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Capturing a historical moment
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 03 - 2011

Egypt's revolution was characterised by its remarkable artistic and musical energy, which now needs to be taken up by the country's official arts institutions, says Ati Metwaly
On 25 January, a new reality broke into all aspects of life -- social, political and artistic alike. Since art is a mirror of human emotions and longings, it understandably accompanies Egyptian people on their journey towards a new Egypt. Once again, music proved to be an integral part of human nature, and the world of music sparkled with colours from the very first days of the revolution onwards.
Music is possibly everyone's most natural and spontaneous artistic expression, regardless of age, background and walk of life. This spontaneity was the trigger for the musical expressions that sparkled during the revolutionary days, while at the same time compensating for the cultural institutions freezing their activities. For 18 days, spontaneous musical expressions became the only music available during the revolutionary days. Music became one of the integral parts of January's revolution.
Rhythms and simple melodies were among the first musical expressions to enter Cairo's Tahrir Square, hand in hand with pro-democratic youth. Starting from 28 January, a number of groups turned their chants into rhythmic patterns, and the square witnessed people with percussion instruments drumming the traditional rhythms of the regions they came from. Soon, some young people had brought their own guitars, turning chants such as "leave" and "the people demand the removal of the regime" into rhythmic patterns supported by either a variety of drums or guitars.
Other people sung to the tunes of the oud. By the second week of the revolution, music was going on in parallel to all the other events taking place in the country. Stages erected in Tahrir Square on which young people could hold musical events were a natural and expected course of action for the pro-democracy protesters.
The first songs from the January revolution then appeared, with music videos making their way onto Youtube as early as 4 February. One of the most popular was Sout Al-Horeya, (Voice of Freedom) posted on Youtube on 10 February and aired by a number of satellite channels. Produced by Amr Ismail with Hany Adel, lead singer of Wust El-Balad, Amir Eid Hawary and Sherif Mustafa, with the video by Mustafa Fahmy, Mohamed Khalifa and Mohamed Shaker, the song addresses the basic demand of the revolution, freedom, as expressed by many layers of Egypt's population.
With its catchy melody and expected progression, Sout Al-Horeya managed to convince the listener of the clear voice of the young people calling for freedom and democracy. It owes its success and its over 1.2 million clicks on Youtube to its frankness, as well as to the efforts put into the artistic side of the production.
However, even so Sout Al-Horeya appeared on Youtube relatively late, as even before this hundreds of video clips had been posted on the site presenting creations by many other artists and music fans willing to give their share to Egypt's revolution. A rap song by Ramy Donjewan entitled Into the Fire and opening with the words, "I am against the government, against the thugs and against injustice," demanded the cleansing of the country, adding "down with the law, down with the rulers, down with the cowards, down with the traitor." The lyrics are simple and straightforward, summing up the revolution's demands and its accusations against the former regime.
Many video clips used a collage of scenes from the revolution itself -- usually the most drastic ones -- recorded mainly from material aired by a number of satellite channels. One of these clips was Not your Prisoner by the group Arabian Knightz and featuring the Palestinian singer Shadia Mansour. The song is fed by strong images from the revolution, possibly the only convincing aspect of this music production. A short visit to Youtube also reveals hundreds -- if not thousands -- of other songs and rhythmic expressions recorded by Egyptian youth.
There is little point going into a musical analysis of the clips produced by thousands of Egyptians over the span of the 18 days that followed. What really counts is the art involved and music's specific role in the revolution. Some of the best-known Egyptian artists joined the wave of pro-revolutionary songwriting, mostly after 11 February. Likewise, international artists joined the pro-democracy protesters, either through special productions in the name of the January revolution (such as Master Mimz and Wyclef Jean, etc.) or through dedications, such as No Apologies by the group Bon Jovi.
At the same time, Tahrir continued to boom artistically. The erection of the stages in the Square was not surprising, and these hosted music performances during the last days of the revolution to after it ended. Eskenderella was among the very first bands to perform in Tahrir Square on 6 February, the 13th day of the revolution.
These strong voices from Tahrir and the rest of Egypt need to be seen in parallel with the cultural institutions reopening and other forms of music entering in support of the pro- democracy demands. Following Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, arts institutions started to face the new reality, while responding to the new dynamics in the country that did not always seem to be easy for them.
The Al-Sawy Culture Wheel (Al-Saqia) was among the first institutions that managed to get back on track, resuming its regular activities days after the revolution. The appointment of Mohamed El-Sawy, Al-Saqia's owner, as minister of culture, has provoked opposition from many artists which led to his removal three days after the ministerial appointment, yet Al-Saqia's role in the music scene in Egypt has not been shaken. The Al-Sawy Culture Wheel will continue its regular activities, adding events related to the post-revolutionary situation in the country.
The International Music Centre operating under the Cultural Development Fund plans to return to its regular activities with the holding of a monthly concert. It is to be hoped that the centre will find a way to reach out to a wider audience through additional elements in the repertoire that reflect on the current historical changes in the country.
The Cairo Opera House, closed until the first days of March, has also resumed its regular activities. However, its role in post-revolutionary Egypt is not yet clear. The situation has been especially difficult, due to protests against the Opera House's management by administrative personnel, technicians and some groups of musicians, with demonstrations occurring on 13 and 14 February. The Cairo Opera House still needs to face many internal issues in this regard.
Nevertheless, 7 March saw the House's artistic kick-off with a gala concert conducted by Magdy Boghdady. The evening included a number of marches by Johann Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, among others. The concerts to follow do not reveal many events directly related to the new Egypt: it is apparent that the Cairo Opera House, still struggling with many internal issues that have yet to be resolved, has possibly chosen to resume its role with a regular and previously planned repertoire.
However, 20 March will be marked by a particularly important evening dedicated to Ziad Mohamed Saleh Bakir, a graphic designer and one of the most significant talents of the Cairo Opera House, who was killed during the revolution. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi will perform a special composition by Rageh Daoud, To The Martyrs Of January 25, as well as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
The definition of the role of the official music institutions in post-revolutionary Egypt may not be an easy task. As much as it is important for them to keep going with their regular programmes, their involvement in the current situation in the country and their responses to the people's needs are not only obligations, but they can also serve as important elements binding the institutions to their audiences.
The artistic energy that was clear in Tahrir and across Egypt during the revolutionary days now needs to be taken over by the music institutions. The incorporation of social demands is very important, and it can be achieved through repertoire suitable for the historical moment we are living in, as well as through dedications and memorial concerts.
The upcoming weeks will tell us more about how the country's arts institutions, including the Al-Sawy Culture Wheel, the International Music Centre, the Cairo Opera House and so on, will be able to develop better bonds with the audiences of the new Egypt. Today is their golden opportunity to do so.

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