and I will give you my wallet. Give me a kiss and I will stop chasing you.”

“We sing about the reality on the ground in Egypt, the youths who are jobless and the revolution,” said Ahmed Shaaban, one of the band members. “The upper classes used to have nothing but contempt for us, now they look for our music.”

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