Echoing Egypt: A Close Listening to Mahraganat’s Relationality

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only discernible stabilities in Relation have to do with the interdependence of the cycles operative there, how their corresponding patterns of movement are in tune. In Relation analytic thought is led to construct unities whose interdependent variances jointly piece together the interactive totality. These unities are not models but revealing échos-monde. Thought makes music. William Faulkner’s work, Bob Marley’s song, the theories of Benoit Mendelbrot, are all échos-monde.

–Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

           

On March 17th, Egypt suspended all cultural activities in response to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic. Just over a month earlier, on February 16th, Hany Shaker of Egypt’s Musicians’ Syndicate issued a ban on the performance of mahraganat music in the public domain. The ban underlines that the music, in its lyrics and its essence, stands against the morals of Egyptian society[i]. Following Shaker’s decree, mahraganat musicians would not be able to obtain a license to perform, and any establishment found to be working with mahraganat singers would face legal action. Two decreed pauses in cultural activity, the former ostensibly temporary and in response to a global health crisis, the latter seemingly permanent and reflecting the Egyptian culturati’s selective moral panic.

In this peculiar moment, when much of life and work is suspended in diverse and difficult ways for people across the world, I am prompted to share a suspended and unfinished piece of writing about mahraganat, the genre doubly in suspension, although still very active, in Egypt. In this condensed excerpt from my dissertation project, I explore the genre as a sonic manifestation of Édouard Glissant’s philosophy of Relation. Through a close listening to the first thirty seconds of a 2017 mahragan (a singular mahraganat song), I argue that mahraganat is an écho-monde, an echo of the world in Relation, of the world echoing Egypt and vice-versa. In doing so, I approach defining mahraganat, not as a unique conglomeration of pre-existing musical cultures (hip-hop, shaʿ, electronic, electro-chaabi), but through its relational sounding in the world, citing Glissant, as an écho-monde and creolization. Thinking in Glissantian terms not only opens non-reductive and proliferating ways of understanding and describing postcolonial aesthetics, but also mandates that we reckon with institutions of power and discourses of exploitation, exclusion, and expropriation that condition relationality. In the current context, this means unpacking how the global phenomenon of antiblackness registers in the sonic textures of mahraganat – how histories of antiblack violence become the partial makeup of Egyptian popular musicking.

 

Relation, Genre, Echo

To define a genre is to risk limiting its potential to signify beyond its immediate and obvious contexts. Therefore, any definition of a genre is always incomplete. As Alexandra T. Vazquez reminds us “no matter how much you try and ossify genre, it will always offer tools for its own undoing” (2013: 14). In response to the problematic of fixing genre through definition, Lila Ellen Gray holds onto the category of genre as a useful analytic for tracking how sounded aesthetic phenomena are brought into relation and categorized as such. She argues “for genre as sociohistorically contingent…and against a notion of genre as formally fixed” (Gray 2013: 5). Such a conceptualization of genre, in all its contingency but also its practical utility, might also be understood through Édouard Glissant’s notion of the écho-monde, the sonic metaphor for his “Poetics of Relation.”

Glissant outlines Relation as a theoretical, geographical, and linguistic phenomenon that both describes the processual nature of the world and diagnoses the historical-ideological project of the west that obscures the world’s fundamental relationality through its emphasis on settlement and territorialization. In contrast to this ethic of settlement, “The Poetics of Relation,” is defined by Glissant as a rhizomatic ontology “in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other” (1997: 11). For Glissant, Relation constructs totalities only insofar as they emerge in the crisscrossing movements of various interdependent trajectories.

 In the epigraph that begins this piece, Glissant describes the thin, spatio-temporal coherences that Relation produces using a sonic metaphor; a global soundscape constructed by a network of resounding and overlapping echoes. Échos-monde sound the forces of Relation as they overlap to form relatively stable phenomena (Faulkner’s poetry, Marley’s reggae, and Mendelbrot’s fractal geometry). Each of Glissant’s examples are genres of art and thought that echo one another in the realm of Relation, what Alexander G. Weheliye has termed “an open totality of movement” (2014: 12). This echoing is not simply metaphoric or discursive but a material linkage emergent in colonial histories of settlement and violence. Understanding cultural production through Relation and, musical cultures as échos-monde, charges these phenomena with the complex, often violent, political-economic histories of their emergence and endurance. At the same time, Relational thinking offers a theoretical scaffolding for theorizing a genre like mahraganat that brings together a sonically and performatively diverse set of influences together under its aesthetic umbrella. Below, to offer an example of mahraganat as relational, I perform a close listening to the melodic introduction of a 2017 song called “Manhoas.”

