Afropop Worldwide prepares a musical portrait of Egypt

During their one-month stay in Egypt, Afropop Worldwide, collected a large amount of data for four radio episodes on Egypt’s music scene

Published on 11 August 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

Afropop is a syndicated American radio programme operating within the national radio network with the aim of presenting specific regions through their musical heritage. Since its launch in 1988, Afropop has been looking into the musical legacies of Senegal, Mali and other west and central African countries, bringing their culture to American listeners and the African diaspora. Aired in America, the programme is also accessible on the Afropop web site: www.afropop.org..

African music is particularly relevant to American culture and, born of influences from the American south in the aftermath of the slave trade, it manifests in a range of genres from jazz and blues to rock’n’roll. That is how Afropop started, by seeking out the African sources of popular American music. Since 1991, however, the shows started exploring new territories. Banning Eyre, a senior producer at Afropop, explains, “As we started studying North Africa and the Middle East, we created a number of radio programmes talking about those societies and their musical legacies. Music is encoded in human history. Once you decode it, you discover why the world is the way it is. Afropop looks at music as a set of canvases portraying history, religion, societies, politics and more.”

Among the many programmes available on the site are three episodes about the musical legacy of Al Andalus. The programmes look into the Moorish and Arab Islamic culture’s movement into Spain and how on the one hand it changed the music of Europe, particularly during in the 8th-15th centuries, and on the other hand how it influenced music in Morocco, Algeria and other Arab countries.

The National Fund for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are the main bodies funding research conducted by Afropop Woldwide, which in 2004 created Hip Deep, a new set of radio series aiming at in-depth research in thw musical landscape of select regions coupled by on-the-ground assessment of the scene. “We are not only spending lots of time with the professors at the table. Hip Deep puts particular stress on interaction in the field. We visit artists at their homes, talk to people involved in the field, attend concerts, observe the audience etc,” Eyre explains.

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And it is the Hip Deep project that brought Afropop Worldwide to Egypt. Working under the supervision of a diverse team of scholars and cultural advisors, Eyre, together with Sean Barlow, another senior producer, have conducted a series of studies into Egypt’s music scene. “Our aim is to create a musical portrait of Egypt through four one-hour radio episodes,” Eyre explains, pointing out Afropop’s interest in Egypt’s heritage and the development of its music through history in its full socio-political contexts.

Eyre noticed, for example, that in the last 10-12 years, many outlets for alternative art were created in Egypt: new galleries and performance spaces, new and interesting film productions… all topped with the internet serving as a platform for communication and exposure: “There is a whole new environment catering to young Egyptians, a fact which also made the January revolution possible. We are equally interested in history, looking back at Cairo’s time as a production centre for film and musicÉ There are many stories to tell about the current scene versus its historical backgrounds and developments.”

The Afropop team has initiated contact with a multitude of institutions, musicians, music specialists and many other people involved in the scene in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. During their one-month stay, the team has reached out into all those contexts which have shaped the musical scene in Egypt. “We spoke to Mohamed Mounir, Fathy Salama, Rami Essam at Tahrir Square, Bedouins in Sinai, the West El Balad band, musicians working in hip hop, electronic and heavy metal music; we went to some weddings with Hakim and interviewed him about shaabi music. We attended a moulid in Assiut, we went to El Tanboura Hall, Makan, El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, El Sawy Culturewheel; we approached Ahmed Mostafa Kamel, a Koranic recitation master, as well as George Kyrillos, the founder of the David Ensemble, specialising in Coptic hymns,” Eyre presents an endless amount of data collected by Afropop Worldwide during their stay in Egypt. On their return to the US, the team will start piecing together the whole musical culture of Egypt, dividing their findings over four radio episodes.

“The first episode will be a sort of a sound portrait of Cairo, where we will hear the sound of a public concert: driving in a taxi while listening to Koranic recitation, the call to prayers, public concerts at some of the cultural centres, etc.,” Eyre says, explaining how the series will begin with an introduction to the city. In the course of the programme, the listener will gain a sense of the history, through elements such as the liturgical music heard in Coptic Cairo, for example. “We recorded one of the great Sufi singers in Tahrir Square and that was such a fascinating juxtaposition of past and present.”

The story of Cairo and Alexandria as hubs of film and music production is the theme of the second episode. “If you take a picture of the Middle East in the 1950s, it is undeniable that Egypt was the production centre,” Eyre explains, outlining the journey that the listener will take in the history of Egypt through interviews conducted with some older members of the music scene. Many historical recordings will complement the detailed take on the first half of the 20th century and the following decades, with things going downhill in the last 40 years. Within the era, producers plan to cover iconic Egyptian figures such as Umm Kulthum (an earlier, detailed programme on Umm Kulthum is available on the Afropop web site). The episode will also introduce the fundamentals of Arabic music theory: microtonal modes and rhythm.

The third episode will be a general wrap-up of last 20-30 years of music with modern and contemporary trends represented, focusing on artists and musicians popular as well as musical icons and underground trends including performers of jazz, pop, metal and other genres. This section will also include shaabi musical elements, such as wedding singers from Imbaba.

The fourth episode will focus on the traditional music and how it lives in the modern context. “This is where we’ll be interested in the moulid, the zar, musicians performing at Makan and Zakaria Ibrahim’s El Tanboura troupe, his approach to traditional music, as well as others performing different forms of folk music.” Eyre gies on to explain how the show will present two sides of the equation: on one new things are being created, attracting new audiences, and on the other traditions are being kept alive.

Eyre believes that apart from the historical value of the episodes, they will contribute to raising awareness and generating interest in Egypt’s musical trends, which are unknown to the average American listener. “If you really listen well to the music, you will hear its people’s history, politics, social issues, immigrations, geography,” Eyre explains. The four episodes thus offer a broad range of benefits. “Egypt’s music reflects the complexity of its society, particularly now. Music provides windows onto and ways of understanding both history and personality. Many things become very tangible when you experience them through music. With our research, we are gaining a true impression of what Egypt is really like.”

In addition to the radio shows themselves, Afropop will place a lot of informative material on the internet including links to Egypt’s musical institutions and performers, blogs, videos. “We will make sure to include as much material as possible. We hope that Afropop Worldwide will be the ultimate source for our listeners to get acquainted with Egypt’s music and hence the country’s history and culture. At the same time it will hopefully create a new channel of communication between artists, artistic institutions and audiences in both countries.”

With an enormous amount of data collected during their one-month stay in Egypt, Afropop Worldwide will start the production process soon, planning on making the first of four episodes available in October; all four programmes to be completed by February 2012.

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