giovedì 5 maggio 2011

Graffiti and Rappers. The Egyptian light Orchestra

Matters of the ear

Giuseppe Acconcia considers revolutionary hip hop while listening to the Egyptian Light Orchestra

Rappers, actors and graffiti artists are invading Egyptian streets. First, a young comic-strip writer issued a review called Tuk tuk a few weeks after the Revolution: Magdy El Shafee, author of Metro, a comic-strip book, as well as a graffiti artist, is among the creators of the project. In last few days, he was on the streets with Omar Mustafa and Mohammed Fahmi (called Mufa) to paint the walls of Mohammed Mahmud Street, Bab El Louk, Champollion Street and Dokky. What are their favourite symbols? Bread, the clenched fist, the words "25 January" or "I am Khaled Said".
"We walked dressed in jackets with a thousand pockets for spray-paint cans," the comic-strip writer explains. According to Magdy, Egyptian culture is at a crossroads. "We achieved results with new methods. Tahrir's young people were inspired by the internet. They have different horizons compared to the old revolutionaries of 1919 and 1953. They developed a new sense of humour, everything happened so fast and without any link with the old generation. Kifaya in 2005 and the demonstrations against corruption in 2007 anticipated the 2011 revolts. Nevertheless all the political apparatus was shocked by these new movements; they considered opposition groups a dead body." What inspired the Egyptian youth? "A lot of foreign movies. Maybe Fight Club and V for Vendetta more than others". Magdy knows that this is only a step towards a better society. "Our job is at the beginning, even civil society, editors and companies were part of our corrupt system. In my next book I will talk about how men change after revolts, how we can overcome a police state, the possibility of a complete change."
But even more than graffiti, young Egyptians are in love with rap, hip hop and RnB. The youngest Cairo and Alexandria groups participated in the Revolution. Among them: Khaled Mahmud or Adam El Nehez Unity, 22, from Al-Qubba; McFlash, Mohammed Shalaby, 20, from Nasr City; Ahmad Moktar or Romel B, 23 and very famous among the young; EG or Mohammed Sherif, 20, from Ghamra; and TEG, Ahmad Mahmud, 21, from Maadi. They are students of engineering, music and Economics, liberals or moderate Islamists. These groups are inspired by Montags and Immortal Techinique from the United States, but also by young Egyptian groups such as Asfalt. They rap about social issues. They gather for concerts at Basta (a new place near Maspiro, Tahrir), at the Sawy Culturewheel, Zamalek, and on the streets (notably of Heliopolis). "We used to talk about how Revolution can change Egyptian society,"Mohammed says. In "Where is Egypt?" McFlash talks about the pollution that suffocates Cairo and the corruption of the political system before 25 January: "I see people who die for money, why are Egyptians not respected in other countries?" the young singer asks in one song. Ahmad Moktar is sure: "Freedom means to say the truth about our past to change our daily habits." Many foreign rappers talk about religion; it is not the same for Egyptians. "We don't talk about religion in our songs," Mohammed Sherif explains; "we are for the respect of every religion and religious behaviour. But we know it is necessary to urge people to move. Whoever is poor should ask for help from God!"
As young men, they were all in Tahrir since 28 January. "We slept in the middle of the square," Khaled recounts, "for almost a week, without anything, not even a blanket. We made raps, but we were singing also Mohammed Munir and Sheihk Imam songs." Revolutionaries of the past, such as Ahmed Foad Nigm, also inspired rappers. "The 2011 revolts were the first Egyptian Revolution. The 1952 one, when our maestro Foad Nigm was in Tahrir, was only a military coup," Romel B. comments. "We don't think about counterrevolution because people are strong and the army respects us," adds Ahmad Mahmud. Rappers always use free styles and improvisations. They add to the Egyptian dialect, directly understood by everybody, words from classical Arabic. "The place of our rehearsal is a small room with a microphone," Ahmad confirms. "We are direct, true, we talk to the people." Some of them dress in long T-shirts and a tight hat. "I wanted to leave Egypt, but now I've decided to stay," says Mohammed. "I was shocked during the Revolution. The more people they shot, the more people came. We protected our home with our neighbours, we are more united than in the past."
