Mina Girgis: Egyptian Ethnomusicologist
Mina Girgis is an Egyptian ethnomusicologist, the founder of the Zambaleta World Music School in San Francisco, and co-founder of The Nile Project. Since the Tahrir Square uprising of early 2011, Mina has returned to Egypt often. While preparing the Afropop program Egypt 5: Revolution Songs, in April, 2012, Banning Eyre reached Mina in Cairo by Skype to get a sense of how life, and especially, music has evolved over the 15 months since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
B.E.: Mina, you’re in Cairo again. How is it going?
M.G.: Good. I saw a great concert last night. It was three DJs. They use a lot of autotune. They just put their music all through autotune. So it’s like three guys were all on vocals, so they all have mics. And then there’s one guy on the mixer, and one guy on a laptop doing all the loops. And their music sounds very… They have a sound. It’s totally autotune. But it’s very ghetto music. They come from the ghetto, and they are really popular in weddings. They perform at sha’bi weddings. They play like nine weddings a week. They charge very little, something like 1500 pounds for all of them. It’s like six or seven people with a sound system, and they’ve developed this following. It is all male, like 18 to 20-year-olds, that are all banded together in these weird ways, and they have these fan clubs and all the different neighborhoods, all the different ghettos where they go to weddings. So whenever they have a wedding in one of those neighborhoods, they basically bring these kids out, and their job is basically to rally people. It is interesting.
B.E.: That is interesting. We heard about this music when we were in Cairo, and collected some, but we were not able to see it live, because it was Ramadan and there were no weddings. What did you say were the names of these three DJs?
M.G.: Boka and Wezna and Ortega. They all call themselves DJs, even though they’re not DJs. They are on mics.
B.E.: We heard about Figo and Haha.
M.G.: Exactly. Haha and Figo are like Weza and Ortega. It’s exactly that same sound. They played a set and just blew everybody away. It was amazing.
B.E.: Yes, musically speaking, we found that to be one of the most interesting things happening.
M.G.: Yes. That and hip-hop.
B.E.: I am curious, Mina. Were these DJs singing or talking at all about the revolution?
M.G.: No. I have a friend who’s making a film about them. He’s been shooting for the last six months, and he knows them pretty well. I asked him about that. Because they came out just after the revolution, and you would think they might have something to do with the changing political scene. But when I asked him, he said no. They actually don’t give a shit about the revolution. They have nothing to do with it. They’re not even interested in trying to make their music political. That’s not what they’re about.
B.E.: That’s interesting. We heard a couple of reports that those kinds of DJs were well received during the protests in Tahrir Square. When other people were being closed down, they were apparently allowed to keep playing.
M.G.: I never saw them in Tahrir. It’s kind of funny, because they do sing all the songs that the Ultras sing. I don’t know if you’ve been hearing about the Ultras.
B.E.: The soccer Ultras. A little. I understand that they were important to security in Cairo during the revolution. And I’ve seen a video they made defending themselves after the Port Said stampede recently. But I don’t really have a very clear sense of how they fit into the political world.
M.G.: Yeah, I have my own reading of the Ultras. It is really baffling to a lot of people, and the kind of pushes for an explanation that’s a little deeper, or a little less connected with everyday life. There are no good explanations of their relationship with politics, and how they came out of soccer, and how they relate to the revolution. It’s funny, because these guys yesterday, they sang all the Ultras’ songs, and at rallies people up. And I think that could be just because Ultras is a very populist movement, and it gets people rallied. But they don’t do it in a political way, and they are very different from other rappers that were singing in Tahrir. I don’t know if these DJs came out in Tahrir. They might have come out. There’s a place called Cultural Resource, El Mawred Al Thaqafy [The Spring of Culture].
B.E.: Yes, we visited El Mawred. Basma el Husseiny was very helpful to us. In fact, she was one of the first to tell us about the sha’bi DJs.
M.G.: Yes, Basma el Husseiny. They managed the theater in Al Azhar Park, and they had a festival where they brought these guys out for the first time out of their context, which is weddings in a ghettos, the shantytowns. So they brought them there, and they had a great concert in the theater there, and then, when the revolution happened, Basma El Husseiny and Cultural Resource started a stage in Tahrir Square. And I’m not sure they brought them back to Tahrir. I never saw them in Tahrir in the summer. But also, people sometimes confuse them with the hip-hop guys, a lot of the political hip-hop that has been kind of on the rise since the revolution started. They are not part of that scene.
