Dutch DJ brings Egypt's 'electro-shaabi' street music to Europe

LONDON Wed Aug 21, 2013 9:17am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - A Dutch DJ is bringing underground Egyptian street music to Western night clubs with the hope that it will paint the troubled North African country in a better light.

Music producer and DJ Joost Heijthuijsen, 35, from Tilburg in the Netherlands, does not speak Arabic and only visited Egypt for the first time last April.

But he is the founder and one-third of "Cairo Liberation Front", a Dutch DJ set dedicated to "mahragan" music, derived from the Arabic word for festival.

Also known as "electro-shaabi", it is an unrelenting torrent of synthesizers, chanting and rapping about street culture - touching on sex, drugs and poverty - infused with traditional Arabic rhythms and Egyptian humor.

It is low-budget music for the masses. Typically, self-taught DJs circulate their home recordings on their laptops via downloadable files and YouTube.

The new sound has flooded Cairo's underground music scene since Egypt's 2011 revolution. But it is spreading across the country and transcending its urban working-class roots even as turmoil grips the nation in the wake of the July 3 military ouster of Egypt's first freely elected leader, Mohamed Mursi.

"I thought if we started promoting it in the West, it might get more attention, and might be seen as an art form rather than just some stuff local kids do on their computers," Heijthuijsen told Reuters during a telephone interview.

"The regular things you see in Western media about the Arab world for the past 10 years has mostly been about fighting people, but it's such a beautiful culture, with a lot of exciting, positive stuff happening."

At least 900 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in a crackdown on Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood in the past week, the bloodiest civil unrest in Egypt's modern history.

Heijthuijsen is hoping producers and Western media will pick up electro-shaabi and bring a different voice to the Arab world.

Cairo Liberation Front, which consists of Heijthuijsen, Yannick Verhoeven, 22, and Joep Schmitz, 23, has just released its ninth electro-shaabi mixed tape on music sharing website Soundcloud and recently announced five tour dates at venues across the Netherlands. They have also played in Belgium.

Heijthuijsen was first introduced to the genre by watching prominent Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy on YouTube in 2012, and then trawled Arabic forums and Facebook groups for music to use.

Cairo Liberation Front revels in its own inauthenticity, he said.

The DJs, like their Egyptian counterparts, add a large dose of humor to their music.

Electro-shaabi is rarely political, and instead explores everyday working class life. One defining Egyptian hit is called "The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit".

During their concerts, Cairo Liberation Front dress up in traditional Arabic-style clothes and play footage of the Egyptian uprisings with a view to provoking a reaction from their audiences.

"When we perform, 50 percent of people hate it and 50 percent really like it. As long as we have that, it's good. It's too superficial to only be pleasing and not to be teasing," said Heijthuijsen.

So what of their global impact?

Heijthuijsen says that Cairo Liberation Front are aware of two other non-Egyptian artists, based in Copenhagen and New York, who are dabbling in electro-shaabi. He said their fan base extends back to Egypt as well.

"People from Egypt have asked us where they can find the music and if I could put it on Soundcloud," he said.

"But they asked me to put it in a lower definition media file so they can distribute it, because their Internet is not that good."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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