JPMS Online: POP/IASPM-US Sounds of the City Issue, Banning Eyre

by justindburton on October 29, 2012

Cairo Underground: Revolution and Cultural Renaissance

Banning Eyre: Senior Editor at

[Editor’s Note: After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.]

Egypt’s contemporary sound scape preserves little or nothing of the country’s fabled Pharaonic past. Coptic Christians claim their oldest hymns use words and melodies known to the Pharoahs, but no one can prove this. The Cairo Museum contains remnants of 4000-year-old flutes and lyres—something like the surviving ney, kawala,  simsimiyya and tanbura. But no one knows what music these mute artifacts once produced to animate ancient evenings. Over the millennia, Egypt’s cultural landscape has been remade over and over, by Greek, Roman, Arab, Turkish, British and French invaders and, more recently, by emanations of culture beamed in from Paris, London, Beirut and New York. Egypt’s onion-like multicultural past unfolded in a bloom of artistic expression, and excellence, in the mid-20th century.  Cairo was then hailed as “Hollywood of the East,” the nexus of regional creativity in the arts, and a harbinger of a cosmopolitan Arab future.

But after 1952, when Gamel Abdel Nasser rose to power, an era of constriction began, characterized by tides of nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism. The very idea of Egyptianness seemed to narrow. A half-century of political stagnation ultimately triggered a people’s uprising at the start of 2011. But for a decade before that, there were rumblings in the cultural sphere. Independent minded musicians were canaries in the coalmine, signaling societal convulsions to come. In a month spent in Cairo in the summer of 2011, researching history and music for Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep radio/web series, I found that musicians were the people least surprised to find themselves in the midst of a revolution.


To paraphrase historian and rocker Mark LeVine—author of Heavy Metal Islam—throughout the Arab world, the do-it-yourself-music of the early 2000s became the training ground for do-it-yourself revolution. We hear about the rapid spread of internet access and the social media boom, but it was the cyber-expertise so quickly developed by young practitioners—creators and musicians with no other avenues available to them—that really made the difference. LeVine reports that Tunesia’s underground music scene produced some of the most resourceful computer hackers the world has seen, and these hacktivists became key players in the Arab Spring’s most efficient revolution. In Egypt, the metalheads LeVine met in 2008, posting music on fan sites, risking clandestine concert parties and dodging charges of Satanism, later became not just protesters in Tahrir Square, but leaders, seasoned in acts of resistance.

Egypt is a special case among Arab countries.  With 81-million citizens, it remains the region’s biggest market.  Because Egyptians speak a distinct Arabic dialect, pop singers in neighboring countries make a point of recording songs tailored to the Egyptian market.  So it is that the likes of Tunesia’s Saber El Rubaye, Lebanon’s Fadil el Shakir, and Syria’s Samo Zein vie to rival Egyptian pop icons like Amr Diab, Tamer Hosni and Shereen Abdel Wahab.  Making “an Egyptian record” is more a question of language than style.  There are musical variations, lovers’ pop vs. dance pop.  But essentially, you could argue that since the mid-80s, there has been only one musical pop style marketed, not only in Egypt, but throughout much of the region.  It’s a mix of disco and R&B, set to an Arab beat, and seasoned with a Latin tinge, a la Gypsy Kings.  This hit by Amr Diab is typical.

Amr Diab

Hamid el Shari

This musical aesthetic originated in Egypt, the innovation of Libyan-descended producer Hamid el Shari.  It seemed fresh and worldly at first, a radical rejection of the grandiose orchestral music of later day pop culture icons like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez.  If you turn on a radio in Cairo, you will hear either those classic singers, koranic recitation, or the sort of formulaic pop Hamid el Shari pioneered in the 80s—nothing else.  The newer pop has been belittled as shebabi, basically “kids music,” and Cairo’s best sound engineers will tell you the genre has become a straight jacket, from which they are struggling to escape.  The thing is, Egypt’s record industry, music media, and pop concert production have long been controlled by wealthy, politically connected interests with limited artistic vision.  They have shown no interest in any innovation that might break the spell so successfully cast over mainstream Egyptian music consumers for decades.  But since the revolution, these players have been sitting on their cash, releasing just 3 major CDs last summer rather than the usual 25 or so, and staging almost no big concerts, while they hold up their fingers in shifting and unpredictable winds.