They’re kind of their own scene. They are all 18 to 20 years old. There are lots of principles that would apply to both worlds, and aesthetically, they might be very similar. They both recognize each other. They’re both coming out of the shantytowns, but one group is all about politics and is very cerebral, and one group is very in their body, and much more about the parties. I mean, their wedding DJs. I was a wedding DJ in Cairo for like five or six years. I know how that feels, because I did this for a living. And it’s a very different world from the political world that we’re talking about.
B.E.: I get that. And I understand that rap has really been on the rise. I’m still trying to figure out how the Ultras fit into this.
M.G.: Well, the Ultras are extremely political. And they have been involved even from the very beginning of the revolution. They got involved even before the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis. The political Islam movement did not get involved in the revolution until later in the 18 days, but the Ultras were there from day one, because they have a history of butting heads with the regime, with the political, and the police system. So when the revolution started as a demonstration against police brutality, they were the first ones they would been experiencing that. They understood very well what this was about.
B.E.: Let’s talk about songwriting. Are you hearing anything from singers, songwriters, that feels new, that has a new perspective since the revolution?
M.G.: For me, it is more in the independent scene than it is in the pop scene. Most pop musicians have been privileged by the last regime, and in a way, did not want to represent themselves as revolutionaries.
B.E.: You’re talking about people like Amr Diab and Tamer Hosni.
M.G.: Yes, definitely.
B.E.: And even now, they are still not addressing the revolution.
M.G.: It’s not their world. The revolution is not their world. Their world is money. I mean, there are pop singers. You wouldn’t expect Britney Spears to come out and talk about the Occupy movement. Why would you expect Amr Diab to come out and talk about the revolution in Egypt? It’s a different world. And even Mohamed Mounir, who is usually perceived as a singer for the youth, and someone who is alternative within the pop world, is not interested in the revolution. He didn’t make any songs about the revolution, during the revolution, and until now. He used one of his songs that he composed before the revolution ever started. He released it on YouTube and it became really popular, and he has used in his concerts ever since.
B.E.: You are talking about “Ezzay (How?).”
M.G.: Exactly. That’s a song that has nothing to do with the revolution. The lyrics relate in a very general way. But when it comes to the revolution, he’s not interested. You can talk with him.
B.E.: That’s interesting, because when we did speak with him in July, he was very keen to let us know he supported the revolution. The only reason he didn’t go to Tahrir himself, he suggested, was that he had this serious operation could not move. But I definitely came away with the sense that he was going to sing about the revolution. Apparently not.
M.G.: No. He hasn’t. And I don’t think he will. And again, it is not interesting to him. Right now, it’s very hard for people to write about the revolution. It’s kind of a challenging artistic process. Because the revolution is in a lull. There is nothing dramatic happening. There’s nothing like the 18 days. Filmmakers are having a hard time making films about what is happening now, as opposed to what they did during the revolution. So the amount of artistic production during the revolution, and shortly after that, was a lot more than what is coming out right now. Just because it’s really hard to make art about what is happening right now.
B.E.: What’s happening right now is the elections, so I suppose if you make art about that, you are basically supporting a candidate.
M.G.: Yes, and at the same time, what’s happening right now is very confusing to a lot of people. It’s not very clear what are the forces. There is no story to tell right now. It’s not the way it was during the revolution. The revolution was an epic. You see people that are dying for their freedom, and you see the people who are killing them. So you see the black and white. You see the struggle completely crystallizing. And that is inspiring to people whether they’re Egyptians or not Egyptians. But you don’t have that now. You have a lot of political forces that are using the revolution for their own cause, and it’s the dark side of this beautiful story. And it’s not even dramatic. So there are people who are actually writing songs now, and they are pretty good songs, but it’s much less frequent than what you saw back in last year.
One of these songs is by one of the hip-hop singers that I might’ve mentioned to you Ashraf el Samman, who made a song about not using religious slogans in political campaigns, and how politics and religion are separate.
There was another song by Adeweyya, which is one of my favorite songs since the revolution began. It’s about awareness and getting involved in politics, and voting for the right candidate that you believe will help your cause. That was a really good song as well.
B.E.: I saw the video for that song, and a friend help me translate. And it sounded like it was basically just encouraging people to get involved in the political process. It wasn’t really taking sides.
B.E.: I’m interested in that rap song about religion. It seems like now the rappers in the hip-hop artists are really the most engaged, and the people whose art best suits the moment. Would you agree?
