By Osama Diab
For a new generation of young Egyptian artists, music is not just about love.
24 February 2010
A couple of years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find songs in Egypt that weren’t packaged pop ballads preoccupied with the beauty of a lover’s eyelashes or how much she blushes when she’s shy. The only challenges to the status quo were a few bands singing English cover songs.
“All the underground bands were singing in English and the mainstream Egyptian pop music all had Western beats,” says Sherbini Ahmed, founder and lead vocalist of the underground band Nagham Masry (Egyptian Tunes). “Anyone who wanted to say something meaningful and not do pop music had to do it in English.”
Now, bands like Nagham Masry are feeding a resurgent underground music scene. Their goal? To break out of the grip of major studios and stir up the country’s established musical order with songs in their own language that tackle thorny social and political issues. From the rock band Massar Egbari to the nation’s sole female rapper Princess Emmanuelle, the underground acts are all expanding on a single riff: that Egyptian music doesn’t always have to be about love.
Seeds of the underground movement
Even though the underground scene is only now starting to revive its former popularity, its seeds were sown at the beginning of the twentieth century with the music of Sayed Darwish.
Darwish, whom many consider the father of popular Arabic music, was a singer of the working class. He was the first to sing in ammiyya (colloquial Arabic) with fast beats and slang, singing about nationalism and mocking aristocrats. He started a music revolution that is still alive today. Darwish’s style and language were considered uncomfortably crude by conservative elites, but the message and the music lived longer than his critics. Today, he is considered one of Egypt’s greatest musicians and composers, despite his untimely death at age 31.
A few decades later, a new musical phenomenon took up Darwish’s torch, the famous rebellious duo Ahmed Foad Negm and Sheikh Imam. Their goal was more political than artistic and they continued Darwish’s tradition of writing songs for the working class.
The duo’s songs inspired university students after the 1967 military defeat and were often chanted during demonstrations. However, success came at a price. The duo’s widespread popularity as a symbol of resistance put them behind bars at various points during the 1960s and 1970s.
Negm passed this legacy on to a new generation when he met Sherbini Ahmed. They talked about the declining state of music in Egypt. At the time, Ahmed was composing short radio and TV advertisements, but Negm’s guidance motivated him to put some of Negm’s poems to music. In early 2000, Nagham Masry was formed. With the help of the band and those that followed, the long-neglected underground scene was on the rise.
Faces of the underground scene
Composing music to Negm’s poems was the stepping-stone to forming Nagham Masry. “Back then, Negm gave me special attention and introduced me to kinds of music I had never been exposed to before,” says Ahmed. “What happened in the last 10 years is a state of rebelling against conventionality, whether it was in the press, cinema or music. It was a rebellion against the way music was done back then.”
Ayman Massoud, a keyboardist for the band Massar Egbari, takes a similar view on his band’s motivation. He says that their goal is to rebel against the conventional rules of society. Massoud describes Egyptian rock as a fusion between classic rock and oriental music. Romance and love are part of our life, not all of it, according to Massoud, so love should be just one facet of the music we create, instead of dominating it.
Massar Egbari has performed in Europe at the Malta Arts Festival, the Barisa Rock Festival in Istanbul and the biennale of young artists from Europe and the Mediterranean in Bari, Italy. The name of the band means Compulsory Direction. Massoud explains exactly what the band had in mind with the title.
“If someone wants to become a drummer, their parents will tell them to finish college first and then they can do whatever they want. But after they finish college, society will force them to find a job and practice their hobby on the side,” he says. “After that, they will become too drained from their jobs and gradually forget about their old dream.”
In the band’s view, society creates a compulsory direction for us from birth, with a precise image of what it means to be proper and successful. “I don’t have to wear a suit to be respectable,” he says.
The band Salalem was formed in 2004 and first performed before a live audience in 2005. Their name translates as Stairs, in homage to the staircase where the three founding members used to play at university.
According to the band’s lead singer, Mohammed Jamal, also known by his friends and band mates as Jimy, Salalem doesn’t think music should be depressing, but, instead, should aim to tackle society’s problems in a way that brings a smile to the listener.
“We have a song called “Sonya.” Sonya is not a girl; it’s a metaphor for nepotism or wasta,” Jimy explains. “We depict wasta as a very attractive girl that everyone chases, and people think when they catch her all their problems will be solved.” The song is mixed with tunes from Egypt’s national anthem, Bilady, Bilady (My Homeland).
