« Program: Egypt 3: Cairo Underground

Mark LeVine on Music and the Egyptian Revolution

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and at Lunde University in Sweden. He has also been a musician for 25 years. For the past 15 years, he has traveled around the Middle East working with artists, musicians, activists and scholars who are looking at the roles of popular culture in pushing for social and political change in the region. He brings all that together in his remarkable 2008 book Heavy Metal Islam (Three Rivers Press), which laid important groundwork for understanding the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.  In short they were preceded by a wave of popular, do-it-yourself organization and activism centered around music.  Mark has been an important advisor to Afropop’s Hip Deep in Egypt project since its inception.  He made a number of trips to Egypt during 2011, during and after the revolution.

Here are 2 conversations Banning Eyre had with Mark, one in July, 2011, just before Afropop’s field work began, and one in January, 2012, during production of the Cairo Underground program, the third edition in a planned 5-part series. It’s worth reading both conversations to get a sense of how quickly the situation seems to change, even in the eyes of a veteran observer like Mark.

July 8, 2011

Banning Eyre: Hey how are you? How was Tunis?

M.L.: Good. Amazing. I was organizing a conference and a concert with some musicians, some Tunisian artists, some Egyptian artists, some Palestinian artists, and Iraqi artists. It was really, really great.

BE: I’ve just reread your Egypt chapter from Heavy Metal Islam. It’s essentially of a profile of what the heavy metal scene is like in Cairo and Alexandria in 2008.  Now, you’ve been going back since the uprising. How is it different? What’s changed?

M.L.: The main difference is clearly that there’s been a revolution. I just actually helped the first female heavy metal band in Egypt, Massive Scar Era get a show at the Whiskey A Go- Go in LA. They just did the show two nights ago and I was talking with them and they were telling me that just in the last two months now bands are popping up from all over, these young metal bands. Opportunities to play are growing.  There’s still only one major club in Cairo where you can play but certainly with everything that’s happening it’s a lot easier to play than it was.

And there’s much less pressure on the scene. In 2008 that was just starting to be the case. But there still was a lot of public antipathy against heavy metal. I think heavy metal in Egypt right now, at least in the main cities, is in a place where heavy metal was in Morocco in maybe the mid-2000’s, when it first was becoming socially acceptable to be a metalhead. People were becoming a bit more liberal in general, at least in the public sphere, and not attacking people. That being said, for the female artists, just being a woman is really their main problem. It’s still very hard just to walk down the street, even if you’re conservatively dressed with a headscarf in Egypt without being sexually harassed. So, whatever harassment metal musicians face, it certainly these days not as bad as the mere fact of just being a woman on the street in Egypt.

BE: You write about that all women band in your book, so they’ve been around awhile.

M.L.: Yes. Massive Scar Era, aka Mascara. They’re a band out of Alexandria who have since moved to Cairo.

BE: When you wrote in 2008, there was a real debate going on among Egyptian metal musicians about the wisdom and attractiveness of being politically engaged with their art. Do you think that has changed?

M.L.: Oh absolutely. Now everyone’s politically engaged for the most part. That’s the huge difference. Having just been in Tunis – now is the time where people can be politically engaged. And certainly through their music, it’s much, much safer. If they were writing things that were specifically anti-Islamic, or anti-religious in that kind of way  – provocative – they could still probably find themselves in a lot of trouble, if not legally, certainly attacks in the media and stuff. But to be politically engaged is much easier now and in some, I don’t want to say expected, but I do think in the wake of the revolution and what so many young people went through, other young people are really expected to play a role in the ongoing fight for democracy.

As far as the change that’s probably going to make, I haven’t heard it explicitly because I haven’t heard that many new songs from some of the metal bands.  But whereas three of four years ago, they would write lyrics that were obliquely political, that were clearly political if you knew what to look for. But they weren’t publicly political. They weren’t specifically saying Mubarak by name. Now there is much more freedom to be explicitly political. That I think is going to bring a huge change in the music.  That might make heavy metal less relevant in a way, because heavy metal was an outlet for kids who had no other place where they could rile against the system. Now if it’s much easier to be part of the system, who knows whether metal might lose some of its appeal, or have to evolve into a different sound in order to maintain an audience?

BE:  Sure.  This is all part of what happens when things that were underground become more widely accepted. The world is full of examples of where that leads. Of course it’s too soon to tell where that’s all going to go but it’s very interesting because in your book it seems as though there’s a real divide about whether it’s even interesting to address politics.  Now, it seems like pretty much everybody thinks it’s interesting.

M.L.: Well, certainly it’s interesting. I don’t think you’re going to hear metal songs written for specific candidates.  The situation on the ground is better.  But while you can say more of what you want, there are still hardly any jobs. There’s still an incredible amount of corruption. The army and police are still violent. There is just more opportunity to talk about them. I think you might see lyrics that are a bit more overtly political. The causes that metal talks about, however, are not necessarily at the moment less relevant. The only thing is whether now that they can be talked about openly, whether musicians are going to find that they don’t want to use metal for that purpose.

Someone was saying an interesting thing to me the other day.  It was actually an Iraqi band that was also playing in LA, and we were talking about Iron Maiden and some of the classic metal bands and why they loved their music so much.  It was because their lyrics were about war and death and violence and oppression. Songs about girls and drugs and partying just don’t carry any power for people who have lived through what the people in the Middle East have lived through. So the question for me as a musician is whether now that they have other places in their social and public life where they can talk about these things openly, will the themes in heavy metal start to morph into things like girls and partying and J.R.R. Tolkien or Aladdin or some kind of mystical 1001 Arabian Nights thing because they don’t need to reflect their politics directly through their music? It seems this could be a possibility a few years down the line, but certainly in Egypt there’s a long way to go before things get much better so that kids are going to feel they can afford to talk about more flippant topics.

BE: Yeah I would think if that happened that would be a sign that the revolution had gone very well, that people were feeling comfortable enough.

M.L.: Either very well or people were bought off. It’s hard to know at this point how it will happen.

