Since the 1940s the Egyptian music scene – as well as the film industry that was closely linked to it – made the lights of Cairo sparkle all over the Arab world. Umm Kulthum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez… But when the immense voices of the golden age of Egyptian song started dying out in the 1970s, Egyptian creation took a nosedive. And even if the jazz scene managed to keep Cairo's cultural life afloat with a figures like Salah Ragab and his immense Cairo Jazz Band, the 90s were marked by the advent and domination of ‘tunes for dancing’ – half macarena, half flamenco-orientalist, 100% inaudible commercial pop with terrible music videos.
If anything has helped to nourish the Egyptian underground music scene, it’s jazz. This has been partly due to the impetus of Mohamed Mounir who was part of the Cairo Jazz Band. An Egyptian icon, he has for almost half a century managed to bridge the gap between the general public and a more committed and referential approach aimed at the Cairo intelligentsia. There are two other names from the jazz-fusion scene to thank – Fathy Salama and Georges Kazazian.
Whilst the West of the ‘90s was under the hegemony of rock, the scene had to keep a much lower profile in Egypt. On 22nd January 1997, nearly a hundred young rockers were arrested by the police in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis, and were later imprisoned for satanism.
In the early 2000s, Egypt experienced two major changes: the arrival of digital globalised culture, linked with the opening of private clubs. The first hip-hop groups emerged with Arabian Knights, and lowrider Mr Kordy.
This movement would only accelerate during the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak. Dubbed electro-shaabi or, more correctly, mahraganat (‘festivals’ in Arabic), this deluge of frenzied beats and hard words would become the sounding board for a neglected generation. With Sadat & Alaa Fifty Cent, Filo, Islam Chipsy with his group EEK, and a whole scene defended by a label like 100Copies, mahraganat exploded in Cairo. A cathartic, inflaming BOOM, documented in the superb film Electro Chaabi produced by journalist Hind Medded in 2013.
At the same time as this fresh movement – which was mostly about having a musical impact – was going on, a whole new galaxy of sounds was arriving in Cairo. At the now-closed VENT club for example, you could find the collective Kairo is Koming, some of whose members and supporters continue to produce bright, exciting music. These include $$$ TAG $$$ – a co-founder of the club – all-rounders like Bosaina, producer Hussein Sherbini, as well as singer and musician Aya Metwalli, who can be found on the Arabstazy compilation (Under Frustration - Vol. 1) released by the InFiné label.
Youssef Abouzeid aka PanSTARRS, singer on the post-punk/cold wave scene in Cairo with Rozzma, first appeared on planet YouTube in 2015. Signed by the French label Acid Arab Records, this strange producer transforms the codes of mahraganat into off-centre, hypnotic electro crossovers. Rozzma may have completely disappeared over the past year but we all know he’ll be back soon.
And last, but by no means least, it’s impossible to ignore Cairo’s latest musical wave that is dominating everything: trap. Here we have Wegz, a groundswell in the style of Young Dolph, the swift flow of Abo el Anwar where we can find all the mischief of Peewee Longway, and of course Marwan Pablo, a real national Trap God. A song like “Free” should reassure even the biggest skeptics as to the power of the Cairo trap scene. Skrrt skrrt habibi!