First, some background on the music scenes in Egypt. A large number of Arab rock and fusion bands have formed and become popular over the past few years, due to a search for an alternative to mainstream pop, growing interest in online platforms for artists since 2011 and increasing use of digital audio workstations and home studios.
Other artists have adopted hip hop, rap and spoken word to express enthusiasm for certain political and social causes in the region (like Al-Rass, Aly Talibab and Arabian Knightz), while a minority indifferent to the mainstream have singled themselves out — like Abyusif, who maintains an idiosyncratic style in his collaboration with producer and musician Ahmed al-Ghazouly. And one can’t ignore metal — a genre that came to the Egyptian scene in the 1990s and has since created a subculture with globally recognized bands such as Crescent and Scarab.
Meanwhile, Egyptian electronic music emerged in the early 2000s, thanks to The Room and Machine Eat Man, and later 100COPIES, which played a role in supporting sound experimentation and electronic works until 2013, when its direction arguably became more focused on mahraganat music.
Despite such diverse bands and music production, there’s no integrated music scene. It’s growing though, with continual attempts to create both a public music scene and exclusive scenes for particular bands or genres.
With its new sound, mahraganat music has asserted the presence of its scene, which has undergone several development phases from its original surroundings to assimilation by large and medium production companies, like 100Copies, and local and international acclaim. As this music has become popular and excessively praised, for many its overwhelming sound has meant that local audiences and international spaces — especially those concerned with electronic music and EDM — have become inattentive to other regional music genres with new sounds.
Some artists take the risk and insist on trying to introduce new sounds amid the focus on mahraganat (often known outside of Egypt as “shaabi”) and to a lesser degree on Arabic rock and fusion. This is where Hussein Sherbini’s new album comes, as an example of this trend. ELECTRO CHAABI was released on May 19 this year at Vent, one of a few spaces that challenge mainstream taste by introducing and supporting electronic music and EDM of all kinds.
While the album’s title may be misleading, for Sherbini’s music is far from mahraganat, he chose it to make use of, and criticize, what he considers an over-enthusiasm for mahraganat. It’s intended to function as a promotional trick and as a cynical message to producers, musicians and fans who rave over this kind of music locally and abroad.
The cynicism is clear in the album’s lyrics. In ETNEEN ARBA3A, Sherbini refers to how some western Europeans and orientalists are fascinated and obsessed with the exoticism of mahraganat songs and a search for the “authentic:” “If I cared about the western world’s opinion / I would’ve made shaabi [music] and called it ‘electro-shaabi’ / this way I’d be authentic.”
Insisting on his independence and unwillingness to give up his taste in order to present music that appeals to western Europeans, he mockingly imitated a mahraganat singing style. In the same song, he ridicules fusion: “Lute, qanun and [Canadian progressive house producer] Deadmou5 / Umm Kulthum with deep house / such a new idea to mix instruments with house / especially oriental ones.” He points out that those old ideas go back to 2004, wondering why the “cheap” local taste is not interested in seeking new sounds and music: “innovation is in the farm / let’s stay broke.”
Public taste is mentioned again in MOSTAWA, where Sherbini is accompanied by Abyusif, through a challenge to the listener: “I’m here to raise the bar.” With powerful lyrics and an outraged, scornful energy, he says: “You’re at a weak, lame level / the only important thing is to perform / I bring out what I got / no one will listen to me in my country / and people abroad only listen if I sing electro-shaabi.” Sherbini refers angrily to nepotism and advertising agencies copying people’s ideas: “Look for someone else to copy / no one’s aware / sell them the same idea again.” But he insists that nothing will stop him doing what he’s doing: “Whether anyone listens or not / it makes no difference / I’ll go on, day in, day out / till the ground goes numb.”
In SINGAH, Sherbini celebrates his album and the fact that he composes, records and releases his music from his home — a common practice nowadays, in contrast with the receding role of studios, production companies and the bigger music industry: “From my room, I’ll be heard like a fire truck’s siren.” He also ridicules the popular consumer culture of advertising and TV shows.
Sherbini also raps in OWL and BENG. His lyrics are skilfully written, tackling real and serious issues, free of dreaminess, pretension and clichéd slogans — except in OWL, which is marked by a somewhat excessive enthusiasm. Yet Sherbini’s first try as a rapper is an incomplete attempt, as can be sensed in MOSTAWA, in which he performs along with Abyusif — but it might be unfair, after all, to compare between Abyusif and most rappers in the region.
In FAYA, SKIPHEAD, Fayttah and SHAMS, he demonstrates his singing style with traits that were also present in his previous, debut album, Fairchile (2013). He uses his voice as a musical instrument alongside the other layers of music, adding sound effects to it.
Overall, the music has an angry tone, with loud, heavy electronic beats and bass in a largely industrial form, with a quick mid-tempo that complements the lyrics’ spirit. An element that feels lacking in the rhythm section is the cymbals (hi-hat, crash, ride and so on) or similar synthesized sounds — though no doubt this is Sherbini’s personal preference. While his music shares the aesthetics of Nine Inch Nails and Death Grips, it maintains its own character.
ETNEEN ARBA3A differs from the rest of the album, in that it incorporates samples like the sound design of a film would. After a successful, cynical imitation of mahraganat, the song gets back on track toward the end as an out-of-tune piano enters the rhythm section like a fire engine’s siren. The whole album though is marked by the clever use of samples, like the train sound in SHAMS and the live drums recording manipulated and sliced in SINGAH. A bicycle sound is part of the beats in Fayttah, together with manipulated beats and music sections primarily based on samples from diverse sources that have been recorded and sequenced digitally.
In terms of production and sound, the album combines softsynth and analog synthesizers such as the Moog and modular synthesizers. Shernini is one of the few people — another is Mohamed Ragab (aka Machine Eat Man) — in Egypt who use these. The Moog can be clearly recognized as a bass sound in FAYA, MOSTAWA and WESH, and the modular synthesizer appears as a bass layer in SHAMS, MOSTAWA and OWL. Korg’s Monotrone can be heard as a solo in the final sections of SHAMS, SKIPHEAD and the outro, where he mixes various parts from the album.
The songs vary between the traditional structures (verse/chorus) and free structures characterized by repetition, successive introduction of layers, and unpredictability. While those layers contain fresh sound textures, the bass synthesizer is the predominant element. In my opinion SHAMS, MOSTAWA and Fayttah are the best songs on the album, and SINGAH the most complex in terms of composition and production.
Sherbini presents an interesting experiment by breaking free from stereotypes through his unique style. This experiment comes full circle in the way he produced the album: composed, recorded and mixed at his home studio on a low budget, a common practice now even for some of the world’s biggest musicians. Sherbini then uploaded it onto SoundCloud, Dandin, Spotify and iTunes, because this is a practical way to reach a larger audience.
ELECTRO CHAABI should be a strong motivator for non-mainstream musicians in this growing scene, and stimulate new sounds, adventuring and breaking free from familiar music forms. It’s a challenge for listeners’ ears in terms of music and concept, and a confident, firm call to open up space, locally and internationally, for new sounds.