BE: Now you said there’s one club where heavy metal is played. Is that Sawy Culture Wheel?

M.L.: Yes.

BE: Now just for our listeners could you describe what Sawy is like?

M.L.: The Sawy Culture Wheel is a venue. It’s also a place that sponsors a lot of different debates and talks and art exhibits and all kinds of things. Really for the last four years since around 2005 or 2006 when it opened it was really one of the few places in Cairo where you could see stuff that was kind of on the cultural edge a bit. And so in 2008 I helped organize the first metal show in central Cairo in years, and that was at Sawy. And it continued to allow metal shows for years to happen, with a few interruptions, as well as debates and art exhibits and other things when most other musical establishments would not allow them at all. So even though Mohammed Al-Sawy, himself, is problematic—he was Culture Minister for one day after Mubarak fell, and got so much criticism for joining the first attempt at a transition government that he quit very quickly. But his space still deserves a lot of credit for being a space that allows young people to talk outside what the government and the conservatives in society wanted to allow

(Live metal show at the Sawy Culture Wheel)

BE: I know that the political singer Ramy Essam is going to be playing in this big concert at the Barbican in London, “A Night in Tahrir Sqare.” It’s kind of ironic that this will be happening just as they’re having these huge new demonstrations in the real Tahrir Square…

M.L.: Well that depends if Ramy gets out. He didn’t end up getting to Tunis because they forgot to get his permit to travel without having done his military service. So he wound up not being able to come to Tunis, but we’re hoping he takes care of this before the Barbican show on the 23rd.  [He did make it.]

BE: You write in your book about the whole idea of bringing in Egyptian-ness into heavy metal music. Whether it’s language or any sort of stylistic element. How do artists look at bringing in local Egyptian or even Arabic language elements? And has that changed at all?

M.L.: Well, traditionally as opposed to other countries like Iran or Pakistan or Morocco where they always sang metal in local languages, in Egypt, it was always largely English. And people had a lot of fidelity to the original, European, Scandinavian metal, or Tampa metal, depending on what kind of metal they were into.

Egypt has always been a very important place in metal iconography especially because of Iron Maiden’s use of Egyptian iconography and just because it’s ancient. It’s pre-European. It was so powerful. It just provides a treasure trove of symbols that metal bands who are always interested in kind of occult themes. So for Egyptian metal bands, it’s quite natural to want to use their own, since it’s their history and iconography. But I don’t want to say it’s that widespread. I only know of a couple bands that really do that.

The one I was talking about in my book, Hate Suffocation, was one of the first ones to do it. By the way, I think this is one of the most wonderful names of any metal band I’ve heard because it really reflected how in the mid-2000s when the band started, young people felt that the self-hatred in Egyptian society, or the hatred of one section for the other sections of society was really suffocating their generation. But, a couple of years ago they changed the name to Scarab, which is obviously one of the symbols of ancient Egyptian religion. As for Arabic in the last three years more and more groups are starting to sing in Arabic.  And I think a lot of it is, first, it’s not easy to sing the way you’re supposed to sing in metal which is brutal in kinds of extreme metal in Arabic. It was a style that was invented in English (I think) although there might have been some Finnish death metal that sang in that style. I think the Arab singers just had to learn to craft Arabic, which is a very poetic language into a very un-poetic and harsh style of delivery. And slowly they are getting better at that. They haven’t necessarily switched to as much Arabic as other languages. They certainly have added in Arabic styles and sounds and drums and violins and that kind of thing and that is bringing it more in line to the kind of hybridity you see in other styles of North African and Middle Eastern metal.

BE: Interesting. So that’s been a development since 2008?

M.L.: It started in the mid-late-2000’s, around 2007 or 2008.

BE: In the book it sounded like that’s not a very strong trend.

M.L.: Right, no, it’s starting to get more.  I don’t want to overemphasize it. I think the majority still sing in English, if only because they want to be somewhat commercial. They want to get out there. They figure if they sing in Arabic then their audience is very restricted. And especially because in Egypt the metal scene hasn’t been that open. In Morocco you could sing in Arabic but you’ll still have metal festivals, like the Boulevard Festival, where you get 30,000 kids coming. There’s still a scene, a local enough scene that’s public enough and big enough so that you can sing in your local language and still get recognition and stuff. Whereas in Egypt that kind of ability to play for that kind of crowd hasn’t existed until very recently and still in some ways hasn’t. So with the Internet and everything, if you want to reach an international audience, you much more want to sing obviously in English. I mean Shakira does that. It’s not just metalheads who do that.

BE: Yeah, understood. Groups that are starting to use strings, drums, more Egyptian elements, can you name a couple of groups?

M.L.: Well Massive Scar Era has violin. The band Beyond the East is morphing right now into several other bands was one of the pioneers. They were on my album. Some of the Saudi bands, and in Lebanon. The Kordz in Lebanon were certainly the pioneers of that. But in Egypt Dark Philosophy has done a little of that. And now there’s such growth with other kinds of music. I even think using the word ‘metal’ is a bit narrow. There are bands that are metal in part but also incorporating many other styles. Whereas years ago not too far in the past you would have been a metal band, now I think a lot of bands say, “Yeah, we do metal, we do thrash, we do industrial, we do Arabic.” They’re much more willing to do whatever, to be eclectic. And metal is part of what they do, but it doesn’ t limit them.

BE: So Scarab is still going strong?

M.L.: Yes they’re going strong. They’re one of the more established and stronger bands in Egypt.

BE: What about the musician sons of Ayman Nour?

M.L.: They’re doing amazing stuff but they are in like 9 bands each. I’m only slightly exaggerating. Your Prince Harming which is Shady Nour’s band is thrash/emo, not very Middle Eastern, more US Indie. Though older brother Noor is in a bunch of bands. He plays bass with Ramy Essam. He has an industrial band, which is basically a percussion band that plays on found objects. They go out on the street and collect things that they can bang on. And they do incredible Arabic rhythms, which is really awesome. So he’s interesting. They’re music’s really interesting.

