New York–I was in Cairo a few weeks ago and strolling down the Nile in front of the future Ritz Carlton Hotel when I stopped to gaze at the tourist boats below, all festooned as usual with colored lights and playing loud music.
The music was different than what I had been used to on Cairo streets. It was a version of shaabi, the raucous music of the slums that usually includes drums and trumpets and a throbbing beat. Instead, this was an updated electronic variety and the lyrics mouthed in the staccato style of hip-hop.
And on the open-air decks of the boats were skinny kids, limbs flailing every which way, dancing to it. Anyone over 25 years old need not apply.
This is the realm of electro-shaabi. Shaabi means popular, in the dense of “of the people.” The electro part is relatively new, an offshoot of traditional shaabi that dates back to at least the 1970s, although the word also refers to old-time belly dancing. The electro lyrics are a little racier than previous shaabi but as before project a trace of social protest. It is the music of the slums, of which Cairo has plenty.
I first ran into shaabi music a few years ago when doing a story on Shabaan Abdul Rahim, at the time Egypt’s most popular shaabi star. I saw Shabaan perform at the headquarters of Ayman Nour, a liberal politician then running for president in authoritarian Egypt–itself an unusual event. He had produced a hit called “I Hate Israel.” It included the lyrics “I love Hosni Mubarak.” Go figure.
I asked some young friends about electro-shaabi and they said using electrical instruments and the spinning vinyl discs and DJs to produce sounds were indeed innovations from abroad. But the melodies, such as they are, were all Egyptian. The themes? Poverty, girl trouble, drub freak outs, the cops. Pretty much anything bugging the kids. (Do people still use words like bugging?) Another innovation: a bit of vulgarity is now thrown in.
For those in Europe, the craze has apparently spread to London.
It would be wrong to classify electro-shaabi as a protest against the current dictatorship of Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi. Shaabi adepts didn’t much like the one-year era of Muslim Brotherhood leader and elected president Mohammed Morsi. Still, in currently strait-laced and oppressive Egypt, electro-shaabi is a breath of fresh air.
There’s no sense trying to explain; others do it better. Best of all, watch:
Trailer for a documentary on electro-shaabi.
And everything you possibly want to know about electro-shaabi.