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Egypt's Underground Wakes Up

Jun 12, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 7:42 pm

Throughout June, Morning Edition is reporting from North Africa. While the show is on the road, NPR Music is featuring songs that are popular in the region. Egyptian musician and activist Noor Noor helped us make that mix. Click on the audio link on this page to hear Noor Noor talk to host David Greene about how Cairo's music scene has changed in the year since the Arab Spring.

Last week, Egyptian activist and musician Noor Noor tweeted a photo of his hands, covered in bandages. He wasn't badly injured; in fact, the tweet included a smiling emoticon and read more like the proud display of a battle wound.

In a way, it was: Noor had broken three drumsticks playing at a march to Tahrir Square, trying to initiate what he calls "freedom beats." This time, he was there alone — but during last year's uprising, he helped gather many drummers during protests to not only keep the beat of the marching and chanting, but also to keep spirits high among those demonstrating.

Music played an important role in both reflecting and energizing the Arab Spring, but the artistic landscape of North Africa continues to flourish in the year since the revolution. One sign of this is that artists are expressing themselves in ways that may have been dangerous under the previous political regime.

With less fear of repercussions, musicians have started to address political and social issues more explicitly in their work—both in lyrics and performance. For example one of Noor's four rock bands, El-Zabaleen, makes its instruments from recycled materials as a way of promoting a message of environmental support. The hip-hop group Arabian Knightz raps about women's rights in the song "Sisters." Radio and television rarely recognized such overt activism in music before the revolution, but now artists who had been locked into Cairo's underground music scene are edging their way into the spotlight.

Social media and fewer technological restrictions mean better access to this music, too. Even without record deals or recording studios, musicians can post demos and live recordings to YouTube. Fans find music online and at concerts, and share it surreptitiously through flash drives and CD-Rs. This has been going on for years, but now that people are paying closer attention, Noor says, people will hear music from Egypt's underground scene in more places than ever — all over North Africa.

Still, commercial pop continues to dominate most outlets. Turn on the radio — NileFM, Cairo's largest English-speaking radio station, for example — and don't be surprised when a song by Rihanna or Justin Bieber pops up alongside Egyptian pop stars Amr Diab or Tamer Hosny. Tunisia's Mosaïque FM divides its airtime between Arabic and international pop hits, programming heavily from the same Billboard charts that American stations use.

But, Noor says, "I strongly do believe that the underground — or alternative — music scene will be gaining some ground."

Cairokee feat. Aida El Ayouby, "Ya El Medan"

Revolutionary bands such as Cairokee have become more popular as politicized music slowly becomes more common. "Two years ago, you'd usually hear Cairokee in underground concerts," Noor says. "Now this type of song is being screened on satellite television."

If you don't speak Arabic, "Ya El Medan" will sound like any emotional pop ballad. But the video, with images of bullet-ridden clothes, blood on a physician's coat and protest flyers, carries a deeper message. The lyrics directly address and personify Tahrir Square as another living, breathing member of the opposition: "In you we sang, in you we frayed / We fought our fears and then we prayed." The song is meant to "remind people of everything that has been scarified," Noor says. "There's still a revolution to be continued."

Wust El Balad, "Antika"

By combining the music of international subcultures with traditional Arabic sounds, some bands make their work more accessible across borders. Wust El Balad is one of the few acts that have been together for more than a decade, making music that fuses Arabic lyrics with American rock music, while using both Western and Middle Eastern instruments. Noor sees Wust El Balad as one of the strongest examples of an underground band that is seeking to shift media attention away from Egyptian and Lebanese pop stars, whose music is still the most prominent on the radio in North Africa.

DJ Amr Ha Ha & Sadat, "El Wesada El Khalia"

Perhaps the fastest-rising genre out of Cairo's underground scene is a type of dance music called "electro-sha'bi." "Sha'bi" roughly translates to "of the people," and this music originated in working-class communities as message-oriented songs. In recent years, wedding DJs, drummers and MCs have taken sha'bi elements — fast, driving rhythms and street-style chanting and singing — and combined them with hip-hop, dubstep and electronic beats. Once primarily heard at weddings in Cairo's poor neighborhoods, electro-sha'bi has lately found its way to audiences of many different backgrounds, via the radio and a few nightclubs in Egypt. "That in itself was a significant change," Noor says.

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This month, our own Steve Inskeep is driving across North Africa, from Carthage to Cairo, where he'll be tomorrow. His Revolutionary Road Trip is revisiting some of the sites of massive uprisings during the Arab Spring. Today we're going to hear about cultural change that's afoot, some of the music that's percolating up from the underground. We asked NPR's social media guru, Andy Carvin, to tap his networks of contacts in the region and find us DJs and musicians to give us a feel for what's hot these days. Our music team mixed more than 100 songs into a stream that you can hear at NPRMusic.org. And we spoke with musician and activist Noor Noor in Cairo. He started by talking to us about a band in Egypt called Cairokee.


CAIROKEE: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Egyptian music, I mean is it representative of music across North Africa broadly and across the Arab world, or is there something very distinctive about it?

NOOR NOOR: You know, historically speaking, Egypt has played a very important cultural role in the North African and Middle Eastern regions. And we constantly be exporting different types of music throughout the years. And same also applies to Lebanon and to Tunis. They have also exported some really, really good music - not just to the Arab world but to Europe and to North America.


CAIROKEE: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Who is listening to a song like this from Cairokee? Where would you hear it?

NOOR: You know, two years ago you usually hear Cairokee in underground concerts, occasionally in the slightly bigger music festivals. However, now this type of song is being streamed on satellite television.


WUST EL BALAD: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Tell us about this, what we're listening to here.

NOOR: The band that we're hearing now is Wust El Balad. And the main reason why Wust El Balad stand out is they were one of the few acts that, I guess, you know, began earlier this decade. And it was shifting the attention from the front man or from the singer, as we're used to seeing with regular pop music, and it was shifting attention to the band as a whole.

GREENE: More of a collaborative experience in music and not just focusing on one person.

NOOR: Exactly. And also Wust El Balad, they were using both Western instruments as well as Middle Eastern instruments, hence the whole fusing music together led to a certain musical product that many people found appealing.

GREENE: Well, my colleague, Steve Inskeep, has been sending us samples of music he's been listening to it as he's been on this trip. And when he gets to Cairo, I know he's going to be very excited to hear many new styles that are out there. And electro-sha'bi, that's one of the new styles that you're hearing in Cairo?

NOOR: Yes, electro-sha'bi - I found it very, very difficult to define this genre of music.


DJ AMR HA HA AND SADAT: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: And we should say the musicians we're listening to here is Amr Ha Ha and Sadat.

NOOR: Sadat, yes.


SADAT: (singing in foreign language)

NOOR: It actually started off in underprivileged areas of Cairo, many of which are slums or squatter settlements. And the fact that they managed to find their way into the radio and into even some nightclubs in Egypt, that in itself was a significant change. So I'm not really sure why this specific sound came out of these areas, but I definitely understand why. They have become popular with many different Egyptians from different social backgrounds.

GREENE: Noor Noor, thank you so much for talking to us.

NOOR: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Noor Noor is a musician in Cairo. Our stream of music that's popular in North Africa has quite a variety. You'll hear Rihanna, Kenny Rogers, Justin Bieber. It's all at NPRMusic.org and also on the NPR Music app.


SADAT: (singing in foreign language)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.