BE: They’re in Alexandria?

M.L.: They’re in Cairo.

BE: I see, ok. I have a sense that the whole promotion and distribution of music is under wild transformation now because all the big concerts and record companies were so tied up with the regime and with wealthy companies and families that were tied up with the regime. From everyone I’ve been talking to it’s obviously a very inside game. To the extent that that’s all being swept aside now, what should we be looking for in terms of a new model emerging? What model will replace that?

M.L.: It’s going to be much more do-it-yourself. Having just worked to try to bring one of the biggest rock metal bands in the world to Egypt unsuccessfully, in the end the local promoters just couldn’t raise the money. To bring international artists in, you can never make enough money from ticket sales in a market like Egypt to cover expenses. The only way you can cover their expenses is by getting Coke or Vodaphone, a big media sponsor, to kick in half a million dollars. And the only artists that they’ll actually do that for are Shakira or Beyonce. One of these very commercial artists that they think will appeal to the elite that has spending power. They don’t look at metalheads, still, and think of them as a viable market, which of course is stupid. It’s the same mistake they made with hip-hop. There was that famous Madison Square Gardens concert where Adidas saw 20,000 kids shaking their Adidas in the air on cue with Run-DMC. Then suddenly rap was open for business. The same thing is probably going to have to happen in Egypt. But for now it’s a lot of do-it-yourself. It’s going to have to exist on a smaller scale, but some organizations will have to be willing to put out the effort. Some bands will have to come on a much lower scale than they normally would. And eventually you can get some of these bands that aren’t ‘commercial’ but very well known that will be able to do these kinds of shows. But I don’t think we’re there yet in Egypt. This whole process will have to get sorted out before you get those kind of concerts with any regularity.

BE: Thanks a lot Mark. I really appreciate your time.

M.L.: Let’s talk soon.

January 27. 2012

B.E.:  To start, Mark, why don’t you tell us some of the places you’ve been since the Arab Spring began a year ago.

M.L.: Well, I’ve been traveling around the Middle East for the past 15 years, working with artists, musicians, activists and scholars who are looking at the roles of popular culture in pushing for social and political change in the region. And I was in the middle of working in a project about that when the revolutions broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, and while I missed the initial revolution in Tunis, I got to Egypt in the second week of the protests there, and was able to spend the majority of the early part of the revolution in Egypt, and have since then traveled back to Egypt several times, as well as Tunesia several times, and Bahrain, and Lebanon, and other countries in the Arab world.

B.E.: What are you working on now?

M.L.: Since the revolution broke out, I decided to write a book about my experiences of the revolution, and what I think the longer historical trends are that produced them. And also to really focus on the role of popular culture, which I’ve been looking at in working with so many key people in the Arab world over the past decade, to just see what role they actually played once these changes that so few people dare to hope would happen as quickly as they did suddenly occurred. Shall I tell you the name of the book?

B.E.:  Absolutely.

M.L.: Okay, once I got to Tahrir Square, the first person I met was Ramy Essam, who was in the process when I met him of going from being unknown by almost everyone in Egypt to be the “singer of the revolution.” We became like musical brothers almost immediately, and spent most of the time together, whether it was in the studio or on the street. We would go back and forth between protesting and the studio. And the strange thing is almost a year later, the last time I was in Egypt in December, 2011, we were still doing the same thing. We were sleeping in tents in Tahrir Square, and in the evening of every day we would go to the studio, about four or 5 miles away from Tahrir, and spend three or four hours there, and then spend all night in Tahrir Square. So not only did I have a chance to understand how music and revolution go together, I had a chance to really understand and be part of the production of music, literally in the midst of a revolution, and probably the most revolutionary conditions you can have. So that’s what I’m trying to write about in this new book I’m doing, “The Five Year Old Who Toppled the Pharoah”.

B.E.:  Great title. Tell me about the title.

M.L.: What’s behind that title is quite simply, as the revolution was happening, everyone was focusing on the youth element, the 18 to 30 element that was believed to be behind, or who were the main motivating force behind the revolution, but when you actually got to Tahrir square, you realized it was all age groups. And to me, the most interesting group was the little kids, who were in Tahrir Square leading chants. And you could just walk around Tahrir Square, and every hundred feet, you’d have another five or six year old kid with a megaphone. Or just with their voice, screaming and leading chants and chanting poetry. And most of it was completely ad hoc, it was just a spontaneous creation of poetry, and to me, that was the most amazing force. Because if it was just the 20-year-olds out there, the police would’ve had no problem firing on them and arresting them and getting rid of them. But once you had five-year-olds to 80-year-olds in Tahrir Square, then it became very difficult for the military police and the ordinary police, and even the army, to think about actually using massive violence to disperse them, and that’s what I think Round 1 of the revolution was won.

B.E.:  Tell a little more about Ramy Essam.  We met him in Tahrir in July, but since then, I’ve heard some of the music he’s been recording, including one song with a full rock band. Before that I had only known him in Bob Dylan mode, a guy with an acoustic guitar. Tell me a little bit about the work he’s doing now as you experienced it.

M.L.: Well, basically, what would happen is… I mean, most of it is still acoustic. He went through a phase last summer where he was thinking about going back and using a whole band, and then, I think, he realized as the revolution kicked back in and he was spending more and more time in Tahrir Square again, and the protests were happening again, he went back to thinking it should just be him and his guitar. And when I got there, we just started talking and jamming together, and he said, “Well, look, let’s go back to the studio together. Let’s work on some songs together.” We already had a few songs, most of which were just him on guitar, and I basically put some solos on top of it, and some of the rhythms, and then at some point he was thinking about adding some percussion or darbuka or something.  But still, I think, for him the revolution was very minimalist. So what’s the feeling became more like it was last year when he first started recording the stuff, he went back to that vibe.

B.E.:  In June, I asked you what had changed in the heavy metal scene since the revolution, and you spoke about Massive Scar Era.  At the time you had the feeling that things were opening up for metal musicians in Cairo, and Egypt. What is your impression now?

