Hey Baghdadi!

The barbarity of the so-called Islamic State has inspired a new wave of "What is wrong with Islam?" hand-wringing. On American television it is as simplistic and disconcerting as one would expect. Muslims around the world meanwhile have predictable bristled at begin told they should immediately condemn or apologize for terrorism. 

There is a serious conversation to be had about the lack of freedom of religion and expression in Islamic countries. The richest countries in the region use oil wealth to spread a noxious, bigoted, ultimately self-destructive version of Islam. Although many Islamic scholars have condemned IS, there is very little space for open, tolerant debate on matters of religion. 

But terrorists remain on the fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. And Islamists are hardly the only ones who are illiberal in the Middle East. Discrimination against women and minorities is as rampant under "secular," military, US-backed regimes (it's not exactly hard to find in America either). Islamism and jihadism are modern, political phenomenon that have as much to do with oil wealth, despotism, and Western military interventions as they do with religion. 

I want to share this video of the Lebanese band El Rahel El Kebir ("The Great Departed"), performing in a small cabaret in Beirut, to a laughing audience, sometime in August. This jaunty song  is addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, whose claims to religious legitimacy it effortlessly demolishes.

 

The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on el-Baghdaid, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:

علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله

عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعةوالسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة

(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is "Because Islam is merciful… we'll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We'll blow folks up/Because there's no compulsion in religion/we'll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!")

It's a catchy, brave little fuck-you. The Islamic State wants to be feared, to be taken seriously, and to pass for the representative of pure Islam. The US media is all to happy to oblige. Others in the Muslim world show it the contempt it deserves. 

(Thanks to Karl Sharro for the tip). 

An overnight project

A friend recently quoted the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila (An overnight Project) and then I read this profle in the Guardian and belatedly discovered them. It's a nice article, but I wish the focus was less on the lead singer's sexual orientation and more on the fact that they rock. Which they absolutely do. 

Living as I do at the moment under the psychic bombardment of full-throttle Egyptian nationalism, I just love the way the song and video Lel Watan ("For the Homeland") punctures everything fake, grandiloquent and sinister about the way the supposed good of a nation is used against the actual good of its people. 

Here is my very awkward translation (please share corrections and suggestions for improvement in the comments): 

Others domesticate hurricanes to govern destiny

We fly off with the breeze and return to destruction

Dare to ask about the worsening situation

And they silence you with talk of all the conspiracies

The herd accuses you of betrayal, if you call for the homeland to change

They make you despair till you sell your freedom, as the homeland is lost

They tell you

Come on smile, come on, dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

They taught you the anthem, they said your struggle is good for the homeland

They numbed your veins, they said your sedation is good for the homeland

They tell you

Come on smile, come dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

 

 

Ted Swedenburg on Egypt's post-revolution music scene

Egypt's Music of Protest | Middle East Research and Information Project

Great article on music and revolution in Egypt, by Ted Swedenburg who runs the great Hawgblawg. Here's the bit of my favorite style, mahragan, of DJ Amr Haha, Ortega and Figo fame:

If one were seeking an Egyptian parallel to rap music, then one’s attention should be drawn to the genre known as mahragan or “festival” music, which started to appear on YouTube in 2007. The music has been also called (mostly by outsiders) techno-sha‘bi or electro-sha‘bi. About one half of Cairo’s population lives in ‘ashwa’iyyat, “haphazard,” unplanned settlements that teem with the poor, working and lower middle classes. Sha‘bi music, rooted in the ‘ashwa’iyyat as well as the traditional popular quarters of Cairo, has long been derided as unsophisticated at best by Egypt’s educated elites. But many educated Egyptians listen to and appreciate sha‘bi music, if apologetically, and so several sha‘bi artists have crossed over to mainstream culture, to wit, Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim, Hakim and Ahmad ‘Adawiyya.

Mahragan is at once deeply rooted in sha‘bi practices and something quite new. The rhythms that drive mahragan are for the most part resolutely sha‘bi, but are often produced electronically. Over the sha‘bi beats that urge onlookers to shake their belly-dancing hips, singers chant or sing and occasionally rap, their voices most often distorted by synthesized autotuning. A DJ on computer and mixer, and on occasion, electronic keyboard, provides a heavily electronic musical soundtrack. Mahragan artists began to make names for themselves by playing at weddings in popular quarters, where they were appreciated not only because of the novelty of their music but also because it was cheaper to hire a singer and a DJ (and perhaps an additional percussionist) than to book the traditional troupe of musicians and dancers. Mahragan artists spread their reputations beyond their neighborhoods by circulating their home recordings via YouTube. They also began to organize on their own parties in their urban working-class neighborhoods. The name mahragan (festival) seems to refer to the carnivalesque atmosphere of the electro-sha‘bi parties and weddings, which resembles that of mulids, Egypt’s famous saint festivals, which typically are celebrated in popular quarters and are patronized by millions.