Hence the opening for do-it-yourself music—everything from heavy metal, to pop rock, hip hop, jazz, avant garde electronic music, traditional folklore, DJ sha’bi, and even religious music.  Some of these genres are truly underground.  Others are simply ignored by media, despite massive popularity. Sufi singer Yasin el Tuhami reportedly sells as many self-produced recordings in Egypt in two months as Amr Diab sells in a year.  Partly that’s because Shaykh El Tuhami’s fans, many in small towns, rural areas and poor neighborhoods of Cairo, still buy rather than download music.  But if you need proof of Sufi music’s robust popular appeal, look no further than one of Egypt’s saint festivals, a moulid.  This one took place in a small town in Upper Egypt, with Mahmoud el Tuhami, Yasin’s son, at the microphone.  But there are even larger ones in Cairo.

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In the years leading up to the revolution, echoes of the moulid turned up in new work from Cairo’s experimental jazz band Eftekasat, electronic music composers Mahmoud Refat and Hassan Khan, and Egypt’s top rap collective, Arabian Knightz.

Karim Rush

Mahmoud Refat

In 2006, Mahmoud Refat—a psychedelic rocker who wandered into the avant garde—created an electronic music label called 100 Copies Music.  Refat’s pledge to press so few CD copies of each release shows a proud, almost perverse, commitment to marginality.  When I say that Refat and his colleague Hassan Khan echo the moulid, I should be more precise.  From Koranic recitation to Sufi singing, popular religion has provided training for musicians from Umm Kulthum to the stars of sha’bi, shebabi, and beyond.  Sha’bi literally means “folk,” but since the 1970s, the term has described a kind of urban pop sung in common street vernacular.  Sha’bi’s most polished exponents—like the amazing singer Hakim—have earned measured respect in Egypt, but the genre as a whole is still shunned as vulgar by the mainstream media.  Meanwhile, the music keeps evolving.  Young sha’bi singers bemoan the hard lives of the poor, or simultaneously celebrate and warn against the pleasures of alcohol and hashish. Sha’bi DJs dominate the wedding scene in many Cairo neighborhoods, synching up wild beats, distorted chants and keyboard histrionics with a live drummer.

Now, even Sufi singers—schooled in improvised performances at moulids—have ventured into this new realm.  The very neighborhoods that recently voted so heavily for the Muslim Brothers in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, are also the laboratory from which these new, edgy strains of sha’bi are emerging.  And it is their music that has recently pricked up the ears of Egyptian composers like Fathy Salama, Hassan Khan, and Mahmoud Refat.  Refat calls music by Islam Chipsy, DJ Figo, DJ Haha and the like—all of whom distribute their work on homemade MP3 CDs and over the internet—“the most exciting thing happening in Egypt, if not the Middle East.”  Like moulid music, tracks such as this one by DJ Figo are hardly underground, even though you will never hear them from a radio or television in Egypt.

By contrast, Egyptian heavy metal is truly an underground art, known only to a small, young, passionate, internet savvy audience in Cairo and Alexandria.

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Egyptian hip hop is now catching up with the more robust scenes in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Hip hop’s vibe and mode of expression are a good fit with revolution, and it won’t be long before the top rappers get their music licensed by big advertisers—the principle way musicians make money in Egypt.  That’s already happened for pop rock bands like Cairokee and Wust Al Balad.

Wust Al Balad

Their sunny, derivative sounds are hardly progressive, except that the mere idea of a band, rather than a singer, has scarcely been part of mainstream pop in Egypt since the 70s.

Promoting bands has been a key mission for Cairo’s most significant new performance venue of the past decade.  Opened in 2004, the Sawy Culture Wheel is a warren of stages, galleries, and gathering places, nestled in among two highway overpasses on the banks of the Nile near downtown Cairo.  Its founder, Mohamed el Sawy, is a refined, religious man.  But his passion for the arts led him to take risks, creating a public space where singer-songwriters, jazz musicians, poets, theatre groups and, especially, bands—even heavy metal bands—could perform and build audiences.

Jaafra Makan

 Two other new venues, created with no help from the state, also deserve mention.  Opened in 2004, Makan is an intimate hall, where you can sit and drink tea and listen to unamplified traditional music from all over Egypt. Every Wednesday, musicians perform the repertoire of zar, a pre-Islamic women’s healing ritual from sub-Saharan Africa.

Zars have long gone on in Cairo, but very much in private.  Now the music—though not the ritual itself—is presented to young, intellectually curious urbanites at Makan.  Then there’s Tanbura Hall, opened in 2010 by El Mastaba, another organization dedicated to reviving traditional music.  El Mastaba’s founder Zakaria Ibrahim leads the Suez Canal Zone folk ensemble El Tanbura.