M.L.: I think every few months the situation changes so much that it’s hard to know where we are right now in Egypt. You know, in the first outburst of enthusiasm after the revolution, it seemed like anything was possible, and if you had talked to me then, I would’ve said, “Well, there’s a whole bunch of new metal shows now. Heavy metal is becoming much more acceptable.” It already had been getting a bit more acceptable in recent years after two decades in which it was really frowned upon, and metalheads were arrested and prosecuted and attacked by religious conservatives. Once the revolution happened, and then, all of a sudden, the Islamist forces became much more public, then it became a little different.

I think in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, there was all this hope that things are really changing more positively. If you look at Massive Scar Era, and especially the lead singer, Sherine, her attitude towards the revolution — and she went pretty sour on it pretty quick, in good measure because after the revolution she realized she was still being attacked for being a woman. She still couldn’t walk the streets safely in Cairo without being in some way groped or leered at or what have you by men. And at one point, she really felt the revolution was for nothing. Because in the end, Mubarak didn’t directly affect her in terms of her ability to be a musician. But with that freedom, there was less security on the streets, and with the rise of the Islamist parties, and even more so the Salafis, clearly she felt, and probably continues to feel, that her position as a female musician, never mind a female metal musician, would be under threat.

(Photograph of Ramy Essam, by Wendell Steavenson)

But, you know, so far. In fact, so far, there hasn’t been any kind of upsurge in attacks on musicians or artists by the religious conservatives in Egypt. And the metal scene continues to do pretty well there. It’s probably at the natural limit of its popularity right now, where you have groups in the main cities, half a dozen or a dozen bands. There are venues, not that many, but there are a few venues where they can play. And in society, people are so worried and concerned about the immediate future, how do you solidify democracy, what happens with the new parliament, the Constitution, that going after metalheads isn’t really high on anyone’s agenda. So I think there is a fear that the new order could be more oppressive, especially to women or to metalheads, as a group that challenges sort of traditional conservative values. But on the other hand, conservatives are so busy now that they don’t really have time, for the moment, to start attacking people because of the music they are listening to. That being said, there are already inklings that you have a kind of Saudi style morality police that might start patrolling around Egypt.

There are signs of a kind of Saudi style morality police, completely nongovernmental groups, going around Egypt. Some of them have supposedly said that they are buying tasers, and they’re going to start assaulting anyone who they believe is not behaving “Islamicly.” So once the new order gets solidified, say later this year when their presidential elections, and the army hopefully retreats from power, that might be when you really see the conservative forces coming out again. And we’ll have to see what happens with the more progressive forces, if they tolerate that or if they take to the streets and push back.

B.E.:   Fascinating. We’ll certainly be watching that.

M.L.: Actually, there was a new book. Last time I was in Cairo in December, I found a book in a bookstore, about heavy metal, heavy metal and Satanism, you know, comparing metalheads to Satan worshipers and stuff. And I thought, “Oh, this must be from five or six years ago.” But it was actually within the last year.  So there are obviously still attempts to do this. But I don’t think right now and anyone is really interested in it.

B.E.:  That fits with things we heard in July. One metalhead said, they’re going to be way too busy to worry about us.

M.L.: The real issue is, they are certainly too busy to worry about them now. What everyone is afraid of is that once the new order is in place, will they then have too much time on their hands?

B.E.:  Let’s talk a bit more about the nature of Egyptian heavy metal, revolution aside. We saw three bands one night, one was very hard-core. Another was more pop oriented. And then one called Origin was what they called, Oriental metal.” And they were singing in Arabic, and they had costumes. It was almost like a costume drama presenting this ancient Egyptian tableau.

M.L.: Well, they were like theatrical metal.  If you go back to the 90s and early two houses, my experience of metal in Egypt is that it was different than say heavy metal in Iran, Pakistan or Morocco, where from the beginning of the metal scene there, there was so much more conscious effort to blend it with local indigenous music in scales, and even sing in the languages. In Egypt, through the mid-2000s, the majority of metal bands were really just trying to emulate and stay true to the North American and Scandinavian metal traditions. And when I ask them, why don’t you sing in Arabic?” They said, “Well, you can’t sing brutal in Arabic.” And there was just this feeling that they needed to stay true to the traditions they loved. And what’s most interesting to me is why in the past few years, let’s say since 2006, you see a lot of bands that have brought in the “Oriental” element, that have started to sing in Arabic, that have brought in Oriental instruments, or Arab instruments like violin or daff and drums, or oud, and blended them with the traditional Western metal sounds.

A lot of that is that in some sense they felt that they had mastered traditional metal enough to then take it to the next level, and in another sense, I think they felt more comfortable in their own skin as metalheads in Egypt, and so were able to blend it and make it more Egyptian. And that I think speaks a bit to the growing acceptance of metal, or at least toleration of metal and rock more broadly in Egyptian society, compared to a decade or so ago when it was much more repressed, and the kids felt much more marginalized, and in that sense, they really didn’t have any desire to blend it with their own culture, because there local culture didn’t really offer them anything they wanted. Their local culture repressed to them and didn’t recognize or validate who they were, and the kind of music they liked, and their own personalities. So I think the move towards indigenizing the metal there reflects the fact that they feel more comfortable as metalheads inside Egypt, which is something that’s really happened in the last few years, but of course, if you look at female metalheads like Mascara, they certainly aren’t as comfortable yet as, let’s say, their male counterparts, who still have it easier because their man, and there’s not this whole other level of oppression they have to fight against.

B.E.:  Last time we spoke about the Sawy Culture Wheel, which we visited a number of times in Cairo.  Tell us a bit more about this institution.

M.L.: Okay, the Sawy Culture Wheel is basically a place where musicians can come play, artists can come show their work, people can have open public meetings that are more progressive. When I first went there in the mid-2000s, and there were meetings of Facebook groups for the first time, of progressive activists who then five years later would go on to lead the revolution in Egypt. It is a center where a lot of more progressive artists, whether in jazz or rock, have found a place to play. Also people can organize art exhibitions and meetings of different more progressive groups. Some of the groups that became central to the revolution last year were actually meeting when I first started going to Sawy in the mid-2000. The first public places they could meet without being attacked was in a place like Sawy.  So Sawy became very central to the metal scene because it was really the only place in Cairo, and especially in central Cairo, where a metal group could actually play publicly, you know, organize, have decent sound, not be cracked down upon. And it really became a place for incubating the renewed metal scene.

