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Mara: What to Know About the Viral Hyper-Fast and Energetic Sound

Mara: What to Know About the Viral Hyper-Fast and Energetic Sound

No doubt the soundscape of Nigerian music is constantly evolving, among which the Mara  sub-genre has also begun to make waves. The term “Mara”, colloquially associated with madness, suggests a sound that drives people wild.

By Abioye Damilare Samson

In November 2023, Cruel Santino, the Nigerian Alté singer, made a significant exploration into the emerging genre known as Mara in his track “FTR, featuring S-Smart, one of the radiant artistes of the core street-pop. This collaboration, branded as Alté-Mara, served as proof of the growing sub-genre’s capacity for innovation and experimentation. 

But comprehending  the surging popularity of Mara, and its profound impact on Nigerian pop culture, especially in dance, requires a deeper exploration of its origins and its connections to the country’s vibrant street culture.

Before Zanku — the dance pioneered by Zlatan in 2019 — became a mainstream Nigerian dance style, my earliest recollection of raw and authentic street music and dance dates back to the early 2010s when street carnivals were a cultural phenomenon in Nigeria. Different streets in the outskirts converged, usually on the eve of the New Year, to immerse themselves in music and dance. When I say street carnivals, it isn’t the tourist-friendly parades with vibrant costumes like the popular Calabar carnival. Instead, picture a gritty scene: a DJ spinning tunes on an old Toshiba laptop, with an Indian hemp cigarette dangling from his lips and a sachet of dry gin tucked in his back pocket. The crowd would dance on dusty unpaved floors, and it was the ritual to dare another to fight till it resulted in violence and panicky run.

Amidst the fervour, the street carnival served as a platform for people to exhibit their wildness and vices. However, the crux of this piece isn’t on the vices; it’s the culture of dances that originated from these trenches: Mara.

What Does Mara Mean?

Afrobeats, as a parent genre, transcends beyond songs like “Last Last”,  “Peru”,  “Calm Down”, or any global hit songs that find their way into Obama’s playlist. It has also spawned sub-genres distinguishable by their lyrics, delivery, and overall vibes. After years of Afrobeats evolving into the behemoth of pop culture symbolism, it started to give rise to various branches such as Afro-fusion (as championed by Burna Boy), Afro-rave (as seen in Rema’s work), Afro-life (as posited by Fireboy), and others. Lately, there’s been talk of the ascendency of new Afrobeats sub-genres like Afro-Depression, with Omah Lay leading the charge; Afro-Adura, championed by artistes like Seyi Vibez, Asake, Barry Jhay and the likes; and Emo-Afrobeats, coined by C-Kay.

No doubt the soundscape of Nigerian music is constantly evolving, among which the Mara  sub-genre has also begun to make waves. The term “Mara”, colloquially associated with madness, suggests a sound that drives people wild. However, this isn’t the clinically related madness; rather, it’s the kind Rema alluded to in his hedonistic synths-pop track, “Mara, singing, “Mara o, Girly, you dey make me dey mara o, Girly, I go die for your matter o.”

The Origin

Mara, is a hyper-fast sound. Formerly known as Cruise Beat, its origins are shrouded in mystery, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the term was first coined for the sound. However, its earliest known usage can be traced back to the late 2010s when Terry G, one of the craziest musician in Nigeria — characterised by his signature bell, rapid instrumentals, and raw vocals — captivated the music scene with vulgar songs like “Free Madness” and “Run Mad.” This type of music demanded an energetic dance, with its rapid pace and pulsating beats driving listeners to move, and embody the wild spirit of the sound.

Around  2022, young dancers began choreographing routines to instrumentals crafted by street DJs, birthing what would later be christened “Mara” as the official acceptable term, in tribute to the late dancer and TikTok content creator, Obi Madubogwu, popularly known as Odogwu Mara — one of the pioneers and heavy influencers of the culture. 

There are speculations on the origin of the Mara dance; some suggest it evolved from the Igbo traditional dance due to its energy-sapping moves, stunts, and rigorous training. Others propose it as a reimagining of “Leg work” by Pocolee, one of Nigeria’s most popular dancers. These diverse theories and opinions offer intriguing perspectives on the evolution of the sound, and they highlight the different influences that contribute to the sub-genre as a dance and cultural movement.

The TikTok Explosion

Mara’s characteristic frenetic instrumentals and wacky vocal samples are usually found on TikTok — the social media platform where the genre thrives the most. It’s nearly impossible to browse through the platform without encountering a video of someone dancing to Mara sound. As a sub-genre that’s heavy on percussions, one of its most potent features is the ability to make people dance and induce euphoria. 

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The sound gained increased popularity in 2022, largely due to the efforts of street DJs who serve as the creative directors of the scene. Prominent figures such as DJ YK, DJ Khalifa, DJ Mayor Kay, and DJ Cora played pivotal roles, alongside the diverse dancers who identify themselves as “Ogba” dancers. The sound typically lacks vocals, except for occasional slang and popular buzzwords. When vocals are present, they’re often limited to the chorus sampled in the beats. Notable instances include the upbeat instrumental refix of Jaymes Young’s soulful track “Happiest Year” titled “Herppiest Yea (Afro Mara)”, as well as the refix of the gospel track “Hosanna Bukole” by Ucious Music featuring Daniel Lubams, which has been transformed into a Mara instrumental by Omo Ebira Beatz.

As the Mara genre began to gain traction within Nigeria’s music scene, it found an unexpected ally in the form of TikTok. TikTok, known for its short-form video content, became a fertile ground for Mara’s rapid beats and served as the nickel to catalyse the sound to prominence. The format of the media platform, with its emphasis on short, attention-grabbing videos, perfectly complemented the hyper-fast sound.

TikTok’s algorithmic approach to content delivery, coupled with its global reach, provided Mara with an unprecedented platform for exposure. Users across the world, were exposed to Mara sound through viral dance challenges, lip-sync videos, and creative choreography. The platform’s ability to amplify trends at lightning speed played a giant role in propelling Mara into the mainstream consciousness within Nigeria and internationally.

Users quickly latched on to Mara’s energetic beats, incorporating them into their own style and fueling the genre’s exponential growth on the platform. Key influencers on TikTok, ranging from established dancers like Teee-Dollar, Adex Berry to emerging ones with large followings, played a significant role in popularising Mara. Dance challenges set to Mara tracks became viral sensations, with users competing to create the most creative and entertaining videos. 

While many of the DJs responsible for creating and spreading the sub-genre remain relatively anonymous, their influence persists as Mara continues to reign over the cultural zeitgeist of street pop sound, and it stands poised to ride the wave of its popularity to even greater heights. All we can do is anticipate what the future holds. 

Abioye Damilare is a music journalist and culture writer focused on the African entertainment Industry. Reading new publications and listening to music are two of his favourite pastimes when he is not writing. Connect with him on Twitter and IG: @Dreyschronicle.

Cover Photo: Skilo_richie | Instagram

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