This post was written and compiled by Farah Zahra, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM) and produced through a collaboration between the Institut du monde arabe and RILM [for more information about this collaboration, see the RILM website.
The library of the Institut du monde arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris is home to an extensive collection of writings on music from the Arab world, a region stretching from the Atlas Mountains to the Indian Ocean. This series of blog posts highlights selections of this collection, along with abstracts written by RILM staff members contained in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, the comprehensive bibliography of writings about music. Since the onset of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, the Institut du Monde Arabe has hosted exhibitions and concerts featuring musicians and artists who are at the heart of the cultural production in the region.
“It takes a revolution
To find a solution”
From the song “Revolution” by the Palestinian hip-hop band DAM.
Revolutions and popular movements are characterized by a distinct soundscape defined by chants, songs, and the rhythmic movements of collective bodies. The act of protesting in the Arab world is often encapsulated in the idiom kasara ğidār al-ṣamt (to break the barrier of silence); in contrast, the authorities’ act of oppression is referred to as an act of silencing.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the peoples of the Arab world have composed, disseminated, and rendered songs and chants against all forms of domestic, foreign, secular, and religious oppression. Musicians, vocalists, urban poets, and rappers all moved people to act in spaces, public and virtual. In music literature, these songs and chants are referred to by different names: al-aġānī al-ṯawriyyaẗ (revolutionary songs), aġānī al-iḥtiğāğ (protest songs), al-aġānī al-multazimaẗ (socially committed songs) et al-aġānī al-waṭaniyyaẗ (patriotic songs). With the rise of communist and leftist movements in the Arab world during the 1960s and 1970s, aesthetic judgment was defined by the level of social and political consciousness of music and songs.
The history of independence and protest movements in the Arab world is interlinked with a crackdown on civil liberties and freedom of expression, and is marked by the movement of peoples across regional borders and beyond. Writers on music have commented on the phenomena of protest songs in their home countries as well as the circulation of songs across borders and cross-cultural influences among Arab diasporas in exile, acknowledging the continuous connections between communities at home and elsewhere.
Given the cosmopolitan contexts in which musicians and poets work and perform, the musical and poetic production of non-Arabic-speaking peoples of the region is noteworthy: The Algerian Kabyle vocalist Lounès Matoub (1956–98) singing in Kabyle, youths living abroad rap in European languages, and Moroccan urban poets known as Jil Lklam (Generation of Words) mix the languages and dialects of Amazigh and Arabic, fusing them with expressions in French, English, and Spanish.
The music that carries protest and political themes is as diverse as the dialects and languages present in the Arab world. The patriotic and nationalist songs of the first half of the 20th century draw from the rich repertoire of al-qaṣīdaẗ al-ʽamūdiyyaẗ (vertical poetry), fusing with local melodies and European-style orchestration and arrangement. Other songs rely on local dialects and musical sensibilities to appeal to the broader masses. Among the anti-colonial and independence songs, the Tunisian “Tūnis al-yūm brāt mi al-tankīdaẗ” stands out, sung here by legendary Tunisian vocalist Saliha (1914–58).
The songs of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that offer social and political commentary rely on local folk styles and instruments, as can be observed in the revolutionary songs of the Sabreen group (Palestine) and the revolutionary anthems of the Firqaẗ al-Ṭarīq (Iraq). The songs of Nass el Ghiwane (Morocco) feature elements of rwais, and the rebel songs of Groupe El-Ouali (Mauritania) use the subversive lyrics of Sheikh Imam (1918–95) from Egypt. In the last decades, rock, reggae, rap, hip hop, and other popular genres have served as a source of inspiration for bands such as Mashrou’ Leila (Lebanon), DAM (Palestine), and Cairokee (Egypt), with its aspirational lyrics and rock instrumentation that respond to the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “Ya El Medane” is one song that expressed the aspirations of the youth during the Egyptian revolution.
Protest songs in the Arab world are forms of expression that break boundaries, defy expectations, and challenge reality. They hail from the Atlas Mountains to Tangier and Algiers, and find a receptive audience in the banlieues of Paris; chants are heard in Tahrir Square and move protesters in Sana’a, Beirut, and Tunis.
The writings featured in this annotated bibliography present and carefully analyze songs accompanying key political and social events. These include nationalist protest movements that unfolded in the Arab world in the last century, from anti-colonial movements and national movements in the first half of the century to chants that accompanied the revolutions of 2011 and beyond.