Since the revolution, there have been increasing numbers of concerts there. But there are also other places now where bands can play. It’s not as central, but it’s hard to imagine the scene, or the larger revolutionary scene really evolving in the past five years without a place like Sawy to take care of it and help nurture it.

(Sawy Culture Wheel)

B.E.:  Interesting. I was very impressed with Mohamed Al-Sawy when I interviewed him. But it was alarming to find how many people in the alternative music scene had various gripes with the venue and the man. It seems like something is contributed a lot, so was surprised to find so much resentment towards him among the very sort of people he has championed.

M.L.: Well, right. There is an issue with Sawy because, first of all, I think for a day and a half or two days, he was the Culture Minister, in the immediate post-revolutionary cabinet. That didn’t last very long. But you know, he is personally religious. He is personally conservative. But yet, he has allowed the space to be used. Of course, there are limits. There are certain bands or certain styles. You can’t go too far. I mean, you can’t go there and start putting out anti-religious themes, like some kind of satanic metal or something. So there certainly are limits.

Also, I think like any scene, I think if you were in New York, and you start talking to disgruntled bands about certain clubs, you’ll find a lot of people who hate them. Usually, who hates them are the bands who don’t get booked there.  So I wouldn’t say that’s any different than how people who didn’t get booked at CBGBs felt about CBGBs back in the day. So, yeah, he is certainly an ambiguous figure. Everyone has some sort of problem with him, yet there’s nobody else but him who would do what he did. So how can you judge him one way or another with any kind of definitive judgment? It’s hard for me to imagine the scene being able to really become public again in a legitimate way without the Culture Wheel, even though he certainly had his own agenda and his own tastes and his own ethical compass about what kind of bands he would book, and when he would book. Sometimes he would book bands. Sometimes he wouldn’t allow the bands play there who would already played. I think he was also being forced to read the mood of the government and of other forces in society he had to negotiate with. So I think at some points, he may not have been cooperative as people would’ve liked, and they just harbor ill feelings about that. I would love to see the transcript of that interview you did.

B.E.:  I will send it to you.  I found him impressive.  Someone had told me to ask him why he doesn’t book dance. And I did, and he explained his nuanced feelings about how some kinds of dance were appropriate and others were not. It kind of figured into another narrative that I heard, about the disappearance belly dancing, from weddings in Egypt during the past 10 years or so. Apparently 10 years ago it was virtually universal, and now it’s very hard to find.

M.L.: That’s a whole other story I didn’t even know about.

B.E.:  Well I spoke with one long-term resident who said that she used to find that every wedding in Cairo would include this kind of dancing. And now it’s rare. So I think Sawy himself seems sensitive to this shift in attitudes.

M.L.: Well the other thing is a lot of the dancers, the older dancers, a lot of dancers who become too old to dance they become muhagaba. They put on the veil so to speak, or that hijab, and then they repent. So they have this career, and then once that career is sort of over, and then they suddenly become very religious, and they go public with how much they regret having done it, and then they become famous for being a repenter. So you sort of have a career first being the scandalous singer dancer, and then when you’re not so good-looking and young anymore, you repent from it, and then you have a second career as the repenter.

So I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, but certainly another aspect is, I think, about the belly dancing, is not just that it’s been condemned by the Salafis–I’m sure it is– but also that it’s not considered current. It’s just not as relevant now to people as it was a generation or two ago. I mean, tastes change. So I wouldn’t say it’s all for religious reasons. I think it’s also just that belly dancing is not seen as a progressive thing there.  It is seen as traditional in a negative sense, not preserving the best parts of tradition. And when you couple that with the religious attacks on it, it makes it all around less appealing. But that’s a phase. It will go out of style for 10 years. And then when it’s out of style, it it will come back in style, because it was out of style. As with every kind of art form.

B.E.:  That talk about conversion reminds me a lot of bandleaders in Africa who when they get too old to do the club scene switch to gospel music and separate themselves from their decadent, secular past.

M.L.: Absolutely.

B.E.:  Let’s broaden the discussion to talk about underground music in Egypt more generally. Snce the revolution, do you have the sense that there is a new opening to talk about things, political things, more directly?

M.L.: Oh, my gosh, yes. That is a huge change. I mean, one of the reasons metal was popular among young people was that it was a genre that they could sing in, that they could be very political, but only implicitly so. So, because so much of hard-core metal deals with themes like death and corruption and war, and just wasted lives in all kinds of things like that, it also reflected their own experiences of life, and when they sang about corruption and those kind of things, it was pretty obvious who they were singing about. But they wouldn’t have to name Mubarak. You know? They wouldn’t have to name anyone directly. But anyone who listened, their own audience, would understand precisely who they were talking about. So it was a coded way of really critiquing government and critiquing society. Now that you can say that openly, I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a lot of new metal songs being written that are explicitly attacking SCAT, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But certainly there’s a lot of hip hop and a lot of rock, and Ramy Essam and Arabian Knightz, who are just writing the most explicit and critical lyrics you can imagine, and taking on the regime. That taboo has been broken. And because there’s no real distribution system for this, there’s no real force that can censor it. You know? They just do it themselves and put it on YouTube. They are not trying to sell it in the marketplace. They don’t care about that. So it’s much easier for them to put this out there. And of course, the more they do that, the more credibility they have on the street.

B.E.:  That reminds me of an earlier conversation we had, where you said that the do it yourself music market had been a kind of dressed rehearsal for do-it-yourself revolution.

M.L.: Oh, did I say that? That was nice.

B.E.:  You did, and it was. And you can say it again, perhaps with some elaboration.