M.G.: Oh definitely. I think most of the music that came out regarding the revolution is coming out of rappers. There are a few other initiatives, and there are lots of alternative artists movements and bands that are coming up with intelligence music about the revolution. Politically engaged. One of them is called The Choir Project. And they have performed in the revolution, during the demonstrations in Tahrir. And they continue to perform. They just performed last week. And it’s a big choir, 50 to 60 people at every performance. And they compose really incredible music about the revolution. I think they went to perform at the Barbican in London as well. They are probably one of the more interesting musical developments that are reflecting what’s happening politically.
B.E.: We heard about them when we were in Cairo, and had hoped to interview them. It was one of those things that just didn’t happen. But tell me about what they’re doing now. Are there songs about what happened during the revolution?
M.G.: No. It’s a lot more engaged than that. You see, what’s happening now is that more of the older political artists that had been singing about what’s going on in Egypt for the past 10 or 15 years, before the revolution began, are the ones continuing now. And then there’s the rise of new singers, and the new musicians who were just doing music related to the revolution that kind of came, and kind of went a little bit.
B.E.: Would you put Ramy Essam in that category?
M.G.: Well, he’s a political activist, and he started singing during the revolution. I’m sure that he is still involved in many ways, but he’s not the kind of person that was present before the revolution. The Choir Project had been going for a while. What they do, they have an interesting process. They come together for a workshop. For a day or so before the performance. And they collectively compose new songs, compose and write new songs, so 50 or 60 people are together for a day or two, and they write a new song together, and they perform at the concert. It’s not a pop band. It’s a very different kind of project. And their songs are really relevant, and even if they are not about the revolution per se, they are about the reality of living in Egypt today, a year and a half after the revolution. There’s a lot to sing about, even though it’s not the 18 days that everyone was interested in. And they are not trying to sing for a foreign audience. They are not trying to sing to be able to sell records, so they are not bound by the mechanics of the music industry, whether that is the world music industry for North America and Europe, or it is the Arab music industry for popular audiences. So they say what they feel like singing about, and it usually comes out authentic and interesting, with lyrics that really engage the audiences, because it relates to what everyone is living today.
B.E.: That’s fascinating.
M.G.: I just saw another song by a young singer who plays accordion, and she went and made a song about the walls that the police and the military put in downtown. And it’s a great song. There’s a YouTube video about this.
B.E.: I saw that. It is beautiful. What’s going on and that song?
M.G.: It’s subversive. It’s a song about a guy who went and saw the wall and decided to pee on the wall. And you know how most people in Egypt will just pee on a wall, elsewhere. So it could be understood as just another wall that people will pee on, but you can also see how the people feel about this kind of wall. It is irrelevant. So we will just pee on it. It is an intelligent song.
B.E.: Interesting. Who is the artist?
M.G.: She goes by the name Yousygirl. And she’s a young alternative music singing artist. I just saw her perform at a play last night along with musicians who participate in the choir Project. I think she is part of the Choir Project as well. So it’s the downtown see who perform at the theater next to the Townhouse Gallery, and you know, live the Cairo arts life.
B.E.: I want to come back for a second to Ramy Essam, because he’s an artist we followed through this whole process. Do you feel like he has a larger, smaller, different audience than he did in the time right after the revolution? The media, and foreign press seemed very focused on him when we were there, but by then others in Cairo who seemed more dismissive of him. What would you say his profile is like now?
M.G.: Well, I feel that Ramy Essam was a product of the revolution. He came out, and stepped on stage in a very natural, organic way, and incorporate a lot of what people were saying, but in a more melodic format. It wasn’t so much a song as organizing peoples’ chants into one song that begins and ends, so he kind of galvanized a lot of that energy, and people like that. In a moment like the revolution where everyone’s kind of looking for that organizing force, he kind of came out as one of these efforts. So he is still perceived as that organic side of the revolution, and the beautiful things that came out of nowhere and brought people together. I don’t think his artistic production has evolved that much sense. So he still thought of in that light. You say Ramy Essam and people will think of the 18 days in January. You wouldn’t think about Ramy Essam and his new album that came out a year later.
B.E.: So I suppose it remains to be seen whether he will turn that corner.
M.G.: I haven’t seen it yet.
B.E.: Let me ask again about the big pop artists like Amr Diab and Tamer Hosni. I understand that they’re not singing about politics, but when were there they weren’t releasing any music at all, or doing concerts. Has that changed?
