Rock music in Egypt: a challenging adventure

By Shereen Abdo

Many North African musicians have adopted musical forms considered foreign to Arab culture - like rock music - and have attempted to “Arabize” them. Merging styles in this way requires a lot of effort and a great deal of knowledge of both the local musical heritage and the style being adapted. It requires an artistic vision that may lie in the lyrics or the nature of the tunes. The degree to which these standards are achieved can make or break this merger.

Egyptian rock band Cairokee. Photo: hotarabicmusic.blogspot.com
Egyptian rock band Cairokee. Photo: hotarabicmusic.blogspot.com

The Arabic Oud

The origin of the oud (lute), for example, is very hard to trace, and it is not unique to one country, Arab or otherwise. Most cultures have their own version of the Oud. For example, Egyptians have a musical tradition (songs by storytellers, Bedouins and Upper Egyptians) that can only be played with the Oud. Consequently, this instrument has been an essential part of the Egyptian culture. However, self-expression only through the instruments we invented seems limited. Sometimes your grief can be expressed by the Oud. Other times, your rage is better expressed with an electric guitar. Thus, attempting to limit a certain instrument or musical mode to a certain tune may be successful if compared with an attempt to copy a foreign example without adding any personal touches. Listening to music after these changes took place in society is a thorny issue, related to different political and economic factors that play a key role in the acceptance or rejection of this music. Even though rock-inspired music has become popular in Egypt, there was clear resistance to it at the beginning.

Western instruments have been introduced to popular or commercial songs, producing valueless and talentless music. However, musicians still attempted to keep the Arab rhythm in their songs to avoid alienating the audience. More open Arab societies, perhaps for geographical reasons and for mixing with other cultures, have developed rock and rap music, creating completely new music genres. In Algeria, for instance, rock is paired with rai music in the songs of Rachid Taha, Cheb Khaled or others.

The reason why many North African musicians chose rock in particular cannot be understood without reflecting on the revolution and its political, social and economic circumstances in the Arab world. This revolutionary state - and the ambition of musicians to become stars on the stage by playing the guitar - both explain the trend, which in most cases was limited to instruments and rhythms, without the same tunes or musical phrases. If we look at the works of Sayed Darwish and Sheikh Imam, we can find examples of early Egyptian rock. Their songs can be remixed using rock instruments and musical phrases (which we have seen in some new examples), reclassifying them as modern music that simulates the fast pace of the modern age and expresses the current revolutionary state through the power of instruments and lyrics.

Adapting rock

Looking at current examples in the North African music scene (mostly independent or semi-independent), the main point of weakness in any rock experience lies in how language deals with rhythm. Rock music is not based on Arabic lyrics, even though some Arabic dialects lend themselves to its rhythm, including the Algerian, Tunisian and Lebanese dialects. However, no one has managed to adapt the Egyptian dialect to rock music. But perhaps the opposite can work: adapting rock tunes to the Egyptian dialect. However, this may lead to a fake adaptation, where the musician would force the tune into consistency with the lyrics. In addition, this can work in terms of pronunciation only, not in terms of the spontaneity of music. It can also be flexible for those who master it, allowing for rock music with the Upper Egyptian dialect, for example.

One cannot deny that rock is currently widespread in Egypt, but other factors have to be taken into consideration. The influence of those with money - who in turn enjoy an extent of control that enables them to promote a certain culture - also contributed to the spread of rock music in the country. The country's domestic and foreign policies also play a key role, as they permit a certain culture or music genre to gain popularity in the country, while restricting other genres. In other words, just like certain types of food are imported, certain music genres are also imported, the strongest of which will dominate. It does so not as a culture (because there is no competition with indigenous cultures), but as an item for consumption, subject to propaganda that determines how popular it will become.

Reflecting on the current Egyptian music scene, it appears that rock music has had an ideal opportunity to present itself, among other music genres and cultures. It may have declined slightly due to technology and the availability of home production tools, allowing producers to easily upload their work online, but rock arguably remains ahead of other genres in the commercial music business.

Originally published on 18 March 2015 on al-Araby.

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