National Songs in Tune With the State

Cairo - Most Fridays, state-owned and private radio channels blast a single genre of music all day long: national and patriotic tunes. Instead of around-the-clock political analysis on the weekend or airing songs that might be insensitive to whatever is going on, a growing library of classic and contemporary national songs has been providing a safe programming choice since the January 25 uprising made Friday the day of protests.

Meshing political themes with the patriotic genre, the songs are littered with the melodramatic performances and epic climaxes typically found in cheesy pop songs. The genre is taken as an invitation to ever more theatrical antics; patriotism is the mother of all emotions, encompassing love, longing and loss – the perfect excuse for going all out.
In one song, “Ya Masriyeen” (Oh Egyptians), Amal Maher breaks down in a hysterical, faintly melodic voice: “We are losing Egypt,” while lamenting, “What have we done to our country?”

In theory, the songs are neutral, unbiased and would appeal to whoever is listening regardless of their political affiliation – exactly like brandishing an Egyptian flag doesn’t betray ideology and is a practice adopted equally by opposing camps. Yet, most productions have become synonymous with the state-promoted nationalist discourse rather than an independent form of art.

Seen through the context of the message perpetuated by these radio stations throughout the week, the majority of songs tow a chauvinistic state line, like Maher’s insinuation that protests and political upheaval are destructive, or others that bluntly praise the leadership and vilify its foes.

The anti-state, pro-revolution strain that characterized the popular songs released during and after the 2011 uprising (“Ya Belady”, “Esbat Makanak”) has been diminishing in favor of more mainstream sounding songs that ensure airtime by courting the state and listeners accustomed to monotonous pop. The mass demonstrations, clashes and political unrest that filled the June-August period have only upped the demand. About 20 songs have been produced since June, according to one programming executive at a state-run station. Several industry professionals have slammed their colleagues’ opportunism in hastily recording torturous numbers for a shot at fame and airtime.

This period’s most popular tune is “Teslam El-Ayadi” (Bless Your Hands). It features several singers, whose careers peaked in the ‘90s and early 2000s, thanking the military and its leader General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi for the intervention and removal of President Mohammed Morsi in July. The song was also awkwardly broadcast following news of military shootings at pro-Morsi protesters and sit-ins.

The song and its counterparts are yet to see their radio popularity replicated on Arab music downloading websites whose charts are dominated by summer pop hits. Yet, “Teslam El-Ayadi” was declared a national favorite, played in schools with – and sometimes instead of – the national anthem. A modified version of the lyrics are now played at weddings.
The song owes its catchiness to an old melody traditionally associated with the holy month of Ramadan. Mostafa Kamel who composed the music and lyrics rebuffs accusations of plagiarism as a “coincidence.”

The mundane, overnight effort —much better in quality when compared to the lesser known tracks released at the same time —is even evident in the video clip, comprised mainly of army-provided footage of its troops in training. The short lines describing the love of the country sound out-of-place amongst the deluge of praise for the army. Kamel has already provided a speedy solo sequel thanking the Arab kings that supported the military against Morsi. He has promised to release a third in gratitude for police efforts.

There’s no hiding the relationship between this form of aesthetically-void “art” and the state. But even more artistically-capable musicians, some with a revolutionary repertoire, don’t shy away from employing this genre and burdening relationship in the service of more targeted messages.

The rich careers and wide ranging voices of Angham and Ali al-Haggar have promoted the idea of division in recent songs. Al-Haggar affirms, “You are a people and we are a people” in rejection of political Islam and its misuse of religion. The Angham’s video clip “Not from our country” was produced by the interior ministry showcasing footage of Morsi supporters armed and engaged in violence. The “Ministry of Interior Media and Public Relations Department” credit in the opening scene of the video, and the footage of police in action, leave no room for claims of a space that supposedly separates art from the state.

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