Loud, Insistent, and Dumb

Shaabiyat and the return of the moulid as charged referent

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Tarek El Aguib, Fi Moulid Sultan Abu El Ela

Abdoh El Rewesh is screaming himself hoarse. His partner, a female vocalist who has a great ability to inject each syllable with just the right amount of erotic suggestion, is answering in the perverse voice of an eight-year-old girl asking her father to buy her lollipops and a variety of other phallic sweets at the moulid, a popular Egyptian celebration of a saint’s birthday. El Rewesh warns her (and her brother and, implicitly, all of us) to stay away from the festivities, where thieves are busy stealing little children. He goes on, telling of a man riding an elephant through the phantasmagoric celebrations.

This is the hysterical, charged world of Cairo’s newest cultural innovation — a wave of cheaply produced tapes fueled by insistent tabla workouts, obsessively phrased percussive synth riffs, and overdubs with the aggressive MCing of the likes of Abdoh El Rewesh (Cool Abdoh), Nasser El Sakran (Nasser the Drunkard), Ashraf El Brins (Prince Ashraf), Sameh El Mor’eb (The Terrifying Sameh), and Tarek El Aguib (The Bizarre Tarek).

Sometimes great upheavals and shifts in the very logic of cultural forms are palpable. We witness a sense of potential and possibility where the structure itself starts to tremble. It seems that this is one such moment.

The moulid is the central metaphor of many of these albums. Larger moulids attract millions of people from all over the country who camp out in the parks and on the streets of the different villages and cities where these seasonal celebrations take place. Zikr music is played in tents and courtyards, families visit shrines, merchants make deals, and sideshows, games, and amusements are all around the corner — everything can be found in one form or another.

Album titles such as Moulid El Magnouna (The Madwoman’s Moulid), Moulid El Sakrana (The Moulid of the Drunken One), Moulid El Segn (The Prison Moulid), and Moulid El Serk (Circus Moulid) sum up the radical, hallucinogenic spirit of these colorfully packaged tapes. The moulid here simultaneously stands for both the everyday world and its potential mirror image.

In Moulid El Segn, the slippage between the spirituality associated with the moulid and the concrete description of the conditions of life (one big prison) is palpable in both the music and the lyrics. A slow, heavily accented zikr beat is augmented by a raw, gruff voice declaiming “Prison! Prison!,” answered by the chorus “Has made it easy for us/We are at ease now.” In Moulid El Serk we will “walk on the walls” and “sweat oil,” and in “Moulid 2004” (included on Oul HaHa — Say HaHa,) the first compilation I bought a couple of years ago) the track ends with a simple and elegant sound summarizing the whole conundrum: “Boom.”

Pills and thrills

The influence of a specific drug culture on these musical productions is clear. Rather than stoned bliss-outs, we get the speedy, paranoid hysteria of amphetamines and the pumped-up confidence of Cairo’s very own Saliba pills. Drum machines and/or sampled and looped, slightly distorted tablas; the repetitive riffs and hoarse aggressive exhortations; spoken word and brief sung snippets all build to an almost unbearable state of tension and expectation. The MC regulates the release of this charged tension. A cycle of tension and release creates a state of suspension.

The carnival sideshow or bestiary is an apt metaphor for the world described by the MC, a world transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. It’s not romantic lyricism that our attention is drawn to, not virtuoso connoisseurship or even subversive class-consciousness anymore, but rather a brutal and obsessive sense of self. What is radical and new is the way the alien and fantastic becomes part of an operation in which a self is produced through the experiences of urban contemporary life. The popular form plunders its own heritage and twists its meaning to rearticulate a new reality suited to a new context, a reality which it then presents as a simulation.

Hence both pills and thrills are equally unreal, phantasms that exist within a self under stress, a self whose historical conditions were never on its side. In the space beyond meaning and categories there exists an unknowable surplus (what Bakhtin calls the “man in man”), a core that lies undefined, a quantity beyond measurement — yet this seeming transcendental surplus can only be enacted in daily life, in the culture we produce and consume. It is both surface and depth. If airbrushed pop can only present us with glossy escapist fantasies, a fleeting three-minute daydream best encapsulated in video-clips blaring out of TV sets, before returning to the trappings of a failed society, then Shaabiyat is a more material struggle with the surplus of that urban condition — a coming to terms with it that leads to the violent desire to claim power over the social space, desire that can only be purged by the production of new pleasures. This is that crystal-hard space in a social system where irrationality and neurosis can function as valid drives rather than being categorized as guilt-ridden sublimations of lived conditions. Therefore what is perverse in mainstream media (the eroticism of a child’s voice, for example) is here no longer perverse. Taboos aren’t broken, but relocated. The taboo has finally become totem.

