Hany Shaker on mahraganat music: ‘Because it’s popular on YouTube doesn’t make it good'

The Egyptian crooner says artists from the genre need industry guidance

Hany Shaker wants mahraganat music to evolve.

That’s the message from the veteran singer and composer, ahead of his Abu Dhabi Classics concert on Thursday at Etihad Arena, backed by an orchestra.

His current reign as elected head of the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate has found his lobby increasingly at odds with the popular genre.

Blending folk melodies and street vernacular lyricism with blazing electro synth riffs, mahraganat has taken Egypt by storm over the past decade and has made viral sensations of a new generation of singers from the country, including Wegz and Hassan Shakosh.

Even established celebrities are in on the action, with Mohamed Ramadan transforming himself into a pop star with exuberant hit singles, including Versace Baby and Number One.

It is a development the syndicate is weary of.

It is becoming increasingly alarmed by the subject matter of some festive tracks and what it deems a lack of musicianship. The body, which represents artists and venue operators, revoked the licences of venues hosting certain mahraganat concerts and fired off warnings and fines to select acts.

In September, Ramadan was warned by the union for giving a "flasha" concert, meaning a playback performance without a backing band of at least 12 musicians.

Ahmed Saad was fined a reported 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,270) for the same offence after bringing a quartet to a coastal gig in Egypt that same month.

These skirmishes come after the rift reached its peak in February 2020, when the union issued a blanket ban on mahraganat performances, citing its lewd content.

The order was rescinded in June this year after the union developed a framework allowing mahraganat artists to register under a new section of the charter called “monologist.”

A philosophical divide

While the move potentially spells the end of this battle, Shaker is confident of his stance.

He says the union’s take on mahraganat is misconstrued.

“I have nothing, professionally speaking, against the actual music itself," he tells The National. "If you want to hear it all day long then you go for it.

“What I object to is some of the lyricism involved. There are phrases and subject matter to these songs that have never been uttered in Egyptian music before.

“They are so out of bounds and are being heard by the younger generation so there has to be some oversight.”

Shaker refrains from mentioning specific artists, but his comments allude to Hassan Shakosh's performance of the controversial hit Bent El Geran (Girl Next Door) at a packed stadium in Cairo in 2020.

The gig prompted the union to issue its initial ban, including on performances in hotels, clubs and on boats.

Shaker, who is 68 and an established arena and theatre act, doesn’t view the previously imposed restrictions as stemming from a generational divide.

It has philosophical undertones, instead, with mahraganat’s freewheeling production methods – in some cases using makeshift studios and cheap synthesisers – a far cry from the norms by which popular music has been performed and composed in Egypt for decades.

Against the establishment

Born in 1952 in Cairo, Shaker's career took the established route of education and patronage.

He is a graduate of the Cairo Conservatory and his career evolved through the encouragement of Egyptian classic crooners, including Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez.

Shaker took their creative advice and built a successful career as a singer-songwriter.

Yearning hits such as Nesynak Saab Akeed and Keda Bardo Ya Amar infused the vintage sounds of his heroes with modern instrumentation and production.

Shaker wants popular Egyptian music to evolve through that tradition and points to stars such as Tamer Hosny as a modern-day example.

“He is a wonderful singer who appeals to the young and older,” he says. “The great thing about him is that his compositions have a resonance, it is emotive and that can only be accomplished by someone skilled at what they do.”

This is, perhaps, a telling statement explaining Shaker’s and the union’s rancour with mahraganat artists.

If the well-groomed looks and supremely polished tracks of Hosny are the way forward, then mahraganat artists – with mostly unkempt appearances and simpler call-and-response song structures – are a reversal of and uncharted territory for the Egyptian music industry. They don’t need a high-end studio to record and an obligatory backing band to perform.

As for patronage, the combined billions of views on streaming services and fans on social media ensure a relevance largely immune to industry help.

Shaker is aware of this. However, he says that without professional guidance and standards to adhere to, mahraganat music will eventually burn out.

“Because something is popular on YouTube doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” he says.

“A lot of pop music today is influenced by mahraganat and is more focused on rhythm and high tempo than melody and lyricism. The results are songs that don’t really resonate and people will move on to something else.”

Whatever that new sound may be, Shaker and the union will be listening.

Hany Shaker and Orchestra perform at Etihad Arena on Thursday, November 4, at 8pm. Tickets from Dh250 are available at etihadarena.ae. Those over the age of 12 are required to be fully vaccinated to attend and must provide a negative PCR test result taken within 96 hours of the event

Updated: November 4th 2021, 6:01 AM