Alternative music bands struggle for place in Egypt’s music scene

When alternative bands try to escape political exploitation, they face difficulties in accessing funding from some governmental institutions.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Hani El Dakkak (L), lead singer and guitarist, and Mahmoud Siam, guitarist for Egyptian rock band Massar Egbari, warm up in a recording studio in Cairo. 			    (AFP)
Old legacy, new vision. Hani El Dakkak (L), lead singer and guitarist, and Mahmoud Siam, guitarist for Egyptian rock band Massar Egbari, warm up in a recording studio in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Musical bands and their art are on the rebound in Egypt. They have created a trend called “Alternative Songs,” putting forward ideas based on experience and difference and expressed in predominantly rebellious and emancipated lyrics.

Some of the bands became popular because they opposed government policies. They and their ideas were solicited by political forces for campaigning purposes. Naturally, they found themselves in hot water with the authorities.

Amir Salaheddine, member of the Egyptian band Black Theama, said he and his bandmates have composed songs such as “Majnoun” (“Crazy”), “Sa’at” (“Hours”) and “Insan” (“Man”) that depicted the reality of Egyptians and encouraged action by criticising government policies before the emergence of many of the bands that celebrated the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

Salaheddine said certain political currents tried to recruit the rising bands for their propaganda because the bands had influence over some young people. Some bands rejected that and they were immediately subjected to financial pressures.

Salaheddine said Hamadin Sabahi, who was a candidate in the Egyptian presidential election of 2014, requested Black Theama’s cooperation with a specially tailored song but the band refused. Some Muslim Brotherhood supporters tried to recruit the band to compose a song in support of former President Muhammad Morsi and they, too, were rejected.

“During our participation in the National Youth Conference of 2018, which was sponsored by Egyptian governmental bodies, we refused to sing for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” Salaheddine said. “Despite that, we received criticism from the public who opposed Sisi’s policies.

“We will sing only where we have convictions, so if we were asked to perform in a prison, we would do it. Our participation at the conference was an opportunity for us to win over an audience of 7,000 young people.”

Salaheddine stressed that, since the band was formed in 2004, with singers Ahmed Bahr and Mohamed Abdo, it has been keen to establish special identity, without falling into any categorisation, such as belonging to the so-called underground music or the Nubian musical genre, even though the three band members all come from El-Nuba area in southern Egypt.

They have been keen on presenting alternative songs, characterised by distinctive and profound lyrics that describe the conditions of the average citizen.

When alternative bands try to escape political exploitation, they face difficulties in accessing funding from some governmental institutions because the agencies say the “bands represent a threat, cross all red lines, and incite the public against the government,” Salaheddine said.

Some civil society organisations concerned with cultural development supported alternative art but their requirement is that it be compatible with reviving the old lyrical heritage and this represented a creative hindrance for some bands because their artistic output became a duplication of old styles.

Salaheddine pointed out that the impression that audiences are staying away from theatres and concert spaces is false. The problem has always been outside interference in the cultural product, he said. Despite the fact that private cultural institutions offer good opportunities for artistic creativity, it is quite complicated to find a producer who will not interfere in technical and artistic aspects of a production.

Salaheddine said the number of singing bands is rising, which undermines conditions set by artistic producers. Band leaders do not tolerate interference in their work on the production side. They have their own songs and their vision and they are bothered by outside interference in artistic matters but the market lacks artists who are also producers. This is why Black Theama often relies on self-production, a process that is difficult to sustain for a long time.

Some bands rely on financing their own productions and concerts, contrary to what many musical groups have done at their beginnings when they earned money performing at weddings and other such events.

Salaheddine said he rejects the idea of performing at private parties, such as birthdays and weddings. “It violates the principle of preserving one’s artistic identity and transforms the artist from someone with a message to convey to a singer running after material gains only,” he said.

Some members of new bands have branched out as actors and appeared in dramas and films. Black Theama composed the title and introductory music of several film and television works and has had success in that domain.

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