In the midst of a world locked down by a pandemic of unprecedented scale, we just entered the tenth anniversary year of an event of planetary significance: the Arab Spring. What sparked the insurgent fire that mobilized millions, from the heart of the Maghreb to the Levantine shores and on to Bagdad and Yemen, was quite literally the self-immolation of Tunisian street grocer Mohammed Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010, in a desperate act of protesting the intolerable conditions of exploitation, violence, and injustice that had debilitated Arab societies throughout since the heyday of Panarabism. Nearly a month later, on January 25, 2011, Tahrir Square in Cairo erupted into a mass protest that brought together nearly all aspects of Egyptian society in an unprecedented gesture that launched what was subsequently named the assembly or occupy movement, a worldwide phenomenon that left an indelible mark on the decade.
From the standpoint of our bizarre and urgent present, this extraordinary uprising may now seem alien and remote, its sequence of events shoved into the cupboard of history as a result of its political defeat, which came at an inestimable cost of human life by imperial war and state violence. Yet, the pulsion of its vision is alive in domains that were unleashed by the event itself, which may not be immediately identified as political, though they very much are.1
In the vast range of subsequent reflections, reconsiderations, first-hand accounts, and secondary analytical narratives flooding both journalistic and scholarly mindways, one discerns an insistent return to the event’s cultural and performative strains.2 This is hardly surprising. The Arab Spring was an occasion of extraordinary performative magnitude. Its revolutionary political power consisted precisely in this performative explosion. It was not a military insurrection by any means; its power derived from the sheer assembly of multitudes of bodies in public squares in real shared time. As bodies have it, this power of occupying public spaces was signified by spontaneous voice, gesture, and expression – performance and poetry, theatricality and music..
The Arab Spring was an occasion of extraordinary performative magnitude.
Perhaps this is why it was ultimately defeated, but such an account is hardly helpful. With barely a handful of exceptions, the core history of capitalist domination throughout the 20th century is flooded by defeats of insurrection, and yet this does not at all diminish the lasting significance of these insurgent moments. Although defeated on the ground, they remain symbolically unassailable and indeed lasting in ways still unaccountable, except perhaps through the metaphorics of radioactivity: long and persistent irradiation and erosion of what is always presumed to be a return to stability and order but never is. History moves inordinately slow.
As Arab youth sought to regain its footsteps and its vision in the aftermath of political defeat, worsening poverty, and economic malaise, and in the face of brutal military repression that targeted specifically its modes of social organization and expression, what emerged was a sort of recalibration of action with a turn to the aesthetic and performative sphere, which is no less political. This new framework of action is not just a matter of individual artistic production, but rather a whole network of organization, collaboration, and even institution of venues and events aimed to bring people together and channel the same spirit that once mobilized them en masse in streets and public squares.3
This is actually a broader phenomenon than one might guess. Its implications are as vast as the networks involved and it has yet to be fully accounted for, even if it has been extensively reported. For me, what proved groundbreaking and awe-inspiring in reconsidering the present-future of these societies post-Arab Spring was coming to know the experimental music scenes in Beirut and Cairo during the last few years. My attention on this front grew out of long-term interest, since at least my discovery of Mazen Kerbaj’s famous recording of trumpet improvisations out on his terrace to the tune of Israeli bombers lighting up the Beirut night sky on July 15, 2006.4 This inspired act, titled “Starry Night”, has been described as a piece of sonic journalism, but it’s more than that. Several years later, it remains singular in its staging an encounter of music as sheer human breath with the annihilating force of reality’s war machine. For decades, Kerbaj has been at the center of an incredible group of artists and musicians that form a self-organized scene in Beirut, driven by collective independent production against the commercial music market, very much in the style of their own free-improvisation performances and happenings.5
It was not then surprising to discover that, subsequent to the Arab Spring events, these independent networks had interlocked across the Cairo-Beirut-Istanbul axis, reiterating the profound cosmopolitan history of these cities. Cairo’s specific history of musical innovation in the 20th century is remarkable on its own and its influence categorical. Obviously, within the Arab musical tradition, the reins of innovation belong to such luminous figures as Umm Kulthum (1898-1975) and Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1901-1991), along with the spearheading role that Radio Cairo played for the entire Arab world and parts of Africa during the height of the anti-colonial struggle. Less widely known, but equally significant, are two other pioneering figures, each forging a singular path in their own domains: Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017), a prolific composer who is lauded in the contemporary music world as the first to create music with magnetic tape (1944), four years before Pierre Schaeffer’s first experiments with musique concrète,6 and Salah Ragab (1937-2008), composer, drummer, and leader of the Cairo Jazz Band, whose collaboration with the Sun Ra Arkestra in Egypt during the early 1970s is the stuff of legend.