If the artists who performed at Tahrir in early 2011, and who continue to play there in ongoing protests since the uprising, mostly manifest veneration of the country’s national revolutionary repertoire, the usual attitude of mahragan artists to that tradition is one of irreverence, humor and even sarcasm. This sensibility is on full display in the mahragan song “The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” (Al-Sha‘b Yurid Khamsa Ginay Rasid) by DJ ‘Amr Haha (or 7a7a), from ‘Ayn Shams, and DJ Figo, from al-Salam City. The song opens to the slow strains of Egypt’s national anthem, “Biladi, Biladi,” penned by Sayyid Darwish, played on an electronic keyboard. The anthem quickly begins to grind down and then is abruptly halted with an electronic crash, as the beats of sha‘bi darbouka take over, and a vocalist (probably Figo) chants,

The people want something new [to think about]
The people want five pounds’ phone credit
The people want to topple the regime
But the people are so damn tired.

“The People Want Five Pounds’ Phone Credit” both invokes the famous slogan of the Arab revolts, and at the same time, the people’s (and especially the people of the sha‘bi quarters) exhaustion with it.

Here's a link to the song.

The origins of Rai

The video above shows Algerian pop legend Cheb Khaled's first song, at the tender age of 14 in 1974. It comes via Ted Swedenburg, who has an epic history of Rai — the Maghrebi style of music born in Algeria in the 1970s — and discovered that Cheb Khaled's song came several years earlier than what he had hitherto believed to be the inventors of the rai sound, Messaoud Bellamou and Boutaiba Sghir. The whole essay is fascinating, lavishly illustrated with album covers and music — a must-read for anyone interested in Maghrebi or Arabic music.

(h/t Abu Aardvark.)

Zebda - une vie de moins

New song by French rap group Zebda, with lyrics by Jean-Pierre Filiu, about life in Gaza.

Filiu, who wrote one of the first books to come out on the Arab Spring last year, is a great model for polymath academic. As well as teach at Paris' SciencesPo, this former diplomat also collaborated with the fantastic cartoonist David B. to produce a comic about the US and the Middle East, Best of Enemies (get part one here) and has done various other collaborations with Arab rap groups (which he follows assiduously).

Popcorn

Genre-defying Egyptian electric guitarist extraordinaire Omar Khorshid (get, if you can find it, the excellent antholohy used by Sublime Sounds) covers Gershon Kingsley's Popcorn - a tune I for some reason associate with Moroccan state television in the 1980s, perhaps because it was being used as a jingle. It has been overplayed of course and sounds cheesy (it was meant to be, in any case) but I have a fondness for this tune. I wonder if Khorshid was aware that Kingsley's music (although I'm not sure in this case) often used Yiddish folk tunes for its melodies. But then again most people associate this tune with early Jean-Michel Jarre but he played it later and included it in Oxygene IV) who did purify it from the original.

[Thanks, MR]

Video: L'Bassline

L'Bassline is a new hip-hop group from Fes in Morocco — this song, Chayllah Systeme (Down with the system - actually "Chayllah is a kind of holy figure, a reference to the untouchable nature of the regime, a rather subtle play on word that I mistook for something else - thanks Aba!) tackles with a lot of politically sensitive subject, including electoral fraud, the new constitution, the Makhzen's economic stranglehold, and more. It's a fantastic test of one's darija comprehension, too.

Previous Fez rap video: http://arb.st/e03P1W.

Casals and Bach's cello suites

From a wonderful interview of Eric Siblin, the author of a book on cellist Pablo Casals popularization of Bach's cello suites, by Scott Horton of Harpers:

When the ideological barricades went up in Europe in the 1930s Casals, like many, took sides. His position was not surprising given his background. As someone whose father had been an anti-monarchist Republican, and as a native Catalan—which meant being very wary of Madrid’s centralizing powers—Casals was predisposed to favor the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. When Franco and his fascist troops, assisted by Hitler and Mussolini, won the civil war in early 1939, Casals was forced into grief-stricken exile. He remained an anti-Franco activist for the rest of his life, enlisting his reputation and cello for the cause. The most famous instrumentalist of his day, Casals went so far as to silence his cello, refusing to perform in any country that had diplomatic relations with the Franco regime in Spain. Casals would have related to the politics of Bono more than Bach.

His pioneering recording of the cello suites was made towards the end of the 1930s when the Spanish Civil War was convulsing his homeland. That monumental recording, which has never gone out of print, has remained the touchstone for every cellist since. Had the civil war not been raging in Spain, I doubt there would have been the same degree of urgency, desperation, and hopefulness in that epic recording.

Six cool things about Morocco

 As most readers of the blog know, Issandr and I spent the summer visiting and reporting from Morocco. What follows is a belated, personal and haphazard list of some cool things I discovered there. 

1. Music. Hindi Zahra, a Berber-Moroccan-French singer-songwriter. 


Hindi Zahra - Stand Up
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2. The online magazine Mithly, the first Arabic magazine by and for gay men (Click here to hear my interview with the editor).

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Egyptian Reggae


Jonathan Richman- Egyptian Reggae
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Jonathan Richman is a Boston-raised musician credited to be an early innovator of punk rock along with his band, The Modern Lovers. In 1977, he had a hit single (reaching no. 5 in the UK) with this instrumental track, Egyptian Reggae. The video above is not his, but a skit done along to the tune of unknown origins.