M.G.: I haven’t seen a lot. Sherine Abdel Wahab has released a song. I haven’t seen much of Tamer Hosni or Amr Diab. But I feel also like this music is a little lost right now, because it’s really irrelevant in the context of where we are. There is so much more going on than pop music—musically and civically. So I feel like a lot of them are waiting, because they know this is not the right time to release an album. The economy is really in the dumpster. People don’t have money to pay for new records if they are still buying them. Or concerts. So it’s not really their time. People are paying attention to other things, to elections, to what’s going on politically, to other music that is becoming more relevant to what people are living every day. And they know that. They know that this is not a time to release just another album that will sound just like the last one.
B.E.: You know, Mina, the last day we were in Cairo, we went along the bridge. the Qasr el Nil, where a lot of young people hang out, and we interviewed these kids. We wanted to hear what just regular people were saying, and these were people who felt very close to the revolution. They would say things like, “What do you think of our revolution?” But we asked all of them what their favorite Egyptian music was, and still, most of them answered either Amr Diab, Tamer Hosni, or Mounir. So it was surprising to us that even though these people had represented themselves very badly during the revolution, they were still the favorite musicians of these kids.
M.G.: Well, I think you came at a time when there was a lot in flux. The new singers have not become known and off to the top of mind among audiences. So when you ask someone now who is the most popular singer in Egypt, they will still say Amr Diab. I doubt this will be the same in 10 years, or even two years. Unless we go back to where we were 10 years ago. The change has not materialized yet.
B.E.: Okay. So who do you see emerging? If you had to guess, what would you say they will be citing as their favorites, let’s say five years down the road?
M.G.: Well, I feel like a hip-hop finally has found a place in Egypt. This was a big question for all a lot of people in music. Why is hip-hop not jelling with Egyptian music—and with a lot of Arab music as well—but mostly in Egypt? But finally, in the revolution, you started seeing some young singers that are able to naturally engage with this new kind of music, and bring it into a long tradition of poetry that we’ve had in Egypt. To make something that is truly Egyptian. So that is definitely one of the most remarkable developments over the last year. And I think we’re at the very beginning of that movement. We’re in the late 70s, early 80s, in New York. Hip-hop is still all about the political, the social. It hasn’t gone to become the big mainstream moneymaking machine that it is in the US. So we’re still in that phase where everyone is experimenting. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make this music and how to produce it. To make it truly Egyptian. Everyone is truly learning a lot, and you can feel that curiosity and that momentum growing. There’s a new artistic scene in the hip-hop world in Egypt.
M.G.: … because all the kids are excited about it.
B.E.: That’s great. That’s very interesting. You know, one of the best interviews we did was with Karim Rush of Arabian Knightz. He’s a very sharp guy, very thoughtful, very broad knowledge of different kinds of music. I was really impressed with him. Have you met him?
M.G.: No, but I know that Arabian Knightz was one of the first hip-hop groups.
B.E.: He told us that he was just flooded with new rappers and hip hop acts trying to get a break. So it really does seem like this is the big story of post-revolution music in Egypt, the rise of hip-hop.
M.G.: Yes. And I think it will also change the way pop music is performed and practiced. The way that hip-hop has changed the pop music industry in the United States as well. So, even pop musicians like Amr Diab and Mohamed Mounir, if they want to make a new album that people are going to still listen to, they are going to have to pay attention to the changing aesthetics that are coming out of hip-hop. Either by incorporating some of these musicians, some of the singers, or just reflecting the changing tastes and changing sounds. So there’s a whole new sound that’s coming up.
So you have all these emcees who are incredible at putting words together, but they mostly use loops on their cell phones. They use old melodies. And we haven’t gone to the place where you have the producer figure in the hip-hop world. But then you have on the other side these guys that are getting their makeshift laptop with fruity loops and putting all these sounds together and are making really interesting musical production pieces that need lyrics. So what I see is that these two worlds are going to basically combine at some point and that’s gonna be the new music that will see for the next 2 to 3 years.
B.E.: That makes a lot of sense to me. One of the things that really struck me in talking with Karim Rush is that he gets that. He was saying something very similar to what you are saying. He was really interested in these new sha’bi artists, and he saw them as being an important part of the new emerging sound, the next big thing, if you will. He had used two singers, including the Sufi singer Mahmoud el Leithy. You know him?
