Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Music

Tolan, Children of the Stone

Sandy Tolan, Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).

Two stories, two dreams: one realized, the other dashed.

A boy born to a fragmented, impoverished refugee family living under harsh military rule is mesmerized by the sound of a violin and vows not only to master the instrument but also to start a school to share its liberating beauty with others. And he does it.

Palestine, Adrift at the Met

Bayann Hamid 11.11.2014

Opera is dying in New York. Or at least it was until last month.

Youth of the Gulf, Youth of Palestine

Ted Swedenburg 05.31.2014

I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.

Egypt’s Music of Protest

The culture of protest associated with the Egyptian uprising has attracted a huge amount of media coverage — much of it, unfortunately, partial and superficial. Partial, in that it privileges hip-hop to the virtual exclusion of every other kind of nationalist and protest music sung by musicians and crowds during the 18 days of the original Tahrir Square occupation, January 24-February 11, 2011. Superficial, in that it fundamentally misapprehends the role of music in the revolt.

Syria’s Radical Dabka

A clip circulating on YouTube begins with two sets of feet stepping on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, defaced with a blood-red X and tossed on the ground. It soon becomes apparent that “dirty Asad” lies inside a ring of protesters, who circle the head shot stomping rhythmically — on the downbeat, in repeated or alternating steps that rock backward and forward, left and right — to a rollicking tune in the background. The video is captioned, “The Sweetest and Finest of Syrian Dabka.” [1]

Protest Song Marocaine

A familiar song accompanied the massive protests that began on February 20, 2011 in Morocco.

The song, “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” (Where Are You Taking Me, Brother?), was first released in 1973 by Nass el Ghiwane, the venerable folk-pop group that continues to dominate Moroccan popular music — its aesthetics and social conscience. It resurfaced in a 2003 cover by the band Hoba Hoba Spirit. And it was broadcast again in the background of the 2011 demonstrations that had much in common with the uprisings across the Arab world, but which in Morocco never became a revolt.

Festivalizing Dissent in Morocco

The website of Morocco’s National Tourist Office, a government organization, advertises the North African country as a land of cultural festivals and moussems (traditional fairs honoring a saint). According to the Ministry of Information, about 150 such festivals take place each year. The Ministry of Tourism describes these gatherings as occasions for Moroccans to celebrate the diverse cultural identities of the country as expressed in all artistic fields.

Culture, State and Revolution

The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.

Traditions of Tahrir

Ted Swedenburg 02.9.2012

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a quite interesting program last Wednesday (as of now, it is still available for listening), in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising that toppled Mubarak. It featured Reem Kelani, a noted Palestinian singer based in London.

Hip-Hop of the Revolution (The Sharif Don’t Like It)

Ted Swedenburg 01.5.2012

In Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, journalist Robin Wright describes and analyzes what she considers an important new trend in the Muslim world: the rejection of “Muslim extremists.” She views the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread elsewhere as a dramatic confirmation of the significance of this new political and cultural tendency.

Troubadours of Revolt

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.

The Song Does Not Remain the Same

Starting in the late 1990s, and especially following two stories by CNN's chief international correspondent, the British-Iranian Christiane Amanpour, Westerners were treated to a slew of articles and broadcast reports aiming to “lift the veil” on Iran. Amanpour’s second story revolved around “youth and the party scene.” She visited the house of another hyphenated Iranian to show a group reveling in youthful abandon, toasting each other with alcoholic drinks to the tune of playful music, and so consuming two illegal items of consequence in the Islamic Republic. With youth, it seemed, came merriment and rebelliousness.

“Let Us Be Moors”

Seamos moros!” wrote the Cuban poet and nationalist José Martí in 1893, in support of the Berber uprising against Spanish rule in northern Morocco. “Let us be Moors…the revolt in the Rif…is not an isolated incident, but an outbreak of the change and realignment that have entered the world. Let us be Moors…we [Cubans] who will probably die by the hand of Spain.” [1] Writing at a time when the scramble for Africa and Asia was at full throttle, Martí was accenting connections between those great power forays and Spanish depredations in Cuba, even as the rebellion of 1895 germinated on his island.

Le lute de Bagdad

Given the rich lyricism and pointed social quality of contemporary Arabic poetry, it's no accident that politically motivated Arab music is usually vocal rather than instrumental. The close collaborations between Marcel Khalife and Mahmoud Darwish or Egyptian singer Shaykh Imam and Egyptian poet Ahmad Fu'ad Nigm offer vivid examples of politically charged connections between word and melody.

Cartel: Travels of German-Turkish Rap Music

“You are a Turk from Germany.” The words are from the song “Sen Turksun” (You Are a Turk) by German-Turkish rap group Cartel. Cartel shot to prominence in 1995 in Germany and Turkey with their album, “Cartel,” which within a month of its release sold 30,000 copies in Germany and 180,000 in Turkey. The “Cartel, Number One” video aired repeatedly on Turkish television and quickly hit the top of the Turkish pop charts. Every Turkish station and newspaper wanted to interview the group, which fascinated the Turkish public with its aggressive style, its ingenious music that combined rap with elements of Turkish musical genres, and its lyrics. For example:

Burj al-Barajna Dispatch

After making my way through the rubble and squalor of the overcrowded refugee camp near Beirut’s International Airport, I arrived half an hour late for my appointment with Umm Muhammad, a local living repository of Palestinian folk song traditions.

Zionist Lesbianism and Transsexual Transgression

The music of Dana International, a transsexual singer committed to queer issues, often parodies mainstream Israeli culture. Her latest song, “Diva,” was recently selected by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority to represent Israel at this May’s prestigious European song competition, Eurovision. [1] As Dana prepares for Eurovision, Michal Eden, another member of the Israeli queer community, is running in Meretz’ primaries for the Tel Aviv city board elections. Representing Tel Aviv queers in general and Klaf [2] (the Kehila Lesbit Feministit [the Lesbian Feminist Community]) in particular, Eden will run as a member of Meretz, the left Zionist party in Israel.

Al Miskin International/Tainted Love

What is up in Egypt? In Cairo, Mustafa Bakri, was deposed as editor-in-chief of al-Ahrar following the failure of the mutiny he led in the halls of the Liberal Party to depose of its leader, Mustafa Kamal Murad. Bakri stormed the party headquarters with 600 armed followers and had himself voted president. For a few days, two versions of al-Ahrar competed for space on the newsstands. Bakri’s paper made a vain stab at seeking Mubarak’s support by turning even more obsequious than the state-run press. Meanwhile, deposed party head Murad published his own loyalist edition attacking the Bakri cult of personality before the police finally moved in and ended Bakri’s short reign. What triggered the coup?

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