With the wave of Arab uprisings that swept the region, underground music groups achieved a widespread success. But who benefited from whom, the underground groups or the Arab uprisings?
There is no real definition for underground music in the Arab world, nor exact statistics about the number of independent bands. Critics disagree about treating it as a phenomenon or not. Some see that the definition should include anything that is independent whether it was artistic, creative, or related to production.
But the question of how these bands have affected the Arab listener when it comes to the understanding of the flaming political situation that most Arab countries are going through remains. How are these underground groups a way for the Arab street to express itself and breath?
Syria: An open wound
The difficult situation in Syria has produced a large number of independent groups and projects that take politics as a scene for their songs. One of the most important among these is “Nosf Tofaha” (half an apple), which is considered one of the bands of the Syrian revolution, as it came out from this revolution and produced a unique movement that appealed to the Syrian street.
Modaa Al Maghrebi, founder of the band says that “artists are like students, they follow and learn everything from what is on the street. And considering how much is happening in Syria, it is normal that this density is present in our songs talking about the Syrian reality. Syrians are dying while they try to get democracy and justice. Art tries to present what they are suffering from. This is what pushed me to express this suffering.”
He adds that the name of the band, “came to express the suffering that we are living in Syria, as it is divided, with the occupation in the Golan heights, where I am from, and the situation that the whole country is going through.”
Modaa Al Maghrebi, expressed the situation in Syria through a number of his songs, such as “wilada", “Leish Darab al nar", and “mahal saghir w msakkar”.
Modaa says that “art does not seek to please the people, it is completely faithful to the revolution, and people decide. For instance, the song “ya hayf” by Samih Shoukair achieved a lot of success on the street, but at the same time, the Syrian people are divided between those who support the revolution and those who were opposed to it from the beginning. The revolution was hijacked, and at the end as Syrians, we die while waiting for regional and international agreements. And this is what we offer in our songs.”
Also in Syria, a number of movements and projects were formed to express the situation of Syrians, such as the Bilad Al Sham project, which talks about Syrians in diaspora. Zak Alaf, the founder of the group, says that “the project was originally formed in 2008, and focused on expressing social conditions that are affected by the political situation. This was a component that contributed to the crisis of Syrians and their displacement. The group expressed the situation by using different forms of music from Hip Hop to Aleppo music.” Hamra Street in Beirut witnessed the rebirth of the group after it stopped for a while for lack of funds.
Palestine: the cause
The Palestinian cause has a special place in many songs and for many Arabs. But what about Palestinian underground bands? Soleiman Harb is a rapper and member of the Palestinian "Container" group. He tells Raseef22: “the support we get from our fans is the biggest motivation to continue our work. Certainly many people see underground music as a way to express themselves politically and socially. We deal with many issues that have to do with the Palestinian and Arab context, but in a non-traditional way. Politics is certainly one of the topics we deal with, and with the way it affects the Palestinian and Arab societies as a whole. We deal with many other issues that the Palestinian society tried to express and deliver to the world.”
Jowan Safadi, founder of “Fish Samak” was arrested previously in the Jordanian capital for insulting religion in his songs “Tira Ababil” and “ya haram al kouffar”. He escaped trial only after the interference of some Palestinian politicians. He tells Raseef22: “I dealt with the Arab spring in a song about occupation. I had written this song after the arrest experience in Jordan. In Palestine what is called underground is the most salient scene, it is necessary, but Palestinian bands do not last long. The country is small and occupied and there is harassment from all sides, the state is against you, the society too in many instances, especially if your songs are against their traditions, and the Arab world is not welcoming you with open arms since you carry the Israeli passport.”
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Safadi adds, that “bands start with a lot of motivation, and achieve some successes, but then die out and fail when they are faced with the reality and the challenges, because places to perform are limited and the monetary income is little, so everyone will end up busy doing something to live.”
He adds that “in the Arab world we cannot sing about religion, nor about the ruling party, nor about sexual frustration, without having our lives in the balance. This is the reality that most bands and artists face, they play safe, and they avoid the red lines, and do not present a real challenge to the general consensus and the religious, and political oppression. This is why I do not count on them to make any change.”
“Fish Samak” have many songs that express the Palestinian reality such as “Hodn Al ihtilal”, “An takoun Arabian”, “Awal bi awal”, “Tira ababil”.
In Egypt there are more than 300 underground bands, but most of them became well known after the January 25 revolution. Some consider that Cairokee is the sound of the revolution with their expressive songs such as “Sawt al Horiyya” and “Ethbet makanak”, and “yal midan”, “matloub zaim”.
There are other bands that express politics and the reality in Egypt such as “Omdan al Nour” which appeared with the beginning of the revolution. Yehia Nadim, founder of the band tells Raseef22: “We tried to express the reality of our society through our songs, and to be the voice of the street, without being affiliated to any one political group. We only discuss with the people, and since the beginning we tried to work to change people’s political awareness because songs have a strong role in getting concepts through to people and getting the voice of Egypt to the world.”
Nadim explains that “production is the biggest challenge for underground bands in Egypt. We refuse to have any sponsors because any sponsor will try to steer us into serving their political interests.” Some of the songs that touched on the political reality in Egypt by Omdan al Nour was “Masareh wa sima, wa baliatshou”.
Another band that had a large influence on the Egyptian street was “Masar Egbari” which was called that in order to emphasize the necessary destination that we are forced to take in our lives, careers, societies and politics.
Traditions and customs govern many lines of our lives, as Ayman Masoud, one of the founders of the band, says: “The band is considered the voice of the Egyptian street, and we express our political issues in a social context, and talk about the problems of society and not only politics. We present songs that push people to think about their meanings, and then they can perform the change, for instance in songs like “baqit hawi”, “iqraa al khabar”, “ana mawgoud”, “ana kol ma aqoul malish dawa”.”
Zeid Hamdan, Mariam Saleh, and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh
We cannot talk about underground music in the Arab world without talking about the famous trio: Lebanese Zeid Hamdan, Egyptian Mariam Saleh, and Palestinian Tamer Abu Ghazaleh.
Hamdan who is called the Godfather of the Arabic underground scene, has supported many independent bands, by composing, mixing and producing. His music is a mix of love, pain, and tradition, but politics also is not so far from it and appeared in his collaboration with the Egyptian singer Mariam Saleh in her last album “Halawila” which contained 10 songs, half of which are of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Nagm that Hamdan remixed. The songs were produced by Eka3, which was founded by the Palestinian-Egyptian Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in 2007 to be a financial support for underground bands in the absence of such funding in the Arab world.
In 2011, Hamdan was arrested, two years after he released his song “General Soleiman” with his band The Wings. He was questioned for 7 hours because his song which refers to the Lebanese president at the time, Michel Soleiman, asks him to leave at the end.
Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, has composed and sang many political songs, such as “takhabot” which expresses the chaos that exists in the Arab region, during the occupation of Iraq and the invasion of Ramallah by the Israeli army. He also composed a song during the military rule in Egypt and after the Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud street protests expressing the situation at the time. Abu Ghazaleh says that it is impossible to sing about struggle and resistance in a reality that calls for negotiation and peace.
Some TV programs have contributed to the appearance of some independent bands, even when they are not interested in political issues such as the Jordanian Guitanai which appeared first on X factor. Firas Farhoud, one of the founders of the band, tells Raseef22 that “in short we are interested in music only and the only thing we want is to spread positive energy through our concerts.”
It is certain that underground bands have a symbiotic relation with the Arab uprisings, they both served one another, and with these independent groups and bands, the revolutions found a way to be expressed in song and music, while the bands found inspiration and a cause.