Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The sound of resilience

From France's La Marseillaise to Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up", songs have long had the power to inspire protesters, writes Salonaz Sami

Click to view caption
Essam; El-Scarabeuz and Omaima; Offendum and Mounir

It was songs from the last few decades, like those of Abdel-Halim Hafez and Sheikh Imam, that echoed most frequently through the sound systems in Tahrir Square to spur on the crowds.

Using stirring and moving musical inspiration to engender a sense of purpose and comradeship is by no means new. It was such songs that captured the euphoria of the moment in the Tahrir Square. Over those two or three weeks dozens of musicians, in a fury of creativity set off by the events, produced some amazing documentaries of the revolution.

Perhaps the most impressive was Mohamed Mounir's Ezzay (Why?). Written and recorded almost two months prior to the outbreak of the uprising, the song was described as "angry and instigating" by the Ministry of Information. Young Egyptians apparently disagreed.

As in most of his songs, Mounir, "The King" to his loyal fans, used lyrics that seemed to be addressed to a loved one but at the same time could be read as an allegory about the sad conditions in the country. The footage that accompanied the song was made up of still photographs taken in the square.

"On your land and sea, how can I protect your back, when mine is always bent and exposed," one verse went.

"The song has captured the hearts of Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike," said Hassan Attallah, a drama professor and art critic. "It took everyone who watched it into Tahrir Square where the real battle was going on, allowing them in a few magical moments to be part of the process of making history."

Mounir apparently asked for the song to be produced by the State's Radio and Television Union, but his request was denied. However, the astonishing lyrics by Nasreddin Nagui struck a nerve with the young people of the 25 January movement, whom Mounir describes as "his sons and daughters who grow up listening to his songs".

The video's moving scenes of the revolt open with a dedication that reads, "To every Egyptian citizen who did or did not take part on 25 January".

"It's the artist's job to be a mirror of his society," Mounir said according to the daily, state owned Al-Akhbar. "And an intelligent artist should always try to be one step ahead of events."

Attallah agreed. "Some artists choose to be part of what's happening in their societies, while some tend to be reluctant to do so."

A perfect example is Sout Al-Horeya ("Voice of Freedom") by vocalist Hani Adel and Amir Eid, accompanied by Sherif Mustafa on keyboard. The video was shot by Mustafa Fahmi, using a hand-held digital camera. It showed what was really happening in Tahrir Square as it followed Adel and Eid who sang as they walked among the protesters. Some of the lines of the song even appeared on the posters held up by the protesters. The video has gone viral on YouTube, with more than a million views. The poetry read out in the middle is by none other than Egypt's own patriotic poet, Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi.

While both Adel and Eid are established artists from Cairo's underground bands Wust El-Balad and Cairokee, Yassir El-Scarabeuz and Omaima are Egyptian musicians well established in Germany. Their song Tahia Masr ("Long Live Egypt") has also captured the hearts of Egyptians and gained recognition worldwide. The song is a remake of Michael Jackson's "Hold my Hand", which according to El-Scarabeuz was a perfect fit "because it exactly brings up the same spirit that Jackson was advocating in his songs about freedom and justice," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"We felt very proud and impressed by the courage and prudence of the young Egyptians during the revolution," El-Scarabeuz said. "And since Egyptians were, unfortunately, not getting any support from Western governments, we decided to show them our support through this song," he added.

El-Scarabeuz, 34, who has both Egyptian and Dutch roots, is fascinated by hip hop. "I think it gives ordinary people a voice." he says. Although hip hop is a more Western style of music, the influence of Oriental music on El-Scarabeuz's songs has always been important. "After the positive feedback I have got from the release of this song I am now planning on producing an Arabic hip hop album, and I have already begun producing a couple of tracks for it," he says.

Although many Egyptian musicians chose to remain silent during the revolution, thus disappointing their fans, El-Scarabeuz believes that, while the whole regime must be brought to justice, those artists should be forgiven in order to jointly build a new Egypt.

"We all know that the road ahead is still long with many obstacles to overcome," he said. "The real revolution is yet to come. I just hope Egyptians will remain steadfast and won't abandon their demands for the sake of those young people who have given their lives for the revolution to thrive. People have now recognised that they have power and that if they manage to keep it they can deliver an example to the whole world, including the West."

Ramy Essam's song Erhal (Leave) is another YouTube sensation on the revolution. The lyrics are a combination of the key slogans used by the crowds during the revolution, sang by Essam live from the square with protesters chanting along.

Essam has been working, for two years, on a project called Mashakel (Trouble): "All kinds of trouble facing our community be they political, social or cultural," he told the Weekly. And while some of the project songs were written prior to the revolution, others were inspired by it. "The album containing all the songs is to be released soon," he added. As for the song Erhal, Essam explained that it was the product of a simple idea that leant on the fact that music was the fastest way to deliver a message, especially on such occasions.

"I wanted to motivate the protesters so they wouldn't get bored," Essam said. "They were chanting the same slogans over and over again, and I thought turning them into a song would make them easier to memorise and more fun to recite."

Among those slogans were "Leave", "Down with Mubarak", and "He should leave, cause we won't leave". The only words that Essam added to the slogans were, "All of us, hand in hand, demand one thing, that you [in reference to former president Mubarak] leave."

Essam, who was injured in the violent Wednesday attacks by thugs, as he was a sheer demonstrator in Tahrir Square, said he was there "because I was frustrated by the poor conditions of my country".

A number of songs have been inspired by the protests, and not just from within the borders. Former rapper of the Fugees band and Haitian presidential candidate Wyclef Jean released a song entitled "Freedom, a Song for Egypt" on the day that Mubarak stepped down. A mere coincidence? "If the Pyramids could talk they would probably say we want freedom, Cairo wants freedom, the youth want their freedom, they want a peaceful solution," went the lyrics.

Another solidarity song from outside the events was "January 25" after a topic on Twitter, created by the collaboration of Arab- and African-American musicians living in North America. Inspired by the events, Omar Offendum, Freeway, The Narcicyst, Amir Suleiman and Ayah teamed up to release the song.

The first verse runs: "I heard them say the revolution won't be televised. Al-Jazeera proved them wrong, Twitter had them paralysed." The song is a play on the 1970s song "The Revolution Won't Be Televised" by Gil Scotte Heron, according to Egyptian rapper Offendum. "I wanted to open up that way because it symbolises how a lot of people were hearing about this revolution," Offendum said. The song proved to be quite popular among Arab-Americans in the United States. Offendum said he was proud of the song, but even prouder of the Egyptian protesters. "The real music that defines the revolution was created on the streets of Egypt," he said.

"The protesters were coming up with amazing call and response songs and chants on the fly, as they do, because Egyptians are so creative," he said. "And to me, that's the true music of this revolution, the voice of the people."

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