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Talking to Phil Battiekh: A Swiss DJ who plays mahraganat
Phil Battiekh

Mahraganat is a contemporary Egyptian music genre that emerged in the late 2000s, spreading from street weddings to the wider popular music scene. It consists of a mix of vocals, local rhythms and electronic music techniques, with a focus on sound manipulation, effects and auto-tune.

During and following the so-called Arab Spring, many US and northern European filmmakers, funders and media and artistic platforms were eager to capture the cultural and musical momentum in the region, as if it were a new and direct product of the uprisings. In Egypt mahraganat received a considerable amount of attention, being the most popular genre among young people. But the media has often placed it, consciously or unconsciously, within distorted narratives: The culture of mahraganat musicians has been largely exoticized, for example, by an emphasis on their underprivileged backgrounds and excessive references to them as an oppressed group. Many tried to force a link between mahraganat and the revolution, portraying it as a resistance movement, and the genre was even renamed with a term not created or used by mahraganat artists: electro-shaabi.

With these thoughts in mind, I interviewed the Swiss DJ Phil Battiekh (who prefers not reveal his real identity), who has developed a special interest in mahraganat music and culture, and deliberately takes a different approach to presenting the genre. He also put a playlist together for us, which you can find at the end.

How would you describe Phil Battiekh as a project?

Considering that my main work has been making mixtapes and DJing, I’d have to call myself a DJ.

So basically you’re all about DJing mahraganat, which is a genre related to a very specific subcultural context. How did you get acquainted with it?

I first had contact with it in 2012 when I came to Cairo for the first time. I was here studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. I was also working as a music journalist at the time, so I was very open to seeing what was going on musically. On the one hand I found a very interesting scene around artists like ZULI, Hussein Sherbini and the whole [collective] KIK. On the other hand mahraganat was really present in public space. The vibe of mahraganat really resonated with me, but I actually only started the Phil Battiekh project one and a half years later because it took me some time to listen to it, approach it and think about it. During this period I was going back and forth to Cairo in my free time so it became a big part of my personal life. I wanted to vibe with the sound and aesthetics when I was outside of Cairo as well, and realized that the only way that would be possible in Europe would be by playing it myself.

How did you first approach DJing mahraganat in Europe?

I went through a process of reflection on the concept of being a DJ in general before starting the project. When you think of the term “disc jockey,” you recall that DJs used to actually carry around vinyl. Having to build up a physical collection of records made music less accessible to people that didn’t have the resources to do so. You could say that DJs assumed the role of “gate keepers” for people without the same access to certain sounds. I see a parallel to this in DJing mahraganat in Europe, because there’s almost no exposure to it, and there’s also a language barrier with music sites being in Arabic. So that’s where I see purpose in DJing this kind of music in Europe. When I first started DJing I was also meeting the MCs, I met Fifty when he was in Switzerland and in Salam City a couple of times. We’ve become pretty good friends. I also met Sadat, Figo and Madfaageya and brought the latter to Switzerland once to play as part of a festival. They shot this clip when they were there:

As a DJ from Switzerland, how do you perceive mahraganat as a genre? Is it accessible enough to be DJed in any club or country? 

For me mahraganat is more of a subculture than a music genre. It’s the full scope of the subculture that appeals to me. It’s within this subculture that I’d like to position myself. This has worked out with varying extents of success or failure, in the sense that even though I play my shows in Switzerland and other European countries, my following online is mostly from Egypt. So it’s a success in that I’m reaching the people who appreciate this music from the standpoint of knowing the subculture, but it’s not a great success in that the place where I am actually located hasn’t found that strong a connection to the music yet. There is interest if you know where to look though, which is why I was able play at places like Fusion Festival or Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda last year.

Many middle and upper-middle-class Egyptians, as well as many Europeans, exoticize mahraganat. At least that’s the impression I get from its media coverage. As an artist who visits Cairo often and DJs this music in Europe, to what extent would you agree?

I agree with you 100 percent that exoticism plays a major role in the popular perception of mahraganat outside of the scene, or subculture or whatever you want to call it. Exoticization is a problem because it confines mahraganat to being an oriental novelty. You can very often observe the fetishization of poverty and oppression in the cultural pages to the extent that European journals will even fabricate aspects of oppression within the genre in their writing. A prime example is that for a long time you would read that mahraganat was a reflection of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. These are the kinds of things I have to deal with in the sense that even clubs, artists and promoters have a reflex to project their own orientalist perception onto the genre. They think it’s cool to make a reference to One Thousand and One Nights and don’t see the problems with these kinds of sociopolitical or ethnocentric fetishizations.

Do you think these narratives are harming the genre?

They definitely aren’t based in reality. They helped it gain short-term attention, but this approach isn’t sustainable. In my opinion mahraganat has the potential to achieve a similar position on the global music scene as reggae dancehall, if taken seriously. Although a lot of exoticization and fetishism does, of course, surround dancehall as well.

How popular is mahraganat in Europe?