When referring to such innovations, the common point of argument is how these were instances of bringing Western musical tonalities into the Arab world, and it was said as much about Abdel Wahab as El-Dabh. The very framework of this thinking is testimony to the often thoughtless divide between the “modern” and the “traditional”, as if tradition isn’t exactly what exists in the now: the ever-repeating and ever-changing ritual response of people to their conditions of life. Indeed, El-Dabh’s first magnetic tape experiments were based on his field recordings of the Zaar ritual in rural Egypt. Between these recordings and El-Dabh’s participation in the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Project in 1951 there is a seamless line: in my terms, not only the modernity of tradition but the line of invention as tradition.
This kind of misguided thinking, which separates tradition from invention, circulated in response to the political significance of the Arab Spring itself. “Is Tahrir Square really a revolutionary site like the Bastille or the Czar’s Winter Palace?” was a question one often heard in those days. The question was posed with the measuring stick for revolutionary politics being the history of Europe or America, and it was posed from both ends, as it were: both from the “Westernist” perspective that doubted the magnitude of the Arab Spring, preferring to play a semantics game (“it is an insurrection, not a revolution”), and from those detractors of the “West” who argued, preposterously, that to call the Arab Spring a revolution was to “Westernize” it. What was utterly befuddling to me was how the purveyors of the second position did not realize that they were just as Orientalist as the purveyors of the first.
Does it matter less politically – does it diminish the actual demands – that Lebanese youth rebelling against the corruption of their governing elites in 2019 were spending their nights having rave parties in the streets, as respite from fighting in the barricades in the daytime? Does this make their politics less authentic? Does it mean that they are corrupted by Western culture while rebelling against the corruption of their own leaders?
These are rhetorical questions, of course, because their premise is ridiculous. But I insist on posing them because, from this perspective, to judge musical innovation and experimentation in terms of an argument of what is or isn’t “Western” is just as preposterous and in fact meaningless. And yet, this is how it is often presented. Even in cases where musicians might opt to experiment within Arab tonality, great effort is often made to underline this as somehow more authentic than, say, someone who is engaged in atonal or free jazz improvisation.
What matters to me here is less a discussion that sees form in such a narrow manner and more an account of a social phenomenon – the engagement of musicians and audiences, always in collaborative fashion, that opens up spaces both for artistic experimentation (whether with form or with conditions of production) and for a broad reconceptualization of collective ways of life. Both these dimensions are indeed the legacy of the event of the Arab Spring, whether directly traceable and acknowledgeable or not.
For economy of space, I will only list a few indicative instances of musicians and groups, with just the barest commentary and an invitation to readers to explore for themselves:
1) The Inimitable Lekhfa Project
I begin with what may be the most popular of my examples, although popular here has nothing to do with mechanisms of commercial manufacturing of popularity – quite the contrary. “Lekhfa” is the title of a collaboration between three gigantic figures in contemporary Arab music: Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca, and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, all legendary musicians, composers, producers, and pioneering artistic figures of their generation with an inordinate number of works under their own name and in other collaborative forms. Their coming together to create this project, begun in Alexandria and shaped in Amman, Cairo, and Beirut over a period of three years, epitomizes the groundbreaking collaborative ethos of post-Arab Spring culture. In musical terms, Lekhfa is the epitome of a supergroup, given the singular influence and visibility of every one of its constituents, which is all the more striking in light of what the name means: to make something invisible.7
The fourth pillar in this project is the poet Mido Zoheir, whose words were the basis of the musical compositions. By all accounts, these remarkable musicians invariably profess that this poetry was the compass for their experimentations. Zoheir, whose sudden death last year (April 26, 2020) at the age of 47 was mourned as a stunning loss in Egypt’s emancipatory cultural sphere, was recognized as one of the key poetic voices who gave vision to the youth movement that coalesced around Tahrir Square. A maverick poet who remained very close to musicians – Saleh’s collaboration with Zoheir was longstanding before Lekhfa – Zoheir was celebrated for his acerbic humor and generally irreverent attitude to the established world, political and poetic alike. And yet, from the scant material I have access to in translation I’m struck with how poetic his attitude is in the fullest sense of the term, as he engaged with the most quotidian aspects of life in a colloquial idiom that brought the trivial (but disturbing) everyday into the elevated tradition of Arab poetic verse. Lekhfa’s performance of the songs “Ekaa Maksour” and “Nefsif Akli” in Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park (September 2017) is a dramatic testimony to the intricate bond that is formed organically between these extraordinary musicians, Zoheir’s poetry, and Cairo’s youth. Even a song with suggestive political overtones as “Ekaa Maksour” (“Broken Rhythm”) is conceived on the basis of rhythm – verse rhythm – as elemental expression of breath itself. Poetry is somatic politics – even in Emily Dickinson’s most private pieces of paper, but all the more when it wafts over multitudes of bodies that are drawn to its rhythms, broken as they may be.
