Tahrir Square Music: Sounds of Rebels

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Rami Essam, one of the voices of Tahrir square. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Ahmad Zaatari

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

As the revolution in Egypt kicked off, so did the work of many young artists who began to sing more politically inspired tunes.

Amman – The late German composer Theodor Adorno believed that popular music can not genuinely be a part of political resistance. He saw it as too “stabilized” and favored championing radical modern music instead. The revolution has introduced radical notions of what counts as music, with political songs turning into pop ones.

The discussion what is counts music has become all the more relevant with the emergence of a large number of Egyptian revolutionary songs one year after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

It is impossible to discuss Egyptian political songs without recalling the role played by pioneer musician Sheikh Imam in resisting political tyranny. Imam’s music, of course, cannot be separated from poems written by Ahmed Fouad Negm. This duo, with its chaotic nature and sharp satirical tone that characterised their collaborations, conquered elitists in the 1970s and 1980s before making their way to popular status at the start of the 21st century.

With the revival of Sheikh Imam's songs came a boom in the popularity of Egyptian political songs. "Mish Baki Mini" (Nothing remains of me), a song from Khaled Youssef's 2009 movie Dokkan Shehata (Shehata’s Shop), was one of the first to emerge. This song was an instant hit because it reflected the humiliation and hardship Egyptians suffered from during the bread shortage crisis at that time.

However, the real frenzy for the new wave of political songs started when rapper Rami Donjewan launched his song "Against the Government" days before the 25 January Revolution.

Street Band Eskenderella began their journey in 2000 but only had a niche following. It was during the 18-day revolution that hundreds of musical talents popped up. Rami Essam and Hamza Namira emerged out of nowhere, while Hazem Shaheen and Mostafa Said became household names on the Egyptian musical scene after years performing underground. Moreover, many improvised acts came to life in Tahrir Square where they imitated popular performers.

The hugely popular Sout Al Horeya (Sound of Freedom) by Amir Eid, which was released one day before Mubarak's ouster, would have to be considered the anthem of the revolution. Life of Tahrir was another notable song. It was performed by The Egyptian Choir Project which garnered success in light of the revolution against Mubarak. In Life of Tahrir, Maryam Saleh, who became famous for reviving Sheikh Imam's songs, makes an appearance singing against Egypt’s military vowing that after Mubarak they’ll “go after the military and the dogs."

Just like that, Egyptian political songs took aim at another target: the military council. The icon of this period became Eskenderella, who took part in the protests and sang hastily prepared songs that would salute the revolutionaries wherever they were.

Rap music also blossomed. Rami Donjewan released his song A Letter to Field Marshal Tantawi and Muhammad Osama released a number of songs, notably Imsik Felool (Grab the Remnants of the Regime) and Mafeesh Regou (No Going Back), over a short period of time. Ali Tailbab also became famous for his poetic verses.

The revolution also spread to the commercial music industry. Ali Haggar produced a song Dehket El Masageen (the Prisoners' Laugh) based on a poem by Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi. Aida el-Ayoubi also performed during the revolution with the band Cairokee, singing “In the Square.” Tens of other songs mushroomed about the revolution.

While alternative musicians found themselves on the fringes of the movement, the folkloric arts reclaimed their role as means of collective cultural expression. Sheikh Ahmad el-Tuni performed live in Tahrir Square. The el-Tanboura band from Suez performed the song Shilna il ras w lissa il dail (We removed the head and the tail will follow). Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, a Palestinian resident of Cairo, performed Mahrajan al-Balaat, another song with political connotations.

The impact of these songs on Egyptian society is difficult to gauge. Political songs could be a passing trend or it could become rooted in the culture after trimming the fat off of it. For now, the second option seems far off.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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