As in any art or music market, the driving force behind mahraganat’s exposure is the hype surrounding it. Hype has been generated by key players like cultural publications or organizations like 100Copies that published releases and helped promote the artists in Europe. Of course a big part of the hype is also thanks to Hind Meddeb’s movie Electro Chaabi (2013) and the Sadat & Fifty compilation released by Generation Bass (2013) the same year, which is the only mahraganat release on Spotify. But I have to say in the past year and a half mahraganat’s exposure has diminished, because it’s always been a very few specific people working toward it. In Egypt many people think that mahraganat artists have a lot of exposure in Europe, but that’s actually not the case at all. There might be 100 people in Europe that listen to mahraganat regularly. The last two years in Europe, in terms of let’s say “Egyptian music,” have been all about Islam Chipsy. He’s an interesting artist in my opinion but not mahraganat in the sense of the vocal aesthetics I associate with it, although he has definitely influenced the scene. Sadat & Fifty haven’t played in Europe for a while. The initial exposure unfortunately wasn’t consistent.

How do you feel about being able to build an international career on playing mahraganat while the people who produce the music don’t have the necessary privileges, such as a western European passport and language skills, to do so?

My feelings toward the inequalities that post-colonialism creates extend further than just how it effects mahraganat artists. In regards to the artists though, the institutional barriers for their careers outside of Egypt are the visa restrictions for members of so-called “third-party states,” those that aren’t a part of migration agreements like the Schengen zone. During the 28 visa applications I’ve filed for Egyptian artists, I’ve observed that there is a lot of power play involved and even once had to correct the Swiss Embassy’s interpretation of their own laws. The discrepancy in legal knowledge that some embassies or national authorities use to restrict artist migration is why I’m working on a visa handbook for artists from third-party states.

Apart from the institutional barriers, there are other barriers that exist for all artists within the mechanisms of the music market — the main barrier for international careers in mahraganat is, as I mentioned, that there isn’t a high enough demand outside of Egypt to make touring worthwhile, unless you’re being supported by labels such as Crammed Discs or 100Copies that are connected with the industry and can generate that demand. That’s how Islam Chipsy tours all over the world. My DJ project is not a part of any such label, but it is trying to help generate demand.

How do you see the future of mahraganat in Europe?

In Europe I see the potential for mahraganat to establish itself as a subculture. But that will only happen if it’s represented properly. Otherwise it will just stay a small niche interest that’s occasionally appropriated by experimental artists.

So your activities as Phil Battiekh are all about mahraganat?

This figure that I’ve created with a watermelon face, Phil Battiekh, is confined to mahraganat. I didn’t have a DJ project before Phil Battiekh — I specifically started DJing so I could play mahraganat. Although I might drop a track by [veteran Egyptian pop star] Mohamed Mounir or [emerging rap artist] Abyusif occasionally, I hesitate to play non-mahraganat artists from Egypt because it would imply that they are somehow related to mahraganat, which is true geographically and linguistically but not conceptually. I hesitate because there’s a big problem that many Egyptian artists face in Europe: With the hype around mahraganat a reflex has developed to associate any artist from Egypt with so-called “electro-shaabi.” As you may know I’ve organized KIK’s three European tours, and when contacting clubs and promoters I’d find them wanting to connect KIK to mahraganat.

So how do you try to avoid falling into this trap of exoticism? We already see mahraganat being played by other DJs at parties titled “EURABIA,” where people wear washing towels on their heads to imitate Arabs.

My approach is very simple: I’m just playing mahraganat. I play the tracks as I find them or remix them in a way I like, as anyone should feel free to do. But when a skewed perception of the “ethnic element” or stereotypes become hypertrophic in an artist’s presentation of a genre, it isn’t tasteful. Highlighting perceived differences in general is odd. Even when you say: “Hey look, these people are just like us Europeans, they like to party as well,” you’re conducting an absurd form of othering. Personally, I’m just reproducing the vibe in the way I experience it within the scene and through the things I’ve learned from friends like Fifty and Madfaagya.

The genre is simply called mahraganat in Egypt, so it’s strange to find other names in Europe, like electro-shaabi. You yourself named it “sha3byton” in some of your mixtapes. Why not simply stick to its original name?

I would have never called it sha3byton if the term electro-shaabi didn’t already exist. I would prefer people to call it mahraganat. The reason I invented the term sha3byton was to subvert the term electro-shaabi by trying to cause a conflation of terms. I understand that this isn’t accessible to everyone, but the sha3byton thing was actually meant to be an ironic statement toward all these fake narratives that exist to make mahraganat easier to digest. Using this kind of strategy to subvert a trend, I was trying to apply the ideas outlined by cultural theorists like Michel de Certeau or Thomas Düllo in his book Cultural Hacking, with the ultimate goal that the term mahraganat would redistinguish itself. So the Phil Battiekh project is a DJ project but it’s also a very conceptual project, because it has to navigate within the misperceptions of a genre.

Tell us a bit about the mix you made for us.

Well it starts and ends with tracks by Abosahar, a producer and singer from Upper Egypt who’s probably one of the most passionate artists in Egypt. He’s also one of the most underrated though. You’ll find the usual suspects like Madfaagya, Felo, Sadat & Fifty and Figo in there, but also some lesser known mahraganat, a remix by DJ Plead from Australia and an instrumental by Firaas Beats from Germany in the last track. There is a lot of really fresh stuff in there. It’s great to see how the scene is developing musically.

A version of this article originally appeared on Ma3azef.

Rami Abadir