Different forms of structural trembling

This is a genre that suddenly erupted without the requisite token star or charismatic figure. Shaabiyat (differentiated from the now more classical genre of Shaabi) is supported by a series of music labels devoted to the genre, each with its own stable of musicians and MCs. The tapes are distributed through a largely informal network of kiosks and street sellers. The competition remains fierce, though that doesn’t stop rival MCs and labels from sampling the hell out of each other.

A deliberate sense of amateurism and bluntness within this genre stands in stark contrast to the more classical Shaabi’s use of innuendo, which has been discarded in favor of the harsher and more damaging approach. The vulgar asserts itself as it is and frees itself from explanation, even pride. An aesthetic of reified brutality strangely fitting to the current historical moment is at play in both musical arrangement and the way the voice is treated and used. Different vocal samples — such as the speeded-up, slightly insane laughter of children — punctuate the distorted and heavily compressed megaphone shouts and groans. Female choruses (and on rare occasions second solo vocalists) moan in the throes of lustful hysteria. In some songs, deliberately bad covers of icons like Om Kolthoum are a retranslation, rather than an interpretation of the canon, productive in its magnetized violence.

One of the songs on the album Moulid El Sakrana, “The Man from Istanbul,” takes its lyrics from a nonsense children’s song about a man, his wife, his son and daughter, and her hair. The song breaks down when the main vocalist’s voice is suddenly accelerated — is this subversive humor or a darker sense of loss? Is it the form dissolving or rationality itself slowly breaking down? It might be that these productions point to a moment when a certain aspect of popular culture is rearticulated, a structural tremble made more potent through its origins in a popular mode.

Why the Korg Triton has become the guitar of a hundred slums

The perfect instrument for reflecting this kind of musical shift seems to be the shiny silver, highly flexible Korg Triton. The capability of the Triton to simulate many Oriental instruments while transforming them into electronic bits of sound seems to be part of its popularity. The wide array of novel sounds also feeds an audience hungry for titillation or a sense of wonder.

Maybe Cairo is finally waking up to the loss of pathos and emotions, laments and wounded machismo. Here there is no sympathy and no redemption anymore; here we are as hard as nails. Although we might still shed tears about the cruel world, double-crossing lovers, and the betrayal of friends, somewhere between the pounding drum machine and that insistent, radical synth riff, there’s no space for real lament. There is no claim to authenticity, only self-conscious performative gestures — in short, a simulation.

Dissonant riffs are repeated through a cloud of stabbing chords that punctuate the syncopated beat. Quotations from popular heritage are legion but drained of all their previous associations and, most importantly from any shred of nostalgia. In a process of willful dumbing down, heritage becomes an object. The popularity of phasers, flangers, reverbs, and other electronic sound effects help signify this transition.

Emptiness and automation

Shaabiyat is a genre that can potentially evacuate itself to present us with a form that is open enough for an engagement that is not merely based on interpretation. This is a genre that refuses to be ruled by the logic of any of the master signifiers or tropes of Egyptian popular culture. Class, although implicit, has been abandoned as a subject; eroticism is practiced rather than represented; and narratives to draw lessons from have disappeared. We’re left with a charged object to be encountered, loud, dumb, and present. Anger is one of the charges through which this music can become an object (ie something to encounter rather than material to interpret), through which the form itself can be born. Another is pleasure, and an apocalyptic sensibility. The message does not actually exist anymore; instead we have a friction with a specific sensibility.

In a popular culture where emotion has been substituted for kitsch in all dominant discourses, evacuated forms like Shaabiyat offer a new potential. Hence the deliberately amateurish delivery of a large number of the vocalists on these tapes is not merely an act of iconoclasm (this is not Sid Vicious singing Sinatra) but something more mysterious. The glamour of subversion is exchanged for something more automatic and basic, and thus more terrifying. This is a cultural product that can’t be assimilated by the mainstream because it is content, gesture, and empty space. A presence that is, rather than a category of meaning. Dichotomies of interiority and exteriority are thus rendered inoperative; there is only automation and pure presence.

Insistence and obsession rather than hypnosis and trance are the defining elements of these long, repetitive tracks. The solo doesn’t meander from the roots of the rhythm to soar up into transcendence, as it does in zikr or classical Arabic music, but persistently snakes itself around the pulse. The pounding beat is not a deep-down funk as much as a light laceration to the skin of the city.

The paradox of a fantasy that is deeply grounded in a social reality presents us with an ambiguous cultural moment. Voices that emerge from this deep dark space are ciphers of a negative mirror-image. It is as if larger cultural formations possess the same narcissistic relationships to their self-image as the lone individual does. Emergence — of voice, sound, place or an entity — is cyclical in nature and thus always lies in thrall of its own potential demise.

The cycle functions as a trap, a gap, a moment where repetition is enacted.