In my experience, good music documentaries are structured around a question or quest. In “Searching for Sugar Man,” Malik Bendjelloul asked where Sixto Rodriguez was. Wim Wender’s “Buena Vista Social Club” aimed to rediscover a group of Cuban musicians between Castro’s takeover of Cuba and the present time. Safinez Bousbia’s “El Gusto” reunited an orchestra of Jewish and Muslim musicians torn apart by war 50 years before. This takes a lot of research, and results in information-packed but artistic and narrative-driven journalistic documentation.
In the past year, Egypt has seen two new feature-length music documentaries emerge on the same topic: the ubiquitous mahragan music scene born out of impoverished neighborhoods like Salam City, Imbaba and Matereya.
Salma El Tarzi’s “Underground/On the Surface” shadows mahragan musicians Okka and Ortega (8%) on their rise to fame, and had its Egyptian premiere on the opening night of the 2014 Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) in April. Hind Meddeb’s film, “Electro Chaabi,” has a wider scope, chronicling several mahragan musicians including Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Figo, Okka and Ortega, and it premiered at the 2014 Ismailia Film Festival.
Both “Underground/On the Surface” and “Electro Chaabi” are lacking aesthetically, as could be expected with their meager budgets. That said, both offer a well-timed portrayal of the dichotomous lives of musicians working to overcome their disenfranchised youth through stardom, shedding light on the realities of those living in the dilapidated margins.
While I still stand by my review of Tarzi’s film, my opinions have evolved significantly with distance from D-CAF’s positive energy. Perhaps I took for granted what I already know about the mahragan landscape and overlooked some crucial absences: narrative, context and research. But as well as being well-timed, it’s genuine and unpretentious.
Watching “Electro Chaabi,” I became more aware of the failures and successes of El Tarzi’s film, but also realized that there is a critical error in both.
Filmed from March 2011 through December 2012, Meddeb and producer Karim Boutrous Ghali beat Tarzi to the starting line by a good eight months. It’s clear from the start that Meddeb, using a Sony Z5v camera, has a flair for filmmaking and camera work. Polished shots, adventurous angles and clever stylistic motifs appear throughout.
With a background in political science, Meddeb began her documentary career as a journalist for European channels: France24 and later Arte, where she made packages about music and politics in Middle Eastern countries, for example on propaganda and political music in Lebanon, focusing on Hezbollah’s music. Paris-born, she has roots in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, where her mother has lived since the late 1990s. She’s currently working on a documentary on the controversial rap scene in Tunisia, and the rappers who have been arrested there. (Meddeb was also detained while filming, on suspicion of inciting riot and rebellion, but continues to work on the film.)
In “Electro Chaabi,” Meddeb shadows several musicians in the districts of Imbaba, Matareya and Salam City with much the same fly-on-the-wall approach as Tarzi’s. You almost never feel the filmmaker in either film, but for a few times when we hear her ask a question. Meddeb follows musicians to gigs and into their homes, studios and streets. At times I felt I was watching an episode of MTV’s “Cribs,” particularly at Ortega’s home as the camera chases him running up the stairs. Other times, I felt I was actually the fly on the wall, like in Sadat’s neon-graffitied studio in Salam City, where he sings incredibly poetic, aggressive lines into the microphone.
Politics are much more at the forefront in Meddeb’s film than Tarzi’s, perhaps due to the former’s political science background, coupled with the fact that Sadat, the lead, is far more political in his language, both spoken and sung, than Okka and Ortega appear to be in either film. Sadat is insightful and opinionated.
“We can tell the story of the street. That’s also politics. If I talk about something that happens, that’s politics,” he tells Meddeb. “I’m not telling one or two people, actually lots of people will hear it. That’s also called politics. If I talk about the situation of the country through a story of youth, that’s also politics. Politics doesn’t have to involve the government or the regime.”
Meddeb captures intimate, natural moments with the musicians in abandoned streets in Salam City, where the musicians park their motorcycles and pass time listening and dancing to mahragan music. In these little moments Meddeb captures the star in Sadat, his frequent outbursts of alluring dancing.
Both “Electro Chaabi” and “Underground/On the Surface” include discussions of classism through their protagonists’ dialogue. In Meddeb’s film Weza says, “They have a set idea about any poor areas — that all the poor neighborhoods are bad. Even the media, no one feels for the simple people. In other words, the lower end of society. No one feels for them. No one hears their voices.”