2) The Borderless Music of Karkhana
Karkhana too can be said to be a supergroup, given the accomplishment and voluminous individual record of each of the musicians involved. But somewhat different from Lekhfa, which is an Egyptian-Palestinian project with a targeted response to society in the wake of Tahrir as such, Karkhana relies explicitly on the geographical breaking of borders that the imaginary of the Arab Spring ultimately stands for. The keyboard and effects wizardry of Maurice Louca is present here as well and serves as a bridge between the two groups, as is trumpetist Mazen Kerbaj, of whom we spoke above, along with his longterm Beirut collaborators Sharif Sehnaoui (electric guitar) and Tony Elieh (bass, effects). They are joined by fellow Egyptian oud player Sam Shalabi (who is also, along with Louca, a member of Dwarfs of East Agouza as well as of Canada-based Land of Kush – both extraordinary groups in their own right), Turkish reed and flute player Umut Çağlar, who also plays violin, and veteran improviser Michael Zerang, a Chicago native of Assyrian descent, on drums and percussion.
Improvisation is indeed the foundation of Karkhana’s music, following traditions of free jazz and psychedelic group improvisation but working steadily within Middle Eastern music signatures and styles that derive from shaabi, tarab, and Sufi music. The musical textures are resolutely electroacoustic, with particular attention paid to spacing and to silence, but this is hardly to say that they hold back from achieving deafening crescendos that include guitar feedback, piercing reed sounds or all kinds of percussive noise that might emerge from any instrument, including Kerbaj’s famous hissing trumpet played through tubes of various kinds like a hookah. Performances range from ecclesiastical rituals of musical resonance in a specific space to soaring guitar-and-drums driven psychedelia that underlie a specific generation’s relation to rock music from the periphery. Their live events are auditory rituals, hour-long sets of continuous music journeys, where you may attach yourself to some visionary detail while just as well allow yourself to get lost in a sea of grooves and textures. A great instance of the latter is the live piece “Eastern Daze II” (2015). This is real collective music-making, a conversation among friends with different perspectives – for me, an exemplary occasion of spontaneous composition which is, in the end, the essence of collective improvisation.
3) The Mind-Opening Venues of Nadah El Shazly
In 2019, I was elated to discover the occasion of Karkhana’s collaboration with Nadah El Shazly in just three songs of extraordinary beauty recorded during the band’s residency at the Inter Arts Center in Malmö, Sweden, and released as one side of Carte Blanche, the latest release in Unrock’s Saraswati series, which showcases experimental music from various parts of the world. Karkhana here expands its already rich textural palette in myriad ways with El Shazly’s ethereal vocalizations of French surrealist verses in Arabic. The sublime effect is hardly unexpected. At least, not to those who, like me, were awe-struck to have discovered El Shazly’s debut album Ahwar two years earlier.
To consider Ahwar critically in any responsible way is to realize the incapacity of superlatives. I can’t remember the last time a debut record had such a lasting effect on me. But even phrasing it this way is inaccurate; the conceptual maturity of the project bars any valuation on the basis of debut. Indeed, one wonders why El Shazly did not produce a record in her own name earlier. Her background in punk and post-punk music does not suggest this sort of record, although it’s fair to say that her oftentimes solo or stripped-down live performances do. Ahwar is an artwork with profound understanding of itself. It is a project that exults its musical roots – the keys and tonalities of late 19th-century Egyptian music – while harnessing the full range of contemporary music, including its technology. The happy fortune to see El Shazly perform in a small high-school amphitheater in Brooklyn right before the pandemic confirmed this for me. In fact, the rich layering of the record – impeccably recorded and conducted with the collaboration of Maurice Louca’s equal genius – was dramatized even more by the sparse instrumentation and powerful stage presence of the live show.
While El Shazly, like Saleh, is a singer of extraordinary range and performativity, she is also so deeply imbedded in a synth-based auditory universe that her deliberate project of entwining traditional Arab tonalities with contemporary musical venues and capacities is way beyond the typical references invoked by the sort of phrasing I am using. Of course, this is also true of Louca in his own records, as well as the Lekhfa project,8 although El Shazly’s live experiments, her art activism, and her close association with Egypt’s most experimental DJs and mixers creates a whole other dimension. In the end, El Shazly is unique because, although fully immersed and accomplished in the synth/computer music world, she understands that the ultimate vehicle of composition is her voice. This is rather rare in this context. Even the lush horn richness of “Koala” or the disarming beauty of the synth riff in “Palmyra” are driven by this remarkable understanding of voice – of the body itself as a musical instrument.
