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Shaabi music in the limelight
Rowan El Shimi, Monday 24 Oct 2011
El-Geneina Theatre pushes boundaries in their search for underground talents, bringing shaabi (popular) music from the streets and weddings to the stage

On Thursday night, El-Geneina Theatre at Azhar Park hosted artists associated with weddings and neighbourhood gigs in popular districts like Al-Salam, Al-Mattaria and Imbaba on the main stage.

The line up included DJ Amr Haha, acompanied by Figo, Alaa 50, and El-Sadat Rap as they collaborated to blow the audience away. Almost the entire crowd were on their feet dancing, singing along and enjoying the beats for the whole concert. You might have been already exposed to their music in taxis, microbuses and, of course, Tuktuks (three-wheeled motorbike/taxi hybrids).

“Audiences were leaving the event telling us that we made them happy in a time where they couldn’t laugh,” Ashraf Qenawy, El-Geneina Theatre manager told Ahram Online. “People let out so much energy that needed to get out,” he added.

While the mix of hip-hop beats with Arabic rap lyrics along with house beats and shaabi tunes doesn’t necessarily sound like a combination that works, it did.

“With hip-hop music, once the beat starts it moves you,” Sadat Rap said. “We mixed that with popular shaabi music that we played,” he explained.

“Shaabi music reflects Egyptian culture with all its contradictions in the moment. It rebels against the ready-made stereotype, and spreads like wildfire because it is danceable music that gives listeners a chance to vent their feelings about anything worth longing for,” El-Geneina Theatre wrote in their press release.

In the 50s and 70s, shaabi music was highly valued in the Egyptian community. Singers such as Mohammed Roshdi were icons of that type of music that mixed powerful voices with authentic Egyptian music. Gradually, the shaabi music genre fell off the map, leaving more room for pop music.

On stage, DJ Amr Haha and Figo do the mixing while Sadat Rap and Alaa 50 sing the rap and shaabi songs.Figo, who has been playing music since he was 17 years old, is self-taught. “I taught myself how to mix tunes using mixer software and through YouTube” he explained.

Figo and Sadat Rap got together a couple of years ago and started mixing music, playing their first track in El-Salam Festival.

Alaa 50 and DJ Amr Haha have played in weddings all over Cairo as well as in Sharkia, Mansoura and Suez. “We are famous because we preform on the street, but neverin theatres," Sadat commented.

Their music took audiences from singing about the police to the revolution, to the different types of drugs in society.We wrote a lot of songs after the revolution,” Alaa 50 told Ahram Online. “We say it like it is, with no censorship,” he added.

Their songs use many cultural references, such as Ahmed Foad Negm, one of Egypt’s most prominent poets, along with references from old Arabic films. They also used chants from the revolution such as, "Down with the regime, Bread, freedom and social justice" mixed with the famous, “The people want to bring down the regime” and “The people want five pounds of phone credit” which rhymes in Arabic.

One of their songs also discussed sectarian clashes that have been ongoing in Egypt, saying they believe it to be a “hidden hand” which is the same phrase the regime used when talking about revolutionaries in Tahrir during the 18-day uprising.

Despite the fact that some of them are extremely popular, like DJ Amr Haha, whose music is heavily downloaded through his Facebook page and his YouTube clips,El-Geneina Theatre got a fair share of criticism for putting them in the limelight.

“I was happy there was dialogue,” Qenawy commented. “However, I did not like that a discussion relating to art turned into a classist issue.”“Are you against it because you don’t like the music or because these artists and their music are from a different social class?” he wondered.

“This music is enjoyed by a majority of our society. As a theatre, my goal is to not only provide a service for five per cent of society, but to strive to provide for the whole 80 million,” he added.

The artists were very happy to be featured in Geneina, and to be getting media attention. “Isn’t it sad when our own country and media gain an interest in us after we gain international recognition?” Sadat commented, explaining how he was invited to perform this year in the Hyde Park Festival in London.

The organisers reached him through social media networks Facebook and YouTube. “I was asked by people I met there how we were not very famous and well represented in Egypt,” he added.

“Our problem is we don’t have any media coverage, even though we have talent,” Alaa 50 told Ahram Online. “I wish we had resources to go big. We have the potential, but no opportunities, even though we can blow people away,” he added.