Rami ‘Isam, a 23-year old pony-tailed singer for the so-so rock band Mashakil, based in Mansoura, showed up at Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011, guitar in hand and ready to join the pro-democracy revolt. His music soon became an important component of the Tahrir scene, as the insurrectionists set up sound systems to broadcast recordings and a stage for speeches and performances. ‘Isam went on stage and also circulated in the square, strumming for demonstrators taking a break from the struggle. He crafted tunes for the occasion, one of them, “Irhal” (Leave), from the well-worn slogans of the square: “He will go, we won’t go!” (huwa yimshi, mish ha-nimshi) and “down, down with Husni Mubarak.” The lyrics, set to a catchy, simple melody of unplugged, grunge-style guitar chords, lent themselves to audience participation and enhanced the rhythmic feel of the chants.

A live performance of “Irhal,” showing the Tahrir crowds singing but not ‘Isam, was filmed on the night of February 1. Posted on YouTube, the video quickly went viral, with over 600,000 views to date. As the throngs swelled and the international media stepped up its coverage, ‘Isam was hailed by many as the singer of the budding revolution. Writing in the Guardian, Andy Morgan dubbed ‘Isam the Billy Bragg of Egypt, after Britain’s well-known leftist folk singer. Some even likened the celebratory atmosphere in the square when Husni Mubarak resigned on February 11 to that of Woodstock.

But, though Billy Bragg has walked his share of picket lines, such comparisons miss a critical aspect of musicians’ participation in Egypt’s revolutionary moment — the physical dangers. Another, less widely viewed YouTube clip features an interview with ‘Isam the day after the first was filmed. His head is swathed in bandages, due to injuries from projectiles, incurred as he fought in the pitched battles between demonstrators and the infamous baltagiyya hired by the government to clear the square. On March 9, ‘Isam was encamped at Tahrir when the army arrived to expel the hard core of demonstrators who remained after Mubarak’s departure. The soldiers cut off ‘Isam’s pony tail and arrested and tortured him, leaving his back shredded by wounds from sticks and electric shocks. Word of ‘Isam’s maltreatment spread quickly upon his release, through a statement he posted on Facebook and a YouTube video that panned across his lacerated back. The singer’s attitude, however, was undefeated. Steve Inskeep interviewed ‘Isam for NPR’s “Morning Edition” on March 15; on March 17, the radio network broadcast the same anchor’s interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after her tour of Tahrir Square. Inskeep asked her whether she had queried Egypt’s military leaders about their torture of citizens, mentioning his meeting with ‘Isam — an unusually tough question of a high-ranking official by a mainstream American reporter.

The fate of Ahmad Basyouni is also instructive. Basyouni taught in the art education, painting and drawing department at Helwan University south of Cairo, where he was working on his doctorate. Like many contemporary artists, he worked in a variety of media. As an experimental musician, he put in well-received performances in 2009 and 2010 at the Live 100, Egypt’s electronic music festival. Two videos posted on Vimeo, “Abu Asala ‘ala Dish” and “al-Khati’a,” testify to the creative brilliance of his work. In “Abu Asala,” a singer lays down repetitive, folksy vocals over Basyouni’s sharp electronic groove. Basyouni had released one recording, the experimental “Copia (Blood Pressure),” on Mahmoud Rif‘at’s 100 Copies label. He was also a painter whose canvases had been exhibited at prestigious galleries and an early participant in the popular occupation of Tahrir. It appears that he was shot by security forces while filming battles between protesters and police on the night of January 28. He left behind a wife and two small children. An enlarged photograph of him featured prominently in the gallery of the revolution’s martyrs in the square.

More traditional troubadours, who never achieved the same fame as Rami ‘Isam, wandered the square with ‘ouds (lutes) and percussion instruments, playing old revolutionary anthems and composing new ones. Clutches of demonstrators improvised rhyming chants: “Who are we and who is he? We are the laborer and the peasant. He is the thief of the infitah” — a reference to the economic open door policy of Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat. The musicians associated with the al-Mastaba Center for Folk Music in Egypt, founded by Zakariyya Ibrahim, performed on a regular basis for the assembled crowds. A YouTube video of the famous al-Tanboura group from Port Said, whose featured instrument is the simsimiyya or lyre, captures al-Mastaba’s musical flavor. The tunes of Egypt’s most famous revolutionary singer, Sheikh Imam, who was at the center of leftist mobilization against the regime of Sadat, were frequently heard. “The Donkey and the Foal,” a poem by Ahmad Fouad Nagm, a major lyricist for Sheikh Imam, was set to music by ‘Isam and became a popular request. The square also reverberated with classic music from the likes of ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz and Dalida, two huge stars of the 1960s and 1970s. Demonstrators sang Egypt’s national anthem over and over, especially at times of confrontation with the security forces, as part of their effort to reclaim patriotic symbols for the people.

Several contemporary celebrities put out songs and videos during the Tahrir Square events. One of the best was “Izzayy?” (Why?) by Muhammad Mounir, an Egyptian Nubian crooner who has been a fixture of music, cinema and theater since the mid-1970s, when he was also involved in the progressive student movement in opposition to Sadat. The song was originally released prior to the uprising, in the fall of 2010, but although it is a love song, it was banned because the state censor understood it to be a veiled critique of social conditions in Egypt. A revised video, full of gripping scenes of the revolt, was aired on February 6, on popular evening talk show on a privately owned satellite channel, thereby bypassing the censor’s bureau. The video opens with the subtitle: “To every Egyptian citizen who participated in the January 25 revolution…or didn’t.” “Izzayy” is now a popular ring tone on Egyptians’ cell phones, a sign of post-February 11 efforts to commercialize the revolution.

A number of international artists quickly released songs in tribute to the revolt. A compelling one called “Back Down Mubarak!” came from Master Mimz, a young Moroccan woman born in Casablanca and now based in London. The video features several shots of women participating in the insurrection. The vocals are lively and irrepressible, the beats old-school and the sentiments timeless. “Welcome to the third world streets/Where the heart beats in times like these/Days of our lives, we feel alive/Get outta here — it’s our time to shine.”

How to cite this article:

Ted Swedenburg "Troubadours of Revolt," Middle East Report 258 (Spring 2011).

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