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On Egyptian Music Since the Uprising

October 5, 2011

The uprisings ushered in a revolution in music as well as politics

Even NPR is getting into Egypt’s new street music. On Oct. 4 Banning Eyre started a new series on Afropop with a look at Egyptian street music.

Although it just scratched the surface, I thought it was a pretty good introduction. I particularly enjoyed his opening lines:

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.

This really does capture the three main genres that have traditionally filled the urban Egyptian soundscape (though each example could be multiplied, of course).

The gist of the piece is that 30 years under Hosni Mubarak’s regime stifled creativity and innovation, but since the uprisings , things have changed. He writes:

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.

And you can listen to tracks by DJChipsy, DJHaHa and Madad El Desougi.

I feel as though he missed developing just two things. First, while he mentions taxis as one of the crucial components of the soundscape, he fails to mention their important role as distributors of street music. If you want a cheap cassette (or, more recently, CDs) of a popular, street (sha’abi) musician, you can always score one from a taxi driver. He usually won’t have one, but he can take you to someone who has got one in minutes (prrof that ethnography can teach you practical stuff–I learned this from Walter Armbrust’s brilliant Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge 1996) before I tried it myself).

Second, I was struck by the name of the musician he interviewed, DJ Chipsy. This is a very evocative name in the confusing world of global-local hybrids. DJChipsy is an Arabization of DJ Chips, a Californian-based musician who sells digital albums on-line, has a Facebook page and a dozen youtube videos up of his music and has a Twitter account for fans.

The original Chipsy product

But Chipsy is also a brand of Egyptian potato chips–the most popular brand in Egypt. Potato chips are an interesting food in Egypt because while brands packaged in plastic are clearly inspired by their Western counterparts, you can buy fresh chips, hot and crisp from oil, from street vendors (and the quality varies wildly depending on how often they change their oil…).

When Lay’s Egypt was created, they intended to quickly cut into Chipsy’s market. It didn’t happen. While they quickly became a popular upscale brand (and their contribution to the Pokemon saga is recounted in Connected in Cairo), Lay’s never even came close enough to Chipsy to eat their dust.

Chipsy is thus the local David who beat the global Goliath.

But there’s a twist, because Lay’s Egypt, when they realized they would never be able to compete with Chipsy’s home town advantage, used their advantage–being one of the world’s biggest, most well-capitalized food manufacturers–and bought Chipsy out. Now Lay’s owns both brands, and runs one as a “popular” brand, and the other as a “high-end” brand (costing 15 percent more and available only in upscale neighborhood markets). They even revised the brand logo to look more like a Lay’s product.

The new Chipsy logo reflects the company’s ownership.

So DJChipsy is a very interesting name for a musician interested in street music, hybridity between local and transnational musical flows, and making a living at commercial music. On the surface it seems superficial and pop-faddish, but it has layers…


See also my lecture on Egyptian Music and the Uprisings

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