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Songs for Tahrir: What makes a composer a legend? And what makes a revolt a revolution?

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Reem Kelani Reem Kelani 18:00, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ed's note: You can listen to Songs for Tahrir on the Radio 4 website. There's also more information and photos on the website - PM.

Sayyid Darwish

Sayyid Darwish (Picture courtesy of the Friends of Sayyid Darwish Association)

Since childhood, I've had this love-hate relationship with Arabic music, and it was two factors which brought me closer to the 'love' side of it. The first was old Palestinian women, whom I call the Big Mamas, who taught me traditional Palestinian songs. The other factor was the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 - 1923), whose music has been inspiring people across the Arab world for almost a century.

What connects these two vital components, is the collective, the context which gives purpose and meaning. Add to that, the music stands in its own right as great art.

The legacy of Sayyid Darwish has infused the repertoire of most Arab singers, me included. Eight years ago, I embarked on a project that's so far taken me from the British Library to Syria, Turkey and Egypt, researching his music within the following framework:

  • Darwish's contribution to Arabic music, including group singing, dialogue, musical theatre, expressionism and, albeit untrained and instinctive, counterpoint, harmony and polyphony;
  • Darwish's attachment not just to Egyptian folk music, but to Egyptian folk, the people. Many of Darwish's songs were written for manual labourers and builders, as well as for marginalised communities such as the Nubians. He also wrote songs for the Egyptian Labour Corps which was forcibly enlisted to serve the British in the First World War;
  • The influence of Greater Syria on Darwish, especially with regard to the two years he spent in Aleppo between 1912 - 1914;
  • The importance of Darwish's music and the lyrics of his librettists, notably Badi' Khayri and Bayram al-Tunisi in the 1919 Egyptian Revolt against the British.

It was with the above focus that I have been travelling to Egypt over the past two years. It was music for musicians like me, a Palestinian from the wider area of Greater Syria, music for the people and music for the revolution. And on 28th January 2011, the first day I'd ventured out to join my husband (who had himself been in Tahrir Square on 25th January), I found those four elements before me, with an urgent and bewildering kick!

Demonstrators faced tear gas, buck shot, water cannon, and even live fire, not to mention volleys of rocks thrown by the security forces themselves; at the same time, they came up with ingenious slogans and chants that spread 'like fire', as we say in Arabic. Sayyid Darwish's music was not the only music that was sung in and around Tahrir Square. True, I felt overwhelmed to hear echoing around me, the very songs which I had been researching, but I was especially moved by two other types of music rising up to the skies over Cairo:

  • New music, some of it written, performed and filmed in the midst of the protests. Here was something fresh and novel, an emergence into the open of the underground arts scene which had been building in the latter years of Mubarak's regime;
  • Other music which had similarly been sidelined by the regime because it was seen as subversive or anti Western. Songs by Umm Kulthoum, and El Shaykh Imam, for example, rang out across Tahrir Square; either played through amplified recordings, or sung 'grunge-style' by the people. Abd el-Halim Hafez's songs from the days of Abdul Nasser were sung with special vigour and pride. I knew that the initial phase of the revolution had succeeded when, on the morning after Mubarak's resignation, a presenter on a local radio station said: "I've never been allowed to play El Shaykh Imam's music on radio, and so today, I open the programme with a song by Imam. Long Live Egypt!"
Funeral procession

Women singing at funeral procession in Tahrir Square, minutes before the announcement of Mubarak's resignation (Picture by Chris Somes-Charlton)

During those 18 pivotal days leading up to Mubarak's ouster, I tried to keep a blog, but the task was not made easy by the authorities who cut mobile telephone and internet lines from 27th January onwards. One famous Sayyid Darwish song from 1919 spoke of the revolutionaries who cut the telephone and rail lines to isolate Cairo from London. The irony was that this time, it was the regime that cut the lines of communication.

When I finally got back online, I found an email from producer Megan Jones, with whom I had worked before on Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils for Radio 4. She'd heard my interview with Mary Ann Kennedy on BBC Scotland, which included some of my field recordings from Tahrir Square. Thus, Megan and I came to be in Cairo in November 2011, arriving on the very night when, by chance, demonstrations flared up across Egypt.

