Electro chaabi stars Oka and Ortega featured in the "Underground on the Surface" film
You can hear it from the sandy streets of El Salaam City on the desert outskirts of Cairo all the way to London. This is a diesel-powered new sound, carried afloat by one thousand rave sirens, cracked copies of FruityLoops and Auto-Tune, 75 years of Egyptian chaabi wedding music tradition, digital dancehall, grime, R&B, and the updraft caused by several hundred whirling tea towels. And it’s coming out of the traps like an atomic racehorse. This is the Church of the Cairo Liberation Front and you are called to prayer. Don’t blame me if you end up drinking vodka from the barrel of a huge gun and are reduced to dancing in your underwear. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so please just let me just rewind the clock back to one and a half years ago…
Figo (left) and Sadat. Photo by Al Overdrive
In April 2013, in the lull between the revolutionary protests in Tahrir Square, my good friend Joost Heijthuijsen and I went to Cairo and El Salaam City to try and track down the astounding Keyboard King of Egypt, Islam Chipsy, after seeing some mind-blowing YouTube clips of him in action. His playing style was unreal. He would attack his keyboard with punches, karate chops, and slaps, deploying hyperfast tonal clusters in a blur of hand movements, flanked by two drummers playing dancehall and soca rhythms at about 160 beats per minute.
By the time we got there we realized we’d stumbled across the birth of a brand new musical form that was, to put it mildly, blowing most of everything else out of the water in terms of originality and energy. There were scores of young producers, such as Figo and Diesel, and MCs, such as Sadat and Alaa 50, producing a thrilling new sound called "electro chaabi" or mahraganat (meaning "Festival"). All of these young musicians essentially earned their living playing wedding parties—the best of which were giant street raves by any other name. We got invited to the engagement party of the greatest Electro Chaabi MC, Sadat—something that will remain probably the most exciting night of my life.
Dancers at Sadat and Samer's wedding
The musicians produce tracks using cracked copies of software programs such as Logic, Acid Pro, FruityLoops, and Auto-Tune. Mainstream vocalists in Egypt have to have their lyrics subjected to a very thorough vetting process by government officials but as electro chaabi operates outside of the mainstream, the rising stars of the scene can say whatever they want. (One of the earliest chaabi hits was called "Fuck! I’ve Lost My Slipper!" which was apparently the first ever Egyptian song to contain swearing.) They distribute their tracks for free via MediaFire and YouTube, sidestepping the censors and these act as adverts for their skills as wedding entertainers. This is the way they earn their money. Most of the tracks have little to do with the country’s recent revolutions but they are allowing young working-class people to give widespread and loud voice to their everyday frustrations for the first time ever and they are doing it in the form of a brand new musical style controlled by and for themselves—this is revolution enough in itself.
Joost took a love for electro chaabi back to his hometown Tilburg, in the Netherlands. Not only has he had a hand in Sadat and Alaa 50's music becoming legally available in the West for the first time, via the progressive label Generation Bass, but he’s managed to help stage a couple of electro chaabi events in the Lowlands. (This is harder than it sounds, as most Egyptian men can’t leave their country until they’ve completed National Service in the army.)
The Cairo Liberation Front. Photo by Tom Roelofs
He passed his enthusiasm on to local DJ Yannick Verhoeven and MC Joep Schmitz, who formed crack dance party unit the Cairo Liberation Front. Taking the scene’s revolutionary sound and smashing it together with a no brow, post-everything, go-hard-go-home, crowd-surfing-in-nightclubs ethos, they have become fearsome party starters of the highest stripe. I went to see them DJing recently in the Netherlands and it was a brutal experience and, to be honest—for a sensitive man in his middle years—also pretty terrifying. There were a lot of people taking their t-shirts off and whirling tea towels round their heads, giant pump action water rifles full of vodka, people dancing on the bar and jumping off furniture... that kind of thing.
What I find so brilliant about electro chaabi is that it’s the exact opposite of "world music"—heritage dressing up culture for tourists on expensive package trips. This is the utterly inauthentic but utterly brilliant party music of young working-class and underclass Egypt, seen one step removed through the cracked prism of two lunatic Dutch Nicki Minaj and Shaggy fans. And it sounds something like this:
The Church Of The CLF Mix by Cairo Liberation Front
1. Mozmar Ahla Bel – El Ghmrawy (CLF Bootleg)
2. Oka & Ortega – Na Na
3. Natasha Zahma – Kel Elomar
4. الشجاعه والآصول
5. اوعى الاحلام بيوجع
6. فرحة ابو الدردار_فريق الاحلام
7. unknown – Hobba Lala
8. واقف وفـ وسط الحاره
9. مولد الدمار (CLF Bootleg feat. Juicy J & Nicki Minaj)
10. El Bam Sena - مهرجان البم
11. DJ Ramy feat. Laba & Tito - El Tramdol (Da7y Remix)
12. مولد الفنش (CLF Let’s Go Dancing Bootleg)
13. El Bam Sena – مهرجان الضربه الاولي
14. مولد الجياره vs Mötorhead
15. Oka & Ortega – Ana KdaB
16. مهرجان اللعبه الكسبانه
17. مهرجان على الشط
18. Pharrell – Happy (Oka & Ortega Remix)
Cairo Liberation Front and Polygrains are playing Birthdays in Dalston in London on Wednesday, 22nd of October with DJ, John Doran of the Quietus in support. More details and tickets here.