The Middle East:
The musicians are taking incredible risks
|“As we all enjoy the stories of how music has become a potent weapon in the struggles for freedom across the Arab world, let’s bear in mind that the situation could change for the worse,” writes author Mark LeVine in this personal commentary based on his recent experiences together with musicians in Egypt.
On the Music Freedom Day of 2011, Mark LeVine reminds us that “we all owe it to the artists who are risking so much by taking the lead, to stand behind them and ensure that if they are silenced, we will raise our voices as loudly as did they to win their freedom.”
By Mark LeVine
The Ancient Israelites had their trumpets and harps. The French Revolutionaries had their republican hymns. The American civil rights and anti-war movement had Dylan, Baez and Hendrix.
And now, Egypt has Ramy Essam.
Essam, a 26-year old singer from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura, was not well-known before the Revolution, but he is one of Egypt’s rising stars today.
“I watched the images of what was happening at Tahrir Square, and I knew I had to be there, to help however I could,” Ramy explained to me one day as we made our way through the Square, in the midst of ever larger crowds. Ramy had been living in the Square for almost two weeks, in a tent, when we first met. I had only heard of him a few days earlier, when, preparing to leave for Cairo, I came upon a youtube video of him performing a late night show in the Square.
The video was meaningless; the light was too low to get anything but an overly grainy image of the stage, too obscure to see Ramy. But the music was so powerful I immediately downloaded it and sent it to my producer, Anton Pukshansky. Together we created a hiphop drum and bass track underneath the live song, and I scoured the internet trying to find contact information for Ramy.
After close listening to the intro of the video I picked his name out, and after much searching using multiple English spellings for this name, I found what appeared to be his facebook fan page. A few more clicks and I found the facebook page of his producer, Taher Saleh, which unlike Ramy’s fan page could actually receive messages. I immediately facebooked him and hoped he’d respond before I arrived in Egypt. When I first heard the song it had 314 hits, by the time I met Ramy he told me he’d surpassed half a million.
Music is the weapon
It is for that reason that Freemuse is, for me, as important as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch in the global struggle for human rights in all its aspects. If we musicians are ‘all one tribe’, we need to be doing a lot more to protect our fellow tribesmen.
Luckily, Ramy didn’t need my help, although if he’d become that overtly political just a few weeks before he might well have wound up in jail or worse. Egypt under Mubarak was an extremely authoritarian society. It was very dangerous openly to take on the regime through art if you lived there. And for this reason most of the younger artists who wanted to be critical of the regime would do so in a coded way, letting the medium itself-like heavy metal or hiphop, styles which have long political traditions within them-shape the message without having overtly to take on the ‘Pharaoh’.
But these genres are also somewhat marginal to mainstream Egyptian culture, and Ramy also clearly wanted to be a rock star, and has the looks and charisma to be one. However, it seemed to me that until the Revolution happened he hadn’t found his voice. At heart, he is a rocker, and even a metal head (or ‘metallien’, as they’re referred to in Egyptian slang). But in order to achieve an audience he felt he had to do much softer and more commercial rock music, closer to the Egyptian mainstream.
The music was fine, but not my cup of tea, and had I heard that first, I might not have looked further into Ramy’s music or expected much in the way of a powerful anthem. ‘Ilhar’, however, was so intense, even with just him on an acoustic guitar it literally rocked the Square. When I asked him about the disparity between ‘Ilhar’ and the music he normally played, and he explained, “In fact I love metal, I love bands like Limp Bizkit or Slipknot. But I do this kind of music to reach a larger audience.”
Drumming and poetry
It’s hard to explain how powerful Ramy’s performances were, especially the ones late at night, when only a few dozen or 100 people were still at the Square, desperately in need of a shot of adrenalin and of hope as the uncertainty of the future and the possibility of immanent attack by government goons or even tanks, loomed in the darkness. I know that Egypt’s has been dubbed the ‘Facebook revolution’, and social media like Twitter are being described as having played crucial roles in the successful toppling of Mubarak.
But I can tell you that from Tahrir Square, the most important means of communication was the drum — or rather, the daf and the darbuka — and poetry, whether of the innumerable chants of protesters or the lyrics of the songs many artists came to perform at the Square. Indeed, what made ‘Ilhar’ so brilliant was precisely that Ramy took the best chants and made them into the lyrics for the song.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Facebook, Twitter, myspace and other social media websites and platforms are ultimately “mostly useful for publicity,” Hossam el-Hamalawy, one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and a major organizing force at the Square during the protests explained to me.
His body language in saying this suggested he was a bit annoyed already with so many people assuming that the revolution wouldn’t have happened save for Facebook. Rather, it was, he explained, surveying the sea of peple around him as we stood in the Square, precisely the coming together of hundreds of thousands of people, day after day, for weeks, all chanting the same demands, in harmony, with the drums beneath their voices setting the tempo and rhythm, that brought down the Pharaoh.
Music was quite literally the rhythm, the heartbeat of the revolution in Tahrir. As you walked around the Square, every 20 meters or so you’d run into another group of people chanting and banging drums, or pass by another stage with someone leading prayers or offering poetry, or just giving a captivating speech (it seemed that everyone had suddenly been given oratorial skills comparable to Martin Luther King, Jr. or perhaps more relevant, to Nasser). The music was what kept you moving, hour after hour, what provided the rhythm ith which you read the thousands of posters, cartoons, treates and other artistic and political documents that covered most every square inch of the Square.
As Andy Morgan wonderfully shows in his piece ‘From Fear to Fury’ in the Observer, music has been an essential part of the revolutions sweeping all the countries of the Arab world, from Tunisia to Bahrain. In Libya, people are returning to the old national anthem, which Qaddafi retired in favor of an Egyptian marching song. In Palestine, where young activists are planning their own revolution to begin March 15, it’s hiphop rather than rock that’s become the voice of youth, much like in Tunisia, as rappers have spent the last decade writing trenchant critiques of their society in the form of rhymes, adding some of the most innovative beats and productions techniques around to provide the aesthetic-political ambience for their powerful words.
Taking incredible risks
So as we all enjoy the stories of how music has become a potent weapon in the struggles for freedom across the Arab world, let’s bear in mind that the situation could change for the worse at a moment’s notice, and that we all owe it to the artists who are risking so much by taking the lead, to stand behind them and ensure that if they are silenced, we will raise our voices as loudly as did they to win their freedom, and those of the peoples for whom they’ve risked so much.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, USA, and a rock guitarist. He is the author of the book ‘Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam’, and of the 9th Freemuse report, entitled ‘Headbanging against repressive regimes — Censorship of heavy metal in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and China’
Photos: Ramy Essam performing at Tahrir Square, photographed by the author.
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