M.L.: You know, there’s an issue about metal as a do-it-yourself genre of music all over the world. That’s one of the things that was so useful in a place like Egypt, where you had no institutional support for the music. If there was going to be a metal scene or a hip-hop scene, they had to be do-it-yourself. And I think in many ways when I look at how many metalheads I literally saw, not just on the street during the revolution protesting, because a lot of people were doing that, but who have gone on to become really important activists within the revolution — it’s clear that they’re starting out as marginalized people in autonomous subcultures, where they had to create their own scenes and create their own publics and learn how to get their message out when the mainstream media would not put it out there. Really, this was a training ground for do-it-yourself revolution, which was precisely what this was. So there are certainly parallels between the emergence of the metal scene and then the emergence of this revolutionary seen a decade, a decade and a half later.

B.E.:  And that do-it-yourself approach was something people were forced into because they had no alternative. It seems like because of that pressure, these young people became very good at using technology.

M.L.: Right.  They are very good because they had no choice. And especially in countries like Tunisia, even more than Egypt, where there was an incredible amount of Internet censorship. The good activists… I mean, I would go hang out with them, and they would just show me all the tricks they knew, how to get around firewalls, how to get around any attempts to censor them, how to hack into government websites, and a lot of these guys were also musicians. One of the main people during the Tunisian revolution, for example, literally hacked into the government cameras, like street cameras that were monitoring streets, and he was able to hack into those cameras and use that to see where the troop movements were. And then, he would go on to Facebook real-time, and update: “There are troops on this street in this town.” So the revolutionaries would know and know to avoid them or attack them, depending on the situation. He is also an amazing musician and artist who has played with many of the great musicians in Tunisia. And we’ve done some recording together since we met. And so, musicians and “hacktivism” seemed to go together in this kind of do-it-yourself world in the Middle East, and in North Africa.

B.E.:  Coming back to Egypt, one of the interesting implications of that is the question of what does it really mean to be “underground”?  If you look at safer rock bands like Wust al Balad or Cairokee, they are now getting signed to advertising contracts.  Pepsi moved from Tamer Hosni to Cairokee.  I know that the mere fact of bands as opposed to singing stars, becoming more mainstream represents a change on the Egyptian scene. That in itself is kind of a move from underground to mainstream, or more mainstream, in recent years. Apparently there weren’t very many bands in the 90s, and now there are hundreds. Wust al Balad struggled for 13 years before they coul even record a CD, but now they’re seen as part of an emerging new music scene. They’re on the verge of becoming mainstream. So what does it mean now to be underground?   Can you really talk about something as being underground, when every kid with a laptop is listen to it?

M.L.: Oh, this is really important, Banning. I think what these revolutions have done now—and in fact I never thought about it until this second; this is a really brilliant point—is just that: where is the underground anymore? I mean, underground literally means, or meant, underground. When I went to Iran in 2007 and hung out with the metalheads there, they were literally rehearsing underground in basements so the music, so the sound wouldn’t get into the streets, and then the morality police, the Basiji, wouldn’t come and basically arrest them or beat them up or destroy their equipment. So they literally were underground. And when they would have parties, they were underground. But with the Internet, there’s no ground. It’s not a physical space, and you can become so popular through it. So what does that mean about ground and underground and overground and mainstream? I don’t think anyone knows yet.

What is clear is that you have advertising agencies, let’s say in Egypt. Before I left Egypt when the first revolution happened, within days of Mubarak being gone, advertisers in Egypt were starting to use the iconography of the just happened revolution to advertise products. Why not? That’s what they do. The question is, who would do that?  You don’t make any money in Egypt or the Arab world more broadly, or anywhere these days, by selling music. Right? That’s not the way you make money. It’s not even that easy doing concerts to make money unless you’re a really big pop star. So the way you make money is through licensing. That’s the way artists do it here now, and that’s the way they do it there. So the question is whether some artists who immediately started cashing in on the revolution should then become part of the system, and become well known through licensing, and through having their music used on commercials or things like that. There certainly were. Did that dent their credentials as revolutionary artists? Well, it depends on what they were advertising.

You know, even a band like Mass Scar Era after the revolution entered a contest — I can’t remember if it was Coke or Pepsi — to write a song about the revolution. They didn’t win, but they were willing to try because it came with a lot of money and a recording contract. So, you know, this is of course the way the market tries to domesticate you. I remember back in 2005 and I was in Beirut at a conference I helped organize from all around the Arab world and the Muslim world, and even then, the thing they were most afraid of was not censorship. It wasn’t even the religious forces. It was the Arab corporations like Rotana.  And they were afraid that the more power they got, and the more they owned everything, the less room there would be for free expression, just because of market forces. And that of course has always been the problem musicians have faced in the world. Big corporations always try to dumb down music so they can sell more units. This is what’s happening in Egypt, but there are political implications overlaid that were probably always there in the West too. It’s just that they weren’t as obvious.

(Billboard for “King of Generation” Tamer Hosney)

B.E.:  Following up on that, and especially in the Egyptian context, there still are a lot of these big record companies, Rotana and the like.  And there’s still television, satellite television, and radio. And these things have greater reach in Egypt overall. Greater reach than kids with laptops, who are mostly those with some means in the city.  So if we look at the big media landscape now, music you could hear in a taxi or on a television anywhere in the country, obviously this doesn’t include a lot of the music and musicians we’ve been talking about, metal, hip-hop, Ramy Essam, street sha’bi…  So, there still is some meaning to the term underground in Egypt.

M.L.: In order for the term underground to have any real meaning, I think it has to have an implication of being transgressive in some sense. It’s transgressing the normal social norms. It is transgressing musical norms. It is pushing boundaries and breaking them down, and it hasn’t quite broken through yet to above the ground. It has to be kind of clandestine while it incubates. And that’s why we call it underground. I think in a situation where there’s much more latitude to do whatever you want, so you don’t have to be literally underground to do it, but still, only the more mainstream stuff is going to be brought up, given licensing, and made well-known. That’s not about underground or aboveground. That’s just whether artists either want to or have the ability to be mainstream, and to capitalize on their art in order to make money, versus those — like those in the metal scene, for example — who realize that their music is never going to be popular in the wider context, and therefore, that’s not interesting to them. Most metal bands I know in the Arab world — none of them have the hope of making a living being an artist. They just want to create great music, do well in their scenes, and increasingly travel around the Middle East and maybe in some European festivals—the best ones can do that—and just become part of the global metal scene. Very few of these people ever quit their day job.