B.E.: Arabian Knightz has this track called “Mouled” on their United States of Arabia CD. I don’t know if this is actually been formally released. He gave me a pre-release copy. But it’s a great song, and very much in that direction. I found that fascinating. And he was really interested in the idea of being the kind of producer you’re talking about. So I think you’re right, and I also think that this could be a music that would export beyond Egyptian borders in a way that nothing has for a long time. This might project internationally, don’t you think?
B.E.: Because the country has been stuck for so long in this pattern of this big pop music like Amr Diab, which really doesn’t export very well to the west. But I think it’s possible that this coalition of ideas that you’re referring to could produce something really exciting.
M.G.: Definitely. And I feel that it’s also the result of the technology spreading all over Egypt here, and young people having access to computers to make sounds, and also computers to access what is happening elsewhere. So it is democratizing music production in a way that we haven’t seen in awhile. If you wanted to make a new album, it had to be either supported by a producer, who are mostly bound by the old aesthetics that are completely irrelevant that have made the music industry in Egypt irrelevant to what’s happening elsewhere. So you hear Amr Diab or you hear Sherine, and they are interesting songs, but they are a product of what Amr Diab sort of imagined maybe 20 or 30 years ago, and that we’ve been kind of stuck with. So the older players have been kind of holding on to the reins of music production, and the aesthetics were kind of stuck in that world, and if you wanted to do something new, you didn’t have the tools, you didn’t have the resources to be able to come up with something new.
But that is all changing now, where you have kids from an inner-city neighborhood who are bringing their laptop and downloading all the software’s and hearing all these songs and seeing what’s happening elsewhere and coming up with their own thing. And they are not really needing the producer or the distributor, because they have their own ways of producing and distributing their videos on YouTube. And they can play at weddings every night of the week and make enough money to, you know, to live.
B.E.: And that is something that affects both the hip-hop artists and the wedding DJs. This is a revolution you can’t really put back in the bottle. Mark LeVine was talking to us about what this does to the idea of censorship. Because there’s no filter on what goes up online. These young creators don’t have to worry about that. Someone might come after them and threatened them, but they can’t stop them from posting their music and their videos. Now it is clearly in the cards in Egypt that the next regime might be a conservative religious regime. Now maybe they wouldn’t be as corrupt as Mubarak’s people, but they might have their own interests in censorship and in controlling the arts. However, they will be much less capable of doing so given what we’ve just been talking about. They’ll have a much harder time. Won’t they?
M.G.: Yes, I agree with you completely. I don’t think any regime, whether religious or nonreligious, has the tools to enforce the kind of restrictions that they hope to enforce. Just because technology has kind of allowed everyone to be able to produce what they want to produce, whether it’s talk or music or lyrics or movement. So it’s really out of anyone’s hands at this point to try to kind of control that.
And you see something like SOPA, with the US government tried to do that, and you look at the reaction to that. It is daunting for any government to think that they are going to be able to coerce their population with control of media at this point. Because people have a lot more tools than governments do.
B.E.: The tables have turned.
M.G.: Yeah. And you know, there’s a song by another singer Dina El Wadidi, who we didn’t talk about yet, but she’s also singing about what is haram and what is halal, and how the political religious machines are trying to change the way people live based on what is forbidden, and why it is forbidden. Haram is a sin, basically. So that’s another song, from a very different world that is also kind of along those lines. And she’s really gaining a lot of popularity. She performs to sold-out audiences in theaters, at the Sawy Culture Wheel, or wherever she performs. I think she’s really a singer to watch.
B.E.: Great. What is the music like?
M.G.: You know, it is some of the most exportable music that’s coming out. She learned to sing from traditional teachers here so it’s a music that all Western audiences will definitely enjoy for its Egyptian musical content. And the lyrics are great. I can see her becoming the new world music female voice of Egypt. So far, she has only been well known here, but when I was asking you who you heard that she thought might be able to export, you told me about Beshir. You said maybe him, but nobody else. I remember that conversation. Well, for me, Dina is the best example of what can export from the new generation that’s coming up. She is 24. She composes all her songs. She plays percussion, and sings. She uses a lot of odd rhythms and things. So she’s definitely one to watch in her musical presentation.
B.E.: What about Beshir? Have you heard anything new from him?
M.G.: I haven’t. But I’ll keep an ear out.
B.E.: Thanks so much. It’s great to get your on-the-ground impressions. This is really helpful.
M.G.: Thank you. Please keep me posted.
B.E.: And you too.