“We couldn’t have been this outspoken 10 years ago because we would’ve been easily noticed. But now with all these bands, newspapers and satellite channels, we feel safer tackling certain issues,” says Jimy.
Eskenderella, a portmanteau of Eskendereyya (Alexandria in colloquial Egyptian) and Cinderella, was formed in 2005 by a group of Alexandrian musicians led by oud (lute) player Hazem Shahin. The band got its start performing the political and social songs of Sheikh Imam and Sayed Darwish. Eventually, they sang their own songs and composed music for the poems of Fouad Hadad, his grandson Ahmed Haddad and Naguib Shehab El Deen.
A female voice
The burgeoning underground scene is largely dominated by men, but at least one female voice is making herself heard, with others looking to follow suit. Emmanuelle Amira, whose stage name is Princess Emmanuelle, says she is the first and only female rapper in Egypt.
“Females didn’t embrace the art of rapping in Egypt until maybe four years ago… and I am still the only girl on the scene in Egypt,” says Amira. “There are motivated girls that have begun to write rap lyrics but have not yet developed it for the stage or screens of Egypt.”
Amira is of Egyptian, British and Lebanese origin and has released two independent albums in 2001 and 2004. “Life and its experiences in many different ways, obvious and subtle, are what inspire me to write,” she confesses.
The rapper thinks that hip-hop has been an Egyptian staple since the days of the Pharaohs, even though it was not identified or developed as “hip-hop or rap until these present days.”
Amira raps about peace, unity and love, balanced by lyrics about war, pain and the differences that people use to justify hating each other.
“All different religions and ways of life actually do express the same peaceful, humble and loving philosophy, so the music is really an expression of oneness in the midst of an alienated society,” says Amira.
Amira thinks that the pop music scene in Egypt is interesting, but not socially conscious. Underground acts in genres such as jazz, reggae, hip-hop and rap need to be supported and promoted much more than they are now.
She does enjoy listening to mainstream Egyptian singers, such as Mohammad Mounir, Elissa, Asala and Amr Diab, but sees a need for authenticity in today’s music.
“I think they are great at what they do. However, when such big stars try to imitate someone else’s image in the West or in hip-hop, for example, I don’t think that’s very cool at all. They should all stick to their essence, which is why we Egyptians love their original music and style.”
The surge of new underground talent has a lot to do with the creation of artistic havens that promote underground artists and give them a place to perform. The biggest and most influential is the Sawy Culture Wheel, also known as Saqyet al-Sawy or el-Saqya. The performance space, located in Zamalek, opened in 2003 under the guidance of Mohamed al-Sawy, who named it in honour of his father Abdel-Moniem al-Sawy. The name Saqya comes from the title of one of the elder al-Sawy’s bestselling novels.
Its mission is to place culture at the top of the country’s priorities in order to achieve national goals, says Mohamed al-Sawy.
“I can describe the goal of the Saqya in just one word: enlightenment,” he says. “To make people see, because our big problem is that Egyptian society lives in gloom and people are used to seeing what is offered to them and thinking it is everything.”
Salalem was one of the bands that benefited from al-Saqya. Jimy says that al-Saqya caused a boom in the underground music industry. “No other place offers what Saqya offers. They give you the sound, the lights and provide you with sound and light engineers. They also do the fliers, tickets and posters and you pay nothing in advance. They just take their share of the revenues afterwards,” he says. “We want people to see more, and be able to evaluate for themselves, and I’m totally opposed to the idea that as a nation we are not mature enough to evaluate. I’d rather have people evaluate wrong than be slaves who are told what’s good for them by others.”
Massoud of Massar Egbari says that 10 years ago there were no independent stages like al-Saqya to perform on if they had decided to start a band at that time.
“Saqya was established at the right time, when the internet made people more aware of what’s going on and that there were alternative ways of doing things. People were more ready to accept change,” says al-Sawy.
“I think we made the word culture friendlier. People used to think of culture as dull, and people were not comfortable with formal Arabic terms and thought of it as unfashionable,” says al-Sawy.
