This summer I spent a month in Egypt doing research for the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. In October, Afropop will begin airing a series of programs looking at Egypt — past and present — through the eyes of musicians. In one episode Egyptians are asked to imagine how the revolution will affect their popular music.
Get into a taxi or turn on a radio in Cairo, and you're apt to hear one of three things: The first is melodious recitation of the Quran, a ubiquitous sound in this pious city of 22 million; or you might hear a voice from the golden age of Egyptian music (the mid-20th century), like the iconic diva Umm Kulthum; or third, you could hear a crooning pop singer like Amr Diab, with a slick mix of Arabic vocal angst and dated Western production values.
But all these sounds are old news in Egypt. The country is looking for new music to go with its new politics. The problem is nobody seems to agree on what that might sound like, but plenty will tell you that today's popular music is stale.
But there is hope. Grammy-winning Egyptian composer and arranger Fathy Salama is not alone in his feeling that Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime stifled artistic creativity with its banal media products and education policies that discouraged innovation. For Salama, the most interesting new sounds in Egypt don't come from trained musicians at all, but rather rough-hewn wedding performers in downscale Cairo neighborhoods. Music like this is never heard on Egyptian radio or television, let alone in clubs or concert halls.
I met DJ Islam Chipsy while he was performing and cutting loose at a Cairo street wedding. And he was kind enough to give me some insight into the culture of Egyptian street music:
"I think its just guys from poor neighborhoods that also listen to DJs from the West, and they made their own version of — you can call it different names — but there's definitely nothing like it. It is an Egyptian rhythm finally. It's not a Western rhythm."
Sometimes it's just a guy with a keyboard; or there might a drummer, an MC, or a singer. If the music gets recorded at all, it goes on homemade CDs or the Internet. The common thread that ties them all together is a strong Egyptian identity, and a rejection of the tired love themes that pervade mainstream Egyptian pop.
Music producer and experimental composer Mahmoud Refat is another serious musician with a soft spot for the street music of Cairo's poorest districts. "This is very original stuff," he says. "It has everything — it has the Egyptian culture; it has the aggression of hip-hop music; it has the dynamics of dance music. [It has the concept of radical music — repetitions in beats and cutting and doing and looping.] It's a new form, for me. [It's not just sha'abi, popular music.]"
Lately, even a few religious singers are braving their way into this new world of street music. One singer who is huge on the Internet and the local wedding scene is Mahmoud El Leithy. Debbie Smith, an American living in Cairo, is a savvy consumer of local music, and a huge fan of El Leithy. Recalling when she discovered him, she says,
"I first heard him at a wedding, by chance. I went to a wedding in Giza and they had three singers, and he was amazing. [When he would sing], the audience, the dancing, people stopped, and they were just rapt. I mean, he's tapping a chord that's very deep inside every Egyptian who was raised in this society — where religion permeates everything."
Even young rappers are taking notice. The new CD by Arabian Knightz — probably Egypt's top hip-hop act currently — features cameos by both Mahmoud El Leithy and another Sufi singer, L. Fashny. And as Refat points out, "If all the kids are into this music, I can see its future. It will go somewhere."
Like Egypt's January revolution, the music of Cairo street weddings is bubbling up from the bottom with no help from authorities or institutions. And if keen observers like Mahmoud Refat are right, this blend of youth, technology, and the courage to challenge old ideas will reshape Egypt's music as surely as it is reshaping the politics.