Written and compiled by Farah Zahra, Assistant Editor, RILM
Abstract: The Moroccan music scene that emerged in the mid-1990s has become a crucial part of the overall cultural scene of the country. Rappers, slammers, reggae musicians, creators of metal music and non-music genres such graffiti and break dance have all initiated an urban movement that mixes genres and contributes to a multicultural Morocco. The evolution of discourse emerging from the underground scene to the public sphere is explored, with attention to the lyrics of songs expressing a young generation that is concerned with taboo subjects, cool music, and tough texts. Eloquent, humorous, sensitive, angry, and poetic, this creative and rebellious generation expresses, in multilingual tongues—vernacular, Amazigh, mixed with French, English, and Spanish—its love for its homeland along with its desire for dignity, freedom, and a future. A new generation of artists is revealing, in addition to its eloquence and its extraordinary talent for writing and composition, an unquenching determination to be heard. The generation adapted the American counterculture’s ethos of do-it-yourself and solidarity while using new technology and social media to share its music. Including interviews with experts on the new music scene, a selection of song texts shared in their original language and translated to French, and rich iconography, the book represents a platform for the new generations of artists to be heard and seen, a generation that is the true echo of the youth.
Abstract: A description and an interpretation of the music scenes in 2001, after ten years of political violence that Algeria witnessed. The aftermath of violence and political stances in music genres and scenes, old and new, is discussed. Local genres such as raï, Kabyle militant, and chaabi triste sorrowful chaabi capture a general spirit of hopelessness, but also of hope. Case studies and performances such as the hip-hop group Intik and the group Ragga-Gnawi are explored, and the performance and the following banning of Baaziz's “Algérie mon amour” is interpreted against the backdrop of political upheavals in Algeria. Algerian hip hop is a rhythmic, musical, and lyrical rupture from everything that preceded it.
Abstract: Approaches Amazigh (Berber) music as an expression of cultural, social, and political resistance. Rwayss is a genre that originates in the Sous region, the center of Amazigh culture, and incorporates singing, dance, and a religious ceremony. The setting where rwayss is traditionally performed is described, and new scenes of rwayss in urban spaces in Morocco and in Europe, especially in France and Belgium, are analyzed. Resistance to musical assimilation and the importance of continuity in rwayss and its connection to the past are considered the main expression of resistance that the tradition holds.
Abstract: Explores the ways in which young Arab rap artists navigate the contradictions in the urban and public spheres in everyday life. The discourse of resistance permeating scholarship on rap and hip hop in the Arab world is critiqued and perceived as an expression of neoliberal power. Within the context of the rap scenes in Beirut and Ramallah, political feeling is expressed through objection, confrontation, repetition—a set of processes that hinges on collective action and solidarity rather than individual agency. Interactions, as such, should not be labeled as political but should be approached as subversive in their own terms. Conclusions are based on ethnographic studies conducted in Beirut and Ramallah, where interviews and conversations were conducted and exchanges between artists and audiences were observed.
Abstract: Provides a selection of songs that marked the history of revolutionary and nationalist songs. Most of them were initially poems later set to music. All the case studies feature a short background on the poet, the performer, and the historical context. Brief background information is then followed by the lyrics in Arabic and a French translation. Among the case studies featured are Min djibalina (From our mountains) by Mohamed Laid Al Khalifa from Algeria, Irdatou al-hayat (The will to live) by Abou el Kacem Chebbi from Tunisia, “Ana Afriqi ana Soudani” by Alsir Gadour from Sudan, Ounadikoum (I call upon you) by the poet Tewfik Ziad from Palestine, and other cases from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria.
Abstract: Issued as part of the exhibition Hip Hop, du Bronx aux Rues Arabes organized by the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2015. The book is divided into three sections: the birth of a movement, a new aesthetic, and rap and society. The editors approach hip hop not simply as a genre but as an aesthetic, a lifestyle in perpetual evolution and a continuous transformation. In the preface, the director of the Institut du Monde Arabe remarks on the recourse of young Arab generations to hip hop as a way to express frustration with current realities and to vocalize their aspirations. Articles by multiple authors covering various topics and aspects of hip hop history and its adaptation by contemporary Arab artists are included.
Abstract: Analyzes the role of patriotic, nationalist, and revolutionary songs in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, approaching songs as a register for the changing dynamics of the Palestinian struggle and the various populations and demographics involved in it at different stages of the country’s history. Themes of the songs include the fight for liberation, the dream for Arab unity and solidarity, and the struggle for refugees’ rights. Songs are categorized in three historical phases. The first phase is marked by the growing support for pan-Arabism, the rise of Palestinian guerrillas, and the underground scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. The second phase comprises songs produced by non-Palestinians following the great defeat of 1967. The third phase covers songs that accompanied the first intifada (1987–93). Overall, resistance songs were subject to many transformations throughout the second half of the second century and beyond. Musicians and artists moved away from state-sponsored productions to underground scenes in Palestine and among its displaced population. Nowadays, Palestinian resistance and patriotic songs have reached a wide reception and have become a founding aspect of Arab and Palestinian popular culture.