4) Electronic Landscape
In February 2018, Nadah El Shazly responded to an invitation by Wire, the most prestigious and wide-ranging contemporary music magazine worldwide, to curate a playlist of “newly released tracks from Cairo”. This eye-opening collection revealed a world of extraordinary range in experimental electronic music, broadly speaking. While rap, DJ, and remix musical culture is a planetary phenomenon these days and has been flourishing in the Arab world since the earliest days of the evolution of Rai music into amplified sound, the landscapes rehearsed on this rather small playlist are dazzling in their radical experimentation with these forms. Like all eye-opening curations, this occasion was for me a departure point for an immersion into such a deep and varied field of work that I cannot possibly do it justice here.
The playlist included two leading figures of the genre, who are actually brothers: Karim El Ghazoly and ZULI (real name: Ahmed El Ghazoly). While both are equally accomplished and strikingly original sound artists, the latter has emerged as a leading figure in the production and organization of collective experiments in Cairo’s underground scene. Quite articulate about his vision and the space it opens in music experiments across borders from the standpoint of his Egyptian specificity, ZULI’s trajectory, like all the artists above, is a miniature of a world pulsing and mutating in rapid fashion on local ground, even as it might reach an international stage. The obstacles are huge. All these artists speak of the difficulties they face in their states. Especially in post-Tahrir Egypt, the clubs and other venues that were opened are steadily closing, as this specific youth scene serves neither the demands of cultural obedience to the state nor the commercial feed of the market.
Nur’s engagement with the “tradition” is more than just musical; she may be the only artist of this remarkable lot to want to engage musically with all aspects of Arab culture and society, including the most ineffable, like certain dimensions of Islam’s legacy as both a religion and a way of life. But in this sense too, the most ineffable is encountered as a matter of sound, in the most tangible materialist sense – a tall order. Her auditory landscapes are labyrinths meant to be sensed and contemplated at one and the same time as they are traversed, evocative and yet mysterious, as historical documents of past and future simultaneously. Here too, again, tradition is invention.
5) Breath and Reality, No Barriers
As a postscript, it seems appropriate that I return to my initial framing of these thoughts: the fact that the path opening to this remarkable musical world was forged by my chance encounter with Mazen Kerbaj’s pioneering presence. Born to a family of artists and trained in the visual and graphic arts, Kerbaj is not only a musical innovator but an artist in a broader frame. The astonishing gesture of “Starry Night” is best understood in the context of his comic book diary of Beirut’s siege in 2006, a daily chronicle of all aspects of life in the city under these conditions. The recorded piece is the auditory dimension of the visual landscape Kerbaj illustrated over several weeks. In retrospect, the bare simplicity and his penchant for the humorous, the tragic, and the grotesque all-in-one bear uncanny likeness to the gestural landscape that graces the Palestinian films of Elia Suleiman.9 In both cases, the hardest reality of life is turned inside out by a sort of caricature, but not in the typical pejorative sense – rather, by enabling the emergence of the comic character that lies underneath its brutality.
One can still access these graphic chronicles in Kerbaj’s old blog. The blog was closed when Kerbaj decided to make his life in Berlin, where indeed another graphic blog project was launched, with multimedia dimensions, which at this point is aptly named “The Corona Diaries”. Collaborative musical experimentation continues unabated, of course, as Kerbaj’s work and performance opportunities are spreading across more and more boundaries. Of this voluminous creativity, I will stand on just one remarkable project that epitomizes his restless sensibility and raises the stakes of innovation even further.
On May 19th, 2018, Kerbaj assembled 49 Berlin trumpeters in the cavernous labyrinthine corridors of the old water reservoir in Berlin-Pankow for a site-specific composition titled Walls Will Fall: The 49 Trumpets of Jericho. In this singular performance piece, uniquely captured by the 3D-perspective of a binaural Kunstkopf KU-100 microphone, the sounds of dripping water and the natural reverberation of the reservoir walls become part of the composition, testifying once again to Kerbaj’s interest in how the human breath, through the trumpet, encounters and entwines itself with the surrounding materiality of the world. Mining obviously the symbolic power of the Jericho myth, the project exemplifies the tearing down of walls and barriers – indeed, all self-inflicted obstacles to human coexistence – and it does so expressly via the multitudinous power of music created by the sheer plurality of bodies in real time and space: the very crux of the last decade’s assembly movements since the Arab Spring.