“Saqya is very important for us,” says Ahmed. “Saqya, along with Townhouse and smaller places like Makan, have made a huge difference. I hope we’ll see the day when there’s something like Saqya on every street in Egypt.”
Signs of change?
This new generation of independent artists firmly believes in the power of music to foster change in society. Nagham Masry’s Sherbini Ahmed thinks music can definitely lead to social change.
“The two things that shape Egyptian people’s minds, in my opinion, are jokes and music,” says Ahmed. “We are a singing nation: vegetable vendors sing out their selling lines, Qur’an recitation in Egypt is different and more melodic. Even when we were a Coptic country, our religious rituals all had music involved.”
The power of music can be a double-edged sword in his opinion, depending on the kind of music people listen to. “I blame the state of chaos on our streets and people’s short tempers on music. I think it’s because the new trend of shaabi music is making them very aggressive.”
Massoud also believes that music can lead to change in society. “People in Egypt think that religion is the only thing that causes change, but I also think music can have a major role to play.”
Jimy thinks that we can achieve a lot through music. “Music has a huge impact on people. Look at pop stars like Tamer Hosny. Look at the impact he had on young people,” he says. “People dress like him and know his songs by heart. So the same can be applied to social singing if it becomes as popular.”
Amira thinks that music and poetry has always caused change in society and has been at the forefront of that mission since early African and Arabian civilisations when the drummers and poets got together to express resistance, love or pain as a community.
She sums up the areas in which she believes music can cause change: “People’s mentality needs to open up more in our society. They need to be more [accepting of] differences like class, cultural and religious backgrounds, and the higher up in society need to give back more to their communities. Also, women should have more power to voice their opinion freely.”
“I feel that society has opened up a lot to new, emerging contemporary ideas and music, but is still not totally embracing, promoting or supporting these ideas enough,” says Amira.
An accidental meeting in 1999 between Ousso and Sherbini brought Nagham Masry to life. Following a first prize award at their very first show at the Citadel, they decided to get serious about their original songs and set lists, and were soon playing regularly at the Cairo Opera House. Their music combines the Western side (drums, guitar, and keyboards) and the Eastern side (oud and qanun) together.
Amr Khairy: Drums
Hany Bedair: Percussion
Shady Sharaf: Oud
Sherif Kamel: Qanun
Upcoming events: Keep your ears and eyes open for their upcoming concert in March at the Cairo Opera House.
The band started in 2004 when Mohamed Ali, Osama Saad and Amr Gioushy decided to combine their musical talents together to make music that’s different, catchy and at the same time new and meaningful in Arabic.
Mohamed Ali (Walkman): Guitar, Vocals
Osama Saad (Ozmo): Guitar, Backing Vocals
Amr Sayed (Solo): Solo Guitar
Mohammed Jamal (Jimy): Lead Vocals
Ezz Shahwan (El General): Bass and Lead Guitars
Hany Bedeir: Percussion
Sherif Nabil: Drums
You can listen to them at:
Upcoming events: After Eight every Friday.
Through the members’ different musical backgrounds, the band presents alternative Egyptian music; mixing rock, jazz and blues with Oriental music. In 2007, Massar Egbari started its international musical career as it participated in two international festivals: Malta Arts Festival in Valletta, Malta and Barisa Rock Festival in Istanbul, Turkey. Since then, they’ve participated in biennales in Italy and Macedonia, as well as at the Festival Adriatico Mediterraneo in Ancona, Italy in 2009.
Hani El Dakkak: Guitar and lead vocalist
Ayman Massoud: Keyboard
Ahmed Hafez: Bass guitar
Tamer Attallah: Drums
Mahmoud Siam: Guitar
You can listen to them at:
Upcoming events: Massar Egbari is invited to participate at the Sauti Za Busara Music Festival in Zanziber, Tanzania this month. The festival is considered one of the most important music festivals in East Africa.
Emmanuelle Amira (Princess Emannuelle)
Princess Emmanuelle a.k.a. EmpresS *1 is a British-Egyptian (Upper Egypt)-Lebanese rapper who has won international recognition for her two independent albums, Born Into a Drowning World (2001/2) and Rise Above da Waters (2004/5), in addition to TV and radio exposure, mainly in the UK. She is known as the “Conscious Rap-Poetess.”
You can listen to her at:
This feature first appeared in the February 2010 edition of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.