A bit more observant and stylish than Tarzi’s film, “Electro Chaabi” makes mahraganat Cairo look like an urban village, where past and present, folk and future collide against a backdrop of neon colors, graffitied offices, roaming chickens, uncollected trash, overflowing sewage and weekly festivals. Meddeb also provides location captions in every almost every scene, allowing the viewer to better navigate the film’s cityscape.
There are some beautiful shots. In one, Islam Chipsy climbs to the highest point of an roof in Imbaba made of planks and crates. His friend hands him his Yamaha keyboard, and, the vast city sprawling behind him, Chipsy plays wildly with his signature pitch-bends and flailing hands. His friends join him on his makeshift stage, dancing in slow motion like free birds.
“The only ones that can hear us are God and these pigeons,” says Chipsy.
Meddeb has a thing for capturing the birds, obviously alluding to music and freedom. She juxtaposes these moments against the protagonists’ otherwise enclosed settings: small apartments, studios, tok toks. We are almost always at street level and feel like pedestrians walking seamlessly next to the camera.
There is slightly more female presence in this film than in Tarzi’s — grandmothers and girlfriends make appearances. While Okka’s quirky girlfriend makes a cameo in “Underground/On the Surface,” Meddeb seems to make an effort to incorporate women in appropriate settings, without trying to force a scene. At one point, the camera walks by a group of girls dancing to shaabi music in the street. It lingers for sometime as the girls, between the ages of four and thirteen, belly dance like grown women who have been street dancing for a lifetime.
Meddeb comments on the media hype surrounding the burgeoning genres of music through an interesting patchwork of clips from interviews and films featuring the musicians, juxtaposed against earlier moments in the film when the guys discuss being shunned by the media.
It’s also interesting to see the different approaches to music and fame between the Salam City crew (Sadat, Figo, Alaa Fifty) versus Materaya’s Okka and Ortega. The former, from an impoverished neighborhood built northeast of Cairo in the 1990s after the earthquake, notorious for its poor sewage and frequent floods, often discuss being famous within their neighborhood, while the latter, from a northern Cairo suburb where conditions are not much better, are eager to escape theirs.
Overall, Meddeb’s film is a far better packaged product than Tarzi’s — the camerawork, editing and character selection are superior. It also offers more of a constructed narrative.
But there are major intellectual and political shortcomings in Meddeb’s film from start to finish that are frustratingly naive. The first is the film’s title: the westernization of a musical genre that the musicians adamantly call mahraganat is a bit of a cop-out. It only takes one discussion with these guys to know that they made a collective, considered decision to call their music mahraganat. “Electro chaabi” might be catchier and easier to say, but it also has a ring of orientalism.
The greatest flaw however is the political orientation that shapes the film’s ending. Sadat and Figo sit on Qasr al-Nile Bridge watching a protest against former President Mohamed Morsi go by in response to the constitutional decree and referendum in November 2013. “This is the Egyptian people,” Sadat says proudly of a shi-shi march that looks like it just walked out of Beanos in Zamalek.
My issue is not that Meddeb chose this scene to end with — or maybe partly it is — but more so it’s that she didn’t include any footage or discussion of pre-Morsi protests. During the period she filmed, there were prime protests and atrocities: Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Maspero among others. Even if she didn’t have footage, she could have brought these into discussion with the protagonists, rather than exclusively including anti-Morsi sentiments. This highlights how journalistic practice is missing: anyone who has spent more than five minutes with the mahragan players know that as much as their hate for the Muslim Brotherhood smolders, it is set ablaze when discussing the Interior Ministry and police. The film’s ending cheapens the characters to those who don’t know them personally. They are cut and pasted into a narrative that isn’t completely theirs.
But ultimately, where both films fail as music documentaries is their lack of research, concrete information and psychological insight into the minds of the protagonists.
While I appreciated the lack of talking heads, some historical context of the shaabi scene that preceded mahraganat — through Ahmed Adaweya, Mohamed Mounir, Amr Diab, Saad al-Soghayar and the rap boom to the current mahraganat omnipresence — would have helped. Instead, we are left with two fundamentally mediocre documentaries that serve to only fleetingly gratify a musical moment rather than place it in the evolution and devolution of Egypt’s vast musical landscape.