Before the Revolution, it was impossible to make money from hip hop; now small production companies are spreading; rappers multiply. Ahmad Mikki, for instance, demands freedom for Egypt; in his songs he talks about violence during the Egypt-Algeria match in Sudan in 2010. The number of rappers is infinite: Arabian Knights of "Not your prisoners", McAmin from Mansoura and Y crew from Alexandria. Priesto talks about the integration of Arab women abroad, Egy Rap School concentrate on Egyptian girls dressed as Westerners. In "Stop the government" they contributed to inciting the 25 January Revolution. Amr Ahah renews the popular songs of weddings, Adaweya style, talking about the attacks on big malls during the revolts. This new army of youth, musicians and writers watch over the Revolution. They are ready to go back to the square, if the army does not realise their requests, but they will not stop rapping whatever the case.
Sam Shalabi and his Egyptian Light Orchestra continue their worldwide tour. After Istanbul, London, Paris and Los Angeles, they performed on 2 May in San Francisco. Shalabi -- his first name was Osama -- is a Canadian citizen and oud player, the founder of the Egyptian Light Orchestra. When he chose the name Land of Kush, he was inspired by the Kush's Nile region. At this time, Shalabi was influenced by Sun Ra's Orchestra and mythical Egyptian origins. The new album, Monogamy (Constellation Records 2010), completes Shalabi's project of building up an orchestra after his first work with Land of Kush, Against the Day. The original name of this mostly instrumental set was The Shalabi Effect; it formed in 1996 in Montreal, Quebec, with compositions by Shalabi and Anthony Seck. In 1998 the group doubled, adding Alexandre Saind Onge on bass and Will Eizlini on tabla. In their last album Land of Kush featured a hybrid of styles and scenarios. Nowadays, more then 20 musicians perform orchestral jazz, psychedelic folk and ancient songbooks.
The songs recall mythical dilemmas such as frustration-liberation, chastity-carnality, innocence-shame. They mix Arabic psych-rock in "1st and the Last" and "Tunnel Visions", free jazz and an orchestral aria in "Scars" and "Boo and Fisherman", metaphysical groove for a trip outside the earth in "Monogamy" and a coming back to earth in a Syrian village with "Like the Thread of a Spider". Among the female voices, Molly Sweeney and Elizabeth Anka Vojagic stand out, while Alexandre St Onge introduces electronic sounds. Shalabi's target is to remould Middle Eastern music, mixing North African and Western traditions with a psychedelic background. The results are fascinating: colours and sounds, ancestral visions and modernist transfigurations. Against the Day was inspired by a Thomas Pynchon novel, travelling between full and empty on a timeless spiritual geography. In "Iceland Spur" the listener will find sounds from the desert inspired by dreams. Hidden on the backyard, Shalabi's oud stands for solemn liberation.
"Shalabi works towards the highest sounds to discover the energy and passion of bodies, showing his need for purification and safety", says Francesco Nunziata, an Italian music reviewer. As a party of dancing spirits, à l'Art Ensemble of Chicago directs its hypnotic groove. The dance ends, leaving space to a kind of desolate procession in "Rue du Depart", a slow walk of energy towards the spirit, not forgetting the imminence of the end. During the last lines of "Monogamy", Moly Sweeney delineantes the alphabet of their trans-cultural music: "A is for the apple tree, B is for Beelzebul and the snake, C is for the curse of Ham, D is for drugs that you're now forced to take, E is for eternity, F is for what you did outside, G is for the Giving Tree, H is for Holy Spirit's bride. And all of this comes out in little birdlike trills. You'll reach for paper to clean up all your spills."

Giuseppe Acconcia
Al Ahram, maggio 2011

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