The reedy tones of a synthesizer bleed into the soundscape of dissonant electronics. Subsonic bass shakes the earth as metallic percussion comes down like thunder. When the storm breaks, a frantic beat kicks into gear. Live drum fills, clinking finger cymbals, and a syncopated bass drum fuel the revelry for what sounds like a wedding party teetering on the edge of doom.
This is “Procession” and “Phase #5,” back-to-back tracks off Three Phase, the debut album by Egyptian artist 3Phaz. Arriving March 27 on the Cairo-based independent record label 100Copies, the album represents the latest example of artists taking inspiration from mahraganat, a style of bombastic Egyptian street music that has gained in massive popularity across the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., even as it’s officially been banned at home.
Mahraganat means “festivals” in Arabic (it’s also sometimes referred to as “electro shaabi”). It first emerged in the late-2000s in impoverished Cairo districts and suburbs such as Imbaba and Al-Salaam City, and it became a sensation in the wake of the 2011 revolution that overthrew recently deceased former president Hosni Mubarak. The music’s booming drums, minimalist synths and Auto-Tuned raps are now inescapable across Cairo and other parts of Egypt.
Mahraganat stars including Hamo Bika and Oka wi Ortega get hundreds of millions of views on YouTube for their hits. Other marquee performers have appeared in movies and TV commercials, their fame growing with the help of viral dance routines and flashy outfits. Driven by Egyptian rhythms and colloquial Egyptian Arabic lyrics, the music is hypnotic in its pummeling intensity, offering the perfect fuel for wedding parties, the wildest of which find young men dancing with knives and climbing on each others’ shoulders over the ear-splitting volume.
When 3Phaz (pronounced “Three Phase”) started getting into the music several years ago, he was drawn in by this thrilling intensity.
“I was exposed to it on the streets, just like most of us were,” says the mysterious producer. Maintaining anonymity, he often appears in photos dressed in a cloaklike hoodie. He granted a phone interview with Billboard on the condition that his true identity not be divulged. “I liked the extreme repetition. I liked that it was really DIY-sounding, very distorted. They didn’t really care about the mixing and the mastering of the tracks — they just wanted to make it as loud and noisy as possible.”
On his own album, 3Phaz embraces mahraganat and other forms of Egyptian street music, specifically the instrumental varieties, driven by pounding rhythms, frantic drum fills and piercing keyboards designed to sound like a reed instrument called the mizmar. He then filters it through his own passions for techno, footwork, and experimental sound design. He made the album using material he recorded in the studio with keyboardist Andro El Hawy and drummer Tarek El Shabah, who give the album an instantly recognizable Cairo imprint even as 3Phaz delves into deeper-orbit passages of exploding drums and electronic ooze.
“I believe there’s a lot of similarities between mahraganat and other dance music,” 3Phaz says. “Maybe not sonically, but on a deeper level — in terms of the kind of energy that’s coming out of it, the emphasis on the bass sounds. The repetition, the grooves.”
“I think the word ‘hard’ is the common element here,” he adds.
Egypt (population 100 million) has produced some of the most influential music of the Arab world. It’s the birthplace of classically trained singers such as Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim-Hafez, who held sway during the glory years of the 1950s and ’60s and still command great admiration decades after they passed away. Along with other genres, Egypt also has a rich history of shaabi music — the word means “popular” and refers to music and culture that centers around regular folks and everyday life. Mahraganat comes out of this shaabi tradition, which in the past was pioneered by singers such as Ahmad Adaweya and songs about urban overcrowding, class divides, and other travails of the street.
Fans of this new wave of Egyptian music love mahraganat’s rawness, realness, and independence, representing a triumph of poor communities that have otherwise been slammed by neglect and brutal economic woes. Even outside Egypt, it’s attracted the enthusiasm of many critics and underground artists, who have embraced the music and added elements of it to other genres and cultural contexts.
But not everybody is excited. Similar to what happened with American gangsta rap in the early ’90s, mahraganat has stoked a moral panic among conservative audiences and musical gatekeepers, who consider the songs’ colorfully offensive lyrics and low-budget production to be immoral and a threat to Egyptian values.
3Phaz nodded to this long-boiling controversy two years ago in an appearance on the London online station NTS Radio. Performing on a program hosted by Maan Abu Taleb of the Arabic-language music magazine Ma3azef, he kicked off his set with a psychedelic remix of a combative talk-show interview between two mahraganat performers and Helmy Bakr, an 82-year-old composer turned anti-mahraganat pundit.
The younger artists try to defend themselves, but Bakr interrupts, barking at them as he dismisses the music as lower-class and uneducated. In his remix, 3Phaz warps their voices with delay effects and a lopsided synth line, bringing out the chaos and absurdity of the exchange.
“Those [mahraganat] guys are taking over and they don’t belong to any of the old-school ways,” 3Phaz says, suggesting why older artists are frustrated about the rise of the new music. “They’re hard to control and they’re sort of taking all the spotlight.”
Despite all the backlash, mahraganat has continued to explode in popularity. But the authorities tried to shut it down for good in February, when the singer Hassan Shakosh performed a hit song during a Valentine’s Day concert that references smoking hashish and drinking alcohol. According to UAE-based newspaper The National, the performance was held in front of thousands of fans at Cairo Stadium and broadcast on national TV.
Hany Shaker, the head of Egypt’s powerful musicians’ union (officially called the musicians’ syndicate), responded by outlawing mahraganat, barring performances at clubs, hotels, Nile boats, and any other venues in the country. The spokesman for Egyptian’s parliament also came out in support, calling into a news show to declare mahraganat a “virus” that’s “more dangerous than coronavirus for Egyptian society and for all Arab societies.”
3Phaz isn’t affected by the ban — he isn’t a mahraganat artist and doesn’t play in Egypt, after all — and he suspects that actual mahraganat artists will find a way around the ban too, especially given the independent nature of how the music is made. “You can just make tracks in your bedroom or in your home studio. You put them on SoundCloud and YouTube and they’re available for everyone,” he says. “How can you stop that?”
Whatever happens, it’s clear that mahraganat has grown into something bigger than ever before. Days before dropping Three Phase, 100Copies — which started out as a small experimental imprint — announced that it signed a multiyear deal with Sony Music Entertainment’s Dubai-based Middle East branch in order to release mahraganat music. And in April, Bika is scheduled to play shows in Orlando, Florida, and Jersey City, N.J. (It’s unclear whether the concerts are still happening in the wake of nationwide coronavirus shutdowns.)
On Three Phase, 3Phaz’s album, you can literally hear the sound of mahraganat melding and molding, being stretched out and rearranged, combining with other forms of club music into a scrambling of dance music DNA. The wedding-party drums lock in with sculpted bass tones. The mizmar synths give way to electric sirens, making beautiful tension and release. In the final track, after all the pummeling festivity, 3Phaz melts his various samples and electronics down into what sounds like a dripping synthesizer goop. It’s all part of the ether now, out in the world, mixed together with everything else, never again to be decanted.