 

“Manhoas,” “Lambada,” Creolization

“Manhoas,” (manhūs, meaning devilish or sinister in Arabic) the opening song on mahraganat super-group Talabet Kada’s 2017 collaborative compilation album, effectively theorizes the genre’s relationality. It begins with a man exclaiming anxiously “Allah! Allah Allah Allah!” This religious exaltation is followed by a swelling wail caked in auto-tune that invites the drums. As an accented sixteenth patterned snare rhythm leads to a thumping bass drop, the melody that then floods the soundscape is both extremely catchy and eerily familiar.

 

When I first listened to the song, I knew that I had heard this melody before but could not quite place the reference. The descending phrase is not a sample patched into the track, but sung by a member of Talabet Kada as a recycled refrain. Several months after first hearing the tune and inserting it into my daily musical rotation on SoundCloud, I played it for my partner’s father while clumsily attempting to explain my dissertation topic. Demonstrating that important research findings often emerge in the most quotidian of circumstances, he immediately recognized the melody as the ultra-popular 1989 song “Lambada” by Kaoma, which we listened to immediately after “Manhoas” ended. Sure enough, the introductory sliding vocal line of “Manhoas” directly mimics the main instrumental refrain of the French-Brazilian band’s single.

Lambada,” known formally in Portuguese as “Chorando Se Foi” or “Lorando se fue” is one of the best-selling international singles of all time, having sold over 5 million copies globally. Lambada is a genre of dance that became popular in the Caribbean and Phillipines in the 1980s. Many songs took on the parenthetical subtitle (Lambada) during this time-period to indicate that one should dance the Lambada to this song. Adding this subtitle was a strategic decision, a late 20th century form of “clickbait,” meant to encourage consumers to buy the single and DJs to play it at clubs. As the most commercially successful Lambada of all time, the afro-beat “Chorondo Se Foi” is known singularly as “Lambada.” Talabet Kada, a group of artists representing a genre that consistently samples Caribbean beats and voices, plucks “Lambada” not merely as a sample but covers the melody vocally while draping it in mahraganat’s signature auto-tuned drone. This layered referencing of other cultural forms demonstrates the postcolonial condition of Relation, in which cultures bleed into one another through either colonial or digital, or more nearly colonial-digital, contact.

 

In January of 2017, in the exact timeframe that Talabet Kada was recording and releasing their collaborative project from a rented vacation home in the Red Sea resort-town of Aïn Sokhna, Loalwa Braz, the main vocalist of Kaoma was murdered by thieves at knifepoint in front of her Rio de Janeiro home. Her tragic and widely publicized death possibly triggered an uptick in plays for “Lambada” across the world on different platforms and airwaves, echoing online and possibly encountering the ears of the members of Talabet Kada as they assembled and curated their compilation.

Here, I do not mean to argue a simple causal relationship between Braz’s death and Talabet Kada’s melodic shout-out to her band’s most popular song. Rather, Braz’s passing in Rio haunts the track from across the Atlantic as an écho-monde. Cultures in Relation to one another are often borne of violence, whether punctuated and sudden or protracted and institutional, even if these shared circumstances produce consensual and productive work. Whether or not the artists and producers that comprise Talabet Kada had read or heard about Braz’s murder, “Lambada”’s infection of popular music is well documented over the last several decades, as evidenced by the countless samples and references of her smash hit from artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Spice Girls. Talabet Kada’s singing of the melody in “Manhoas” in such a clear and unambiguous manner in the wake of Braz’s death is more than simple coincidence. This concurrence, this linkage, textures the relationality between “Manhoas” and “Lambada” – offering a window to consider the conditions through which cultures come into contact, the precursors to their circulation and consumption. This is a practical manifestation of the écho-monde in Talabet Kada’s mahraganat musicking, of mahraganat echoing World Music.

 “Manhoas”’s interpellation of “Lambada” offers further theorization of mahraganat by engaging another Glissantism, “creolization,” which Glissant argues “approximates the idea of Relation for us as nearly as possible” (1997: 34). Creolization, as the process that produces cultures of Relation such as the échos-monde, indicates an explosion of culture that is analogous to the geography of the Caribbean, scattered and strewn across a wavy and constantly moving oceanscape. Differing from the simple mixing of two or more distinct cultures, creolization evokes limitlessness with unforeseeable consequences. While Caribbean language and literature is often the object of his writings, Glissant extends these insights toward other cultures and phenomena across the world. Despite Egypt’s geographical location on the Mediterranean, which Glissant juxtaposes against the Caribbean as more bounded and continental, mahraganat, as a sonic culture, is quite archipelagic.[ii]