But that’s nothing new. You have worked with bands like El Tanbura, one of the great folk bands in the world. But most of those guys, when you hang out with them, they are playing until four o’clock in the morning, and they’re getting up at seven to go to their day jobs. They might store Europe or Africa three months a year, but the rest of the time they are driving taxis and running little shops to survive. So I don’t think it’s unique to the metal scene. But I think most of the artists we would look at in the metal scene would not be able to hope to make a living doing it. They hip-hop scene is a bit more interesting. Hip hop is much more easily commercializable than metal. So some of those artists might become much more commercially recognizable because hip-hop as a sound is much more globally recognizable as an advertising aesthetic than, let’s say, heavy metal is.

B.E.:  Let’s talk about hip-hop for a minute. Tell us about the group Arabian Knightz.

M.L.: Arabian Knightz is a great band. They are the premier hip-hop band in Egypt. Hip-hop is not as old in Egypt as it is in other Arab countries. Really Palestine and Lebanon and Morocco, and to a lesser extent Algeria, were the original homes of Arab hip-hop. And then Tunisia has an amazing scene. Egypt it came late to. But it has certainly taken off, and certainly with the revolution it has become more central, because in Tunisia, you had the song “Sidi Rais (Mr. President).”  (Rais le Bled) by the rapper El General.  That became understood as being one of the sparks of the revolution. He put out the song criticizing the Tunisian president Ben Ali, and then he was arrested for several days, and that really brought thousands and thousands of people into the streets to protest his arrest. And that, I think, jumpstarted the Egyptian scene, which already had some great rappers, but they weren’t necessarily viewed as that important yet. But once the Egyptian revolution broke out, rapping is a natural thing to do in a revolution. It’s a chant essentially. And it’s a way of conveying a message very directly.

Brutal vocals, let’s say in a metal band—I mean, you can get on a stage in Tahrir and start screaming out brutal vocals, and everyone is going to start looking at you like, “What the hell is he saying?” I mean you can’t really motivate 100,000 people with brutal vocals at a rally. But you certainly can rap, and really synthesize the feelings of an entire group in a way that’s entertaining and motivates them and captures the spirit. So rap is both more amenable to revolution, but also more easily commercializeable. So the transition for rappers then would be much easier than for some other artists.

(Arabian Knightz)

B.E.:  coming back again to this theme of “underground,” let’s talk about something that is truly underground, electronic music, the sort of music released by Mahmoud Refat’s 100 Copies Music label. Are you familiar with this?

M.L.: No.

B.E.:  Well, this label is obviously dedicated to the idea of being experimental, and therefore of necessity underground in some sense. They literally print only 100 copies of each release. It’s extremely diverse and free, the music.

M.L.: That’s interesting. He should really be put in touch with the guys from Ramallah Underground. This is very similar to what they are doing.

B.E.:  I will put you in touch. Meanwhile I want to ask you about a style of music that Refat, and Fathy Salama and others pointed to. And that’s this street wedding sha’bi music, DJs drummers and singers performing edgy, techno fused sha’bi at weddings. I read just this morning about a show of this music that happened at El Ganeina Theatre.  It’s an interesting example of highbrow presenters reaching to a very marginalized world and putting it on the big stage. And one of the artists and the interview was complaining that there had been so little local attention to them.  He felt they were not being taken seriously by the Egyptian media.
M.L.: Well isn’t this precisely what happens with rai music?  Rai is the sha’bi music of Algeria. It gets somewhat westernized when it goes to Paris and comes to clubs and gets electronisized, and then people like Rachid Taha start working with Western artists, and it becomes something different. But it’s kind of a natural process. Really, the question is whether the sha’bi music that is popular in Cairo, this generation of sha’bi music—kind of cheesy Arab pop kind of thing—which music connoisseurs may not like, in the same way they don’t like Britney Spears or Hannah Montana or other kinds of cheesy commercial pop, disposable pop music in the US. But for producers, I think it’s very interesting that you have DJs and producers like you’re talking about who are happy to work with these kind of popular artists, because as a way of them having an impact, while still remaining in the underground. So to speak. You know, not in the mainstream at least. And that’s a natural thing. Why they’re not being noticed as much I think it’s just because sha’bi music in Egypt is not aesthetically as interesting as it has been in other countries. And most of the sha’bi artists before Mubarak was gone were either apolitical, or even pro-Mubarak.

B.E.:  Although Refat and others would say that this music is very interesting, very creative. And we’re not really talking about the cheesy pop sha’bi. This is something more raw and edgy. With loops and shouting and kind of rapping. This seems to be something new, and something more exciting than whatever was happening with sha’bi music was before. It’s not safe. The things that are being sung about are not safe.

M.L.: Oh, absolutely. But you could think of someone like Shabaan Abdel Rahim, the sha’bi singer who became famous for that song “I Hate Israel” in 2003 or so. And if I remember correctly, in 2006, he did a song about the Israeli soldiers who were killed, trying to wake up the Arab men to make them understand they should be more militant against Israel. He was considered political. He was also very pro-Mubarak. He actually did an election song for Mubarak.  You never know why certain genres are getting attention. I mean, metalheads get attention in the Arab world because they seem so incongruous with what we in the West understands traditional Middle Eastern, or Muslim culture to be. Traditional electronic music of the time we’re talking about, which is already on the avant-garde, is not something that has any resonance in the West, has no narrative like heavy metal does in the West, where ears perk up as soon as you hear the term “heavy metal,” and you think about Ozzy Osbourne or Satan worship. Whether you like it or not, it’s something your mind likes to think about, whereas this music you’re talking about doesn’t have that kind of relevance. I think it’s going to be hard for it to get the kind of interest, because even if people like it and want to write about it, what’s really the tagline? What’s the way to make the story of that music a story that people outside, or even inside Egypt, are really going to take something away from it? Other than the facts that their musicians were working with other musicians and doing this interesting music.