El Tanbura

Ibrahim evolved from a political activist in the 70s to a folklorist in the 90s, and his organization is literally restoring and reinventing ancient instruments and traditions from the Canal Zone, the Sinai Peninsula, the lost kingdom of Nubia and Sudan, and finding new ways to extend these traditions into the popular sphere.  Amid Cairo’s teeming 17-million, Makan, Tanbura Hall, and the Sawy Culture Wheel reach only small slivers of the public, but rockers, rappers, and cutting edge composers are paying attention.  A handful of young pop singers now base their songs on long marginalized folklore—something commonplace in most of Africa, but rare in Egypt.

Hazem Shaheen

There are even subversive developments in the classical music world.  Hazem Shaheen, one of Egypt’s most gifted young oud players, has irked some of his mentors by forming an experimental group called Eskenderella.  These musicians create artful remakes of songs by early 20th century libertine and musical genius, Sayed Darwish.  Eskenderella is also writing new songs that taunt the military government and ask Egyptians to turn the page of history and begin a new chapter.

Ramy Essam

In Cairo, we heard a lot about the songs and music performed amid the protests at Tahrir Square.  A Dylanesque, guitar-toting troubadour named Ramy Essam achieved worldwide attention for his rousing Tahrir performances and his subsequent torture at the hands of police.  Essam’s sly humor and rough aesthetic—almost punk in its disregard for technical musicianship—sets him apart from more groomed rock acts like Cairokee and Wust al Balad, and also from the cult of metal bands.  Whether Essam’s protest songs have a future is hard to say, but they did strike a chord in Tahrir.

Mahmoud Mounir

As to what other music met the approval of protesters, stories vary.  Egypt’s most substantive and artful living pop singer, Mohamed Mounir, claims that many of his hits were spontaneously sung by the crowds in Tahrir Square, though some dispute that.  The lords of shababi—Amr Diab, Tamer Hosni and Mohamed Fouad—discredited themselves badly by either keeping silent or actually encouraging protesters to go home.  Their interest in preserving the power structure that has funded their careers was transparent and simply underscored how out-of-step their corporate pop is with revolutionary aspirations.  Many Tahrir veterans tell stories of music and musicians being closed down by the crowd.  Anything “cheerful or happy” was rejected.  There are YouTube clips of El Tanbura making their way through the crowd playing frame drums and singing in full voice.  This band’s blend of folk revival and political activism was clearly embraced.

Ahmed Al-Tuni

We saw and heard the Sufi singer Ahmed Al-Tuni—a veteran of many moulids—performing for an enthusiastic crowd in Tahrir in July. And Mahmoud Refat reported that during the initial protests, Sha’bi DJs set up their systems and were allowed by protesters to play all night long.

Soon after Mubarak stepped down, a Facebook group formed to catalogue Revolution songs from around the region, and over the months, many from Egypt have been posted.  Which of these will be remembered a month from now, or a year, or a decade, is anyone’s guess.  For the moment, everything is a blur in Egypt.  The emerging political order is strongly Islamist, as predicted.  But can an Islamist regime contain or accommodate all the social forces unleashed during last year’s uprisings?  Can it coexist with, or supplant, Egypt’s entrenched military industrial complex, so important to the funding of mass-appeal pop music in the past?  Realizing the protesters’ dream of a liberal, pluralistic society may ultimately depend on the capacity of disparate, disenfranchised groups to coalesce into a sustained movement.  And music is as good a gauge of that as any.

Egyptian alternative music is a patchwork of rappers, rockers, DJs, folk revivalists, renegade composers, spiritualists, troubadours, and cyber-youth.  Their achievements over the past decade amount to the untold story of how Egypt’s revolution came to be at all.  Their role in shaping a post-revolution society is yet unwritten.  But make no mistake.  Change will not come easily.  On the last day we spent in Cairo, we walked along the Qasr de Nil, one of the main bridges crossing the Nile near Tahrir Square.  It was packed with young people, hanging out, listening to music, smoking, and socializing.  Many had been part of the protests and were proud to say so.  We asked each person a single question:  what is your favorite Egyptian music?   Most of them answered with two names: Amr Diab and Tamer Hosni, stalwarts of the supposedly obsolete and discredited corporate pop.  In music as in revolution, appearances can deceive.  Even in retreat, the old guard hangs tough.

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