Mahraganat meanders between shaʿrhythms, dancehall melodies, dubstep phrases, and hip-hop samples, producing tracks that unfold in excitingly unpredictable directions. Mahraganat tracks often contain protracted segments that center a melody or sample from another popular music culture, and then rapidly change tempo through the introduction of a maqsoom (a shaʿ instrumentational rhythm). In this way, artists use these samples as inspiration, as a sonic turnkey to get the party started, a technique that references hip-hop auteurs in the 1970s and 80s combing through Bronx record store crates and finding the perfect groove, the get-down, to cut and sample. Consider, for example, the track “Ferhat Mo’men Zakaria,” (“Mo’men Zakaria’s Wedding”) which samples Lil Jon’s voice to initiate a mahragan celebrating the marriage of an Egyptian soccer star. Here, the Alexandrian group El-Dakhlawiya count on Lil Jon’s crunk cadence – which has carried countless hits from the early 2000s through today – to assemble both the track and bodies on the dancefloor.

 

Mahraganat is a kind of digital creolization that haunts and is haunted by sonic cultures from across the Atlantic that creep through the Strait of Gibraltar and dock in Alexandria or pull southward through the Nile delta and anchor in Cairo. This haunting occasions the opportunity not only to theorize the relationship between music and politics in Egypt but to consider seriously the aesthetic and material linkages between Egypt and Brazil, the Middle East and the Caribbean, in the postcolonial digital era.

 

In/conclusion

Creolization, as an explosion of cultures, signals the “violent sign of their consensual, not imposed, sharing” (Glissant 1997: 34) Glissant thus importantly highlights the relationship between violence, culture, and consent in Relation; that there is an inherent violence to creolization as relational cultures (échos-monde) unfold in its process. In closing, then, I will remind the reader how afro-diasporic peoples arrived in Brazil and the Greater Antilles, and at the same time, we might consider North Africa’s non-black population’s historical (and, as evidenced in Libya, Mauritania, and Algeria, active) role in the trans-Saharan slave trade. Mapping mahraganat’s relational intimacy with Caribbean and other afro-diasporic musical cultures thus requires, at times, carefully rubbing against (non-consensual) histories of the transatlantic and trans-saharan and taking the legacies of these trades seriously, evident in the contemporary global fact of anti-blackness.

This exercise of interrogating musical cultures through the framework of Relation on the one hand, prohibits teleologically reducing a genre such as mahraganat to afro-diasporic popular culture and its history of forced migration while it makes room, on the other hand, to consider mahraganat alongside and in Relation to other cultures of musicking. This is why Glissant’s interventions are prescient here, because he demonstrates how artistic cultures (échos-monde) are relational but in difference, Other not only to one another as distinct cultures but to themselves as stubbornly unfolding creolizations. Inherent to my argument that mahraganat is a culture of and in Relation is a recognition that relationality emerges at the intersection of violence and culture; that the story of popular music, in Egypt and elsewhere, is never a politically neutral tale but one fraught with colonial histories of settlement and violence that eclipse Egypt, Brazil, and the Caribbean alike.

These histories, I argue here and in my larger research, register sonically in mahraganat tracks through their resonance with other songs and genres, through “Manhoas’” echoing of “Lambada.” It is in these resonances, echoes, and échos-monde that we may locate modes of relationality that go beyond a simple through-line from Columbian Exchange to Globalization and approach the imaginative geographies and decolonial aesthetics that mahraganat might unlock in its sound and practice.

We hear and witness the unfolding of Relation occur in Talabet Kada’s interpellation of Braz’s most globally recognizable melody, “Chorando Se Foi,” in the immediate wake of her death. “Manhoas,” in its nod to “Lambada,” is thus a rupture in the history of mahraganat, the genre currently caught in a double-ban but is still proliferating, unfolding, creolizing. This rupture opens mahraganat, and popular music scholarship more generally, up to compelling, non-reductive, positively messy interrogations of creolized sonic aesthetics – mahraganat as a digital echo of Egypt, echoing the postcolonial world in Relation.

 

References

 

Glissant, Édouard. 1997 Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. University of Michigan

Press.

Gray, Lila Ellen. 2013 Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life. Duke University

Press.

Vazquez, Alexandra T. 2013. Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. Duke

University Press.

Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black

Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press.

 

Tarek Benchouia is an artist and scholar from Texas. Currently based in Chicago, he is a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at Northwestern University.

 



[i] A spokesman for Egyptian Parliament would later call mahraganat “more dangerous than coronavirus”

[ii] Indeed, Glissant specifically references contemporary Arab music as a relational aesthetic in Manthia Diawara’s filmic interview with the philosopher and poet, “One World in Relation.”

 

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