Abstract: Presents photographs featuring Palestinian rappers, spoken word artists, and musicians, as well as photos of the broader urban spaces in which the alternative and broader Palestinian music scene flourishes. The photographer followed musicians in their everyday lives and captured aspects of their activity. The photographs are occasionally accompanied by brief written commentary and by quotes or lyrics by Palestinian poets and artists and Israeli activists. Hip hop artists featured include Saz (Sameh Zakout), Boikutt (Jad Abbas), Shaana Streett, Mahmoud Jrere of DAM, and members of MWR, WE7, and G-Town. Other non-hip-hop artists featured are Amal Murkus and Said Mourad (founder of Sabreen Band).
Abstract: Surveys the works, repertoire, and style of the Mauritanian music and dance company Groupe El-Ouali, and situates them within the broader landscape of cultural resistance in Mauritania in the 1970s and the liberation movement led by the Front Polisario. Groupe El-Ouali was formed by amateur musicians and militants and performed live concerts and disseminated their music on cassettes. The book covers dance styles such as the war dance Dance de ausred, which was performed during the resistance movement led by the Front Polisario against the Spanish occupation of the Sahara, and La touiza, a women’s dance. The book also includes lyrics of selected songs by Groupe El-Ouali translated into French. The songs express themes of revolution and independence, as well as relationships to the land, national identity, and the values of the nationalist movement.
Abstract: Analyzes the music videos Ṣawt al-ḥurrīyaẗ (Voice of freedom), Yā al-mīdān (O Tahrir Square), and Iṯbat makānak (Stand your ground) by the Egyptian band Cairokee. The three music videos were released during the year following the breakout of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January 2011, and each reflects the popular mood accompanying the phases of the revolution. The creation and reception of meaning through these music videos is a product of lyrics, music, and other semiotic resources such as visual cues, photographs, camera angles, framing, range of shots, and gaze. The visual design of each music video is discussed to show how multimodal discourse is formed through the employment of various visual, verbal, and musical modes. Finally, the presence and the agency of women in the three music videos are analyzed following the same analytical model.
Abstract: Documents the rise of popularity of raï and of kabyle musics among young Algerians at home and among the country’s diasporas, covering the origins and early development of raï in the early 20th century and documenting its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Raï is a hybrid genre that merges Arabic and Bedouin poetry and incorporates local and Western instrumentation. Raï song texts can be categorized in terms of clean raï, which narrates stories of love, and dirty rai, which deals with forbidden sexual desires, alcoholism, and alienation. At the start of the Algerian civil war in 1991 raï became one of its battlefields, and while raï itself was not political, it became political insofar as it represents marginalized social classes through expressions of themes that are deemed taboo or unethical by society or political authorities. During the civil war raï artists were banned, and some were murdered by religious guerrilla groups. One important case study presented is the raï song El harba wayn (To flee but where to?) by Cheb Khaled, which became the anthem of protesters during the political crisis of 1988.
Abstract: A comprehensive collection of song lyrics by the Moroccan group Nās al-Ġīwān, compiled by one of its members. The preface includes key information about the group and presents a critical take on various commentators’ views on the phenomenon of Nās al-Ġīwān, their musical career, and their popularity in Morocco. Formed in the 1960s, the group accompanied and contributed to the cultural, artistic, and political movement that was unfolding in Morocco. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a growing popular protest movement that Nās al-Ġīwāne marked with their lyrical and musical contribution. However, one should not reduce the group’s artistic production to a political message. Nās al-Ġīwān merged musical and lyrical elements belonging to four cultures—African, Arab, Amazigh, and Saharan—providing a case study of how to properly reclaim musical and cultural heritage and identity. The concept of a Nās al-Ġīwān dictionary of terms is introduced.
Abstract: Approaches political songs from the 1960s through the 1980s as expressions of contemporary Arab consciousness. The difference between the Arab intellectual elites fueling the conscious cultural movement and the Arab masses who follow with little critical take is explored. Political songs that do not give lip service to intellectual elites, but rather engage and express the real suffering of the people, are highlighted, distinguishing between progressive songs (al-aġānī al-taqaddumīyaẗ) of politically and socially engaged people and political songs (al-aġānī al-siyāsīyaẗ) of authoritarian states and the Arab right. Case studies from Morocco (Nās al-Ġīwān), Tunisia (Aṣḥāb al-Kalimaẗ), Iraq (Firqaẗ al-Ṭarīq), and Egypt (al-Šayẖ Imām) are included.