Dutch DJ gets the Netherlands rocking to Egyptian rap music

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Dutch DJ Joost Heijthuijsen plays Egyptian Electro Sha’bi music at dance parties in the Netherlands. “The people here love it. Dutch and Egyptian youths are much more alike than they think.”

Michel Hoebink

A crowd of young people dances wildly to the rhythms of electro Sha’bi music. DJ Joost Heijthuijsen, dressed in a Gaddafi-like colonel’s uniform, holds up a number of text boards:

“In Cairo people like us died in riots.
But people there also like to party, just like us
To forget and to be together.”

Heijthuijsen first discovered electro Sha’bi when, as organiser of the yearly music festival Incubate in Tilburg, someone pointed him to the Egyptian artist Islam Chipsy. “Why do you guys feature only western music? Listen to this for a change.” Heijthuijsen looked it up on YouTube and, clicking along, landed in the electro Sha’bi music scene. In no time he was Facebook friends with a number of artists. Heijthuijsen doesn’t speak Arabic, but Google Translate took care of the language problem. “What struck me was the friendliness and politeness. Every time I got to know someone, this person would introduce me to someone else.”

Music of the streets

Electro Sha’bi or Mahraganat is a new music style popular among young people in the suburbs of Cairo and Alexandria. Artists like Sadat, Haha, Okka and Ortega make music that connects with international hip-hop culture as much as it is rooted in the Egyptian popular music played at street weddings. Unlike the sweet and sentimental Egyptian pop music of the middle class, electro Sha’bi doesn’t pretend life is more beautiful than it really is. The lyrics are about daily life in the poor neighbourhoods: about sex, drugs, friendship and unemployment.

Heijthuijsen immediately felt he had found something special. Electro Sha’bi gave a voice to people who otherwise would not be heard. “The young people demonstrating on Tahrir Square belong to the middle-class. The youths from the poor neigbourhoods are living in their own world, which is much less about politics. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook they have found their own voice. Electro Sha’bi is the CNN of the popular neighbourhoods in Cairo and Alexandria.”

Click to listen to one of Heijthuijsen's electro Sha'bi mix tapes.

Birth of a new youth culture
Last April, one of Heijthuijsen’s new Facebook friends invited him to an Egyptian street wedding with electro Sha’bi music. Together with a British journalist, he suddenly found himself in the popular neighbourhood of Salam City in Cairo. They were received as guests of honour. “People loved it that we were interested in their music. Everybody wanted to talk to us and make pictures with us. For us it was as if we witnessed the birth of a new youth culture. As if we were in Jamaica in the 1970s and someone introduced two unknown young guys: 'This is Bob Marley and this is Peter Tosh.'"

Crazy act, crazy audience
Heijthuijsen became convinced that electro Sha’bi had great potential also outside of Egypt. “If they like western music there, why should Egyptian music not be attractive to a western audience?” Together with two other DJs he founded the Cairo Liberation Front. They started to play home-made mix tapes of Egyptian artists at dance parties in the Netherlands, dressed in a colonel’s uniform and Moroccan jellabayas. “It became a success. People were hesitant about dancing to this music at first, but when they see our crazy act they lose their inhibitions and go crazy themselves. We are now asked to play everywhere.”

More than music
But as well as dancing and having fun the three DJs also have a message for their audience. “We want to show that Egypt is not all sadness and misery, as the media want us to believe. It is a beautiful culture and they have some great music there. When there are demonstrations on Tahrir Square, life in the poor neighbourhoods goes on as usual. People marry and party, they have humour. The young people there are much more like the young people here than they think.”