Understanding the Music of Revolt
Egypt’s popular music remains filled with calls for both national unity and social justice, writes Ted Swedenburg in an article titled “Egypt’s Music of Protest: From Sayyid Darwish to DJ Haha” in a recent edition of Middle East Report, but its role in the revolution is not quite the way Western media has tended to portray it. The article is available free on-line.
- By privileging hip-hop and rap to the virtual exclusion of every other kind of nationalist and protest music sung by musicians and crowds during the 18 days of the original Tahrir Square occupation, as though Arab youth, through the use of imported “Western” musical traditions, is overthrowing an older, passé generation’s traditional and puritanical culture, in order to usher in a more tolerant, modern and US-friendly order.
- In describing protest music as the “soundtrack” of the uprisings–a favorite media metaphor–the media frames the role of music in the uprisings “as if the tunes were a playlist on protesters’ iPods while they battled security forces or a live broadcast over a sound system behind the barricades” rather than “something integrally tied to and embedded within the social movement.”
Musicians on the square for the most part performed a repertoire that the crowds could sing along with, a body of songs that connected the artists and their audience to a history of struggle. Or they composed ditties on the spot, in the heat of events. The purpose of musical performance at Tahrir was to move the crowds (and the musicians themselves) into a sentimental or affective state, such as anger, mourning, nostalgia or patience, or to unify the crowds in a state that Durkheim has called “collective effervescence.” A song’s meanings therefore were not just already inherent in the lyrics and melody or in the associated memories and resonances, but they also forged in performance, at charged political moments.
Take, for example, the band El Tanbura, a collective of musicians from the city of Port Said on the Suez Canal reviving a local genre of music known as suhbagiyya, which was evolved from songs invented by laborers digging the Suez canal, and is especially known for the presence of an instrument called a simsimiyya (lyre). Swedenburg writes that El Tanbura was on Tahrir Square every day of the January-February 2011 occupation, performing “Patriotic Port Said” and other nationalist songs multiple times from the various stages.
The song initially refers to the 1956 war over the Suez, when Israel, France and Great Britain attacked Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal. The residents of Port Said who battled against the invaders were hailed as champions of Egypt’s anti-imperialist struggle. The song was revived in the wake of the June 1967 war, when Port Said’s residents were evacuated and settled in refugee camps until Egypt regained the Eastern side of the Canal after the 1973 war.
Or consider the singing by protesters of patriotic, nationalist songs like those written by Sayyid Darwish, celebrated for having modernized Egyptian song in the early twentieth century by introducing Western instruments. Um Ya Masri (Rise O Egyptian) and Biladi, Biladi (My Country, My Country), which became Egypt’s national anthem.
The song contains the lyrics: “This is what happened, this is what was. You don’t have the right to blame me. The wealth of our country is not in our hands Egypt, O mother of wonders. Let’s link hands and fight.” One can read much into these lyrics, and Swedenburg shows that Egyptians he spoke to read many different messages in it in the context of the revolution.
The closest thing to rap is probably mahragan (“festival”) music, also called (mostly by outsiders) techno-sha‘bi or electro-sha‘bi. About one half of Cairo’s population lives in ‘ashwa’iyyat (“haphazard”) neighborhoods, unplanned settlements where the poor, working and lower middle classes that make up half Cairo’s population live.
Mahragan is at once deeply rooted in sha‘bi practices and something quite new. The rhythms that drive mahragan are for the most part resolutely sha‘bi, but are often produced electronically. Over the sha‘bi beats that urge onlookers to shake their belly-dancing hips, singers chant or sing and occasionally rap, their voices most often distorted by synthesized autotuning. A DJ on computer and mixer, and on occasion, electronic keyboard, provides a heavily electronic musical soundtrack. Mahragan artists began to make names for themselves by playing at weddings in popular quarters, where they were appreciated not only because of the novelty of their music but also because it was cheaper to hire a singer and a DJ (and perhaps an additional percussionist) than to book the traditional troupe of musicians and dancers. Mahragan artists spread their reputations beyond their neighborhoods by circulating their home recordings via YouTube. They also began to organize on their own parties in their urban working-class neighborhoods. The name mahragan (festival) seems to refer to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the electro-sha‘bi parties and weddings, which resembles that of mulids, Egypt’s famous saint festivals, which typically are celebrated in popular quarters and are patronized by millions.
Rap, by contrast, remains largely an interest of the middle and upper middle classes (many of whom also listen to techno-sha’aby).
With the Ministry of Culture no longer able to control the access of performers to particular venues, the future of Egyptian music probably lies with those who maintain a connection to the revolution, and the techno-sha’aby artists, concludes Swedenburg.
Chammah, Maurice. 2012. Port Said’s Political House Band. Rolling Stones May 20 http://rollingstoneme.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1530
Colla, Elliott. 2012.“The People Want,” Middle East Report 263.
Elkamel, Sara. 2010. “El Tanboura: Rapturous Folk Music at a Medieval Palace,” al-Misri al-Yawm, September 9.
Shiloah, Amnon. 1972. “The Simsimiyya: A Stringed Instrument of the Red Sea Area,” Asian Music 4(1): 22;
Morayef, Soraya. 2012. “‘We Are the Eight Percent’: Inside Egypt’s Underground Shaabi Music Scene.” Jadaliyya, May 29.