If Megan was a little apprehensive on arrival, it took less than four days in Egypt to make her rue the prospect of leaving Cairo so soon. It's this feeling about Egypt and its on-going revolution which we tried to capture in this programme. Our aim was not so much to offer a comprehensive survey of all the music that accompanied the revolution, an impossible task, but to shed light on elements which had perhaps gone unreported in the Western media. These elements included independent artists and many unsung heroes who put their lives at risk to make their demands in a courageously creative manner.

We provide below links not just to our contributors and their music, but also to other music that I heard around me during this time. The old line that we had more wonderful verbal and musical contributions than the scope of this programme could allow, was never more true.

A propos of Sayyid Darwish's music, Aladdin El-Kashef, Grammy Award winning sound engineer for Youssou N'Dour's album Egypt, opined that "Good art never dies". Singer Maryam Saleh, whose voice combines the prehistoric and postmodern as heard with the Choir Project, showed us the strength of the people's resolve: "Although we may not win, we'll keep protesting and singing".

Special thanks to Dr. Fathi Alkhamisi, Professor of Musicology at the Academy of Arts in Cairo, for his expertise and his insights into Sayyid Darwish and the history of nationalism in Egyptian music. His last words to me were: "Mubarak and his army may be thousands... but we, the Egyptian people, are millions."

Reem Kelani presents Songs for Tahrir

Related Links
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Our Contributors

Khaled Abol Naga, Egyptian film actor, producer and filmmaker

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Cairo-based Palestinian musician and composer

Zein Alabdin Fouad, Egyptian poet

Sally Hamarneh, Syrian-Jordanian architect and urban planner

Samia Jaheen, singer with the Egyptian band Eskenderella

Lina Megahed, Egyptian student activist

Salam Yousry, Egyptian painter and theatre director

Performers featured in the programme
The unsung heroes of the Egyptian Revolution, the old masters Sayyid Darwish, Ibrahim Hammouda and Muhammad Bakhit, as well as:

The Choir Project


Maryam Saleh

Massar Egbari

Ramy Essam
BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14254564

The Strand on BBC World Service

Outlook on BBC World Service

World Routes on BBC Radio 3

Video clips of music featured in the programme

The Choir Project, singing Hayaat el-Midaan [Life of Tahrir]

Eskenderella, singing Itgamma'ou el-'Ushshaa' [Lovers Have Come Together], lyrics by Zein Alabdin Fouad and music by El Shaykh Imam

Massar Egbari, singing Sayyid Darwish's classic Aho Da Lli Saar [This is Where We're at]

Trailer for the award-winning film 'Microphone', featuring the underground music and arts scene in Alexandria, released in 2010

Ramy Essam, singing Irhal! [Leave!]

Other musical highlights of the Egyptian revolution that were not included in the programme due to time constraints

Cairokee & Hany Adel, singing Soat el-Hurriya [Voice of Freedom] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgw_zfLLvh8

Muhammad Munir, singing Ezzay? [How Come?] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9TOi3EwRQw

Ramy Gamal & Aziz al-Shaf'i singing Bahibbik ya Blaadi [My Homeland, I Love You] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btXZMh5tHDA

Some of the revolutionary oldies that were revived during the 2011 revolution

Abd el-Halim Hafez (1929 - 1977), singing Ahlef bi-Samaaha ou bi-Trabha [I Swear by Her Sky and Her Sand]

El Shaykh Imam (1918 - 1995), singing Ya Masr Oumi [Rise, O, Egypt]

Umm Kulthoum (1898 - 1975), singing Ana al-Sha'bu [I am the People]

Najah Salam (b. 1931), singing Ya Aghla Ism fil Wugoud [O, Most Precious Name in the World]

Shadia (b. 1931), singing Ya Habibti Ya Masr [Egypt, My Love]

Sayyid Darwish in his own voice

Oum ya Masri [Rise, O, Egyptian]

Special Thanks

Khaled Abol Naga: for fitting us into his tight schedule (on his birthday!), and for his helpful suggestions.
Aladdin El Kashef, Ultra Productions Studios, Mohandessin, Cairo: for technical assistance, and for talking to us about the music scene in Egypt.
King Hotel, Dokki, Cairo: for kindly providing space to conduct our interviews.
Fergus Nicoll & Helen Merriman, BBC World Service: for allowing us to use their recording of our sing-a-long in a local café on the eve of Mubarak's resignation.



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