B.E.:  Okay, the collaborations with people like Mahmoud Refat and Hassan Khan– those are not necessarily going to get the attention.  But the sources they’re drawing from, I have to say, that was some of the most listenable music I collected in Egypt.

M.L.: Well that’s what sha’bi music is. That’s popular music. That’s precisely what it is. That’s what defines the genre anywhere you go. Right? It’s the music you can listen to without thinking about it, and it’s listenable and not so…

B.E.:  Okay, but I mean interesting as well as just pleasant. I like the old sha’bi too, but this new stuff is different. It has a real edge to it.

M.L.: Well, you know I would have to listen to more of it in order to comment more specifically on it.  But I’m still not sure what anybody’s angry about.

B.E.:  Well, I think this artist was expressing an idea that their music is what everybody’s listening to, but nobody in Egyptian media writes about it.

M.L.: Because they’re not cool.

B.E.:  Maybe that’s a matter of perspective. In their neighborhoods, there cool. They’re the people everybody wants of their wedding.

M.L.: Of course. But they’re still not cool yet. Unless there’s an angle… I mean, to be written about, if they are so permeating every day life, but they don’t necessarily permeate politics or something on the margins of everyday life, that has more to do with political life. So if you’re very much part of everyday life, then journalists are going to feel that everyone knows who you are and where you fit in, so there’s not much point in writing about it, unless there’s an angle. Unless they can convince people that there’s something more to it than meets the eye or the ear. Which is, yeah, they’re the guys that you want to hire for your wedding, or that you’re going to hear blasting out of a tour boat if there are no tourists on it. But everybody knows that already. So what is the story gonna tell about them, other than something everybody already knows the Egypt? That I think is the issue.

B.E.:  Well, does a magazine article about the latest doings of Amr Diab tell anybody anything they don’t already know?

M.L.: No, you are absolutely right. But that’s of course because he is an icon in a way that they are not, and his image sells things that they can’t. I think it comes down to how they’re marketed, what advertisers consider their value to be, their value as a commodity. Once they become more part of the commodity chain, the corporatized commodity chain, then you’re going to start seeing a lot more stories about them. As long as they’re just part of the folk background that everybody knows, but doesn’t think that there’s anything much more to, they are going to have a hard time.

(Popular rock group Cairokee)

B.E.:  Okay, before we wrap up, I’m going to ask you to look into your crystal ball. As you know, records and concerts by big artists like Amr Diab have been pretty much on hold since the revolution. The money behind those big names is sitting and waiting to see what happens. Maybe the old stars are not getting cut it once the revolution is over. So what I’d like to ask you is what you see coming down the pike, in terms of mainstream music? When you see that going in post-revolution Egypt?

M.L.: I think there are two issues that are going to impact that. The first is what role does the revolutionary generation of young kids who are at the forefront of creating a culture of revolution, what role will they actually going to play? So far, as the year has dragged on through the elections, they have been increasingly marginalized. If their voice and their music continue to be marginalized, then I think they are not going to have a larger cultural impact in the coming years, that one could have imagined that they would have had as the ones most responsible for the revolution. You are not going to see, for example, a cultural revolution to match the political revolution that they helped launch.

On the other hand, to the extent that more religious forces become the dominant voices in society, and can actually challenge and transform Egyptian society to become even more conservative, I think you’ll see these pop voices going more in the Samy Yusef vein, this kind of very milquetoast, sort of semi-gospel, music praising God or the prophet or certain kinds of family values, because that’s what it seems people are buying. But you know there could be a reaction against that in popular culture too. I think it’s impossible to predict. It’a just like you couldn’t predict grunge or hip hop when they were coming out. No one really knows what the cultural dynamics are that are going to suddenly become dominant. How institutionalized are the singers of the revolution? The rappers and the singers of the revolution—like Ramy Essam and Arabian Knightz.  Are they going to make a transition to commercially viable artists? That’s something I know that Ramy has struggled with, and other artists, because they want to stay relevant politically, but they also want to break through and actually make a living doing music, and that’s a very hard thing to do, because the more they stay political, the less useful they are to advertisers. What advertisers want is people who were political for a minute, made a name, and then sold out. And real artists don’t want to do that. And as long as they don’t want to do that, it’s going to be harder for them to become, and maintain a mainstream presence. That combined with the fact that no one knows culturally where Egypt is going to make it very hard.

In other countries, like Tunisia, you see a real flowering of the rap scene, or the hip-hop scene. There’s just a much bigger flowering of musical culture there since the revolution. And they are having more success. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out in Egypt.

B.E.:  Where do you see rock bands like Wust al Balad and Cairokee figuring into that dynamic?

M.L.: I mean, I think they will continue. You know, the problem is there’s not as much a culture of sort of concerts for these kinds of songs yet. I mean even music like El Tanbura.  They can go and do an international tour and be a huge success, and come home and play for 50 people were 60 people on an average night in Cairo, or Port Said.  The same with Wust al Balad.  They play at places like Sawy.  They still do good music. They get more international recognition. But I don’t know how much they represent a massive Egyptian culture where people are going to start paying a lot more money to buy their CDs or to download their music legally, or to actually have them play. You’re not going to invite Wust al Balad to play at your wedding, right? So where are they going to play? What other venues in Egypt? Unless they start doing festivals regularly with a lot of corporate support that can start playing these artists regularly so they can survive, they’re ultimately going to be, whatever the revolutionary credentials, in the same spot they were two years ago, doing great music that’s not that popular within Egypt. That limits their ability to make a lasting impact, compared to some of the major pop stars who will always be able to get across to the mainstream public much more easily.

B.E.:  Thanks so much, Mark.  I look forward to keeping this conversation going as things unfold.