Against Oblivion: Documenting Protest Music Traditions in the Middle East and North Africa

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In this text, the host of the podcast Vintage Arab about Arab music heritage, Hajer Ben Boubaker gives us an overview of the way protest songs are part of the revolutionary history of the Middle East and North Africa, in particular when they are sung by the crowds of ultras in football stadiums.

Article published in The Funambulist 25 (September-October 2019) Self-Defense. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

In modern collective memory, the intersection of Arab songs with politics dates from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. The first few decades of the century coincide with a period of intense cultural creativity, marked by the thundering development of theater and musical theater, especially in Egypt. We owe the rise of anti-colonial songs to the immense Egyptian composer and singer Sayed Darwish who composed “Biladi biladi” (“O my country!”), an anti-colonial song against the British presence, which became the anthem of the Egyptian nationalist party and ensured him to be one of the first regional musical stars. 

Like Darwish, other artists also developed their political positions in many other countries. In Algeria for example, the great singers of Chaabi, the most popular musical genre in the country, responded to the call for an artistic strike initiated by the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the 1954-1962 Revolution. The Chaabi icon Cheikh El Anka, stopped singing until the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. He reappeared on the radio at the announcement of the Algerian victory on July 5, 1962 at midnight to sing “Thanks God, colonialism did not remain in our country.” In parallel to the songs popularized by classical or urban musical styles, many revolutionary songs from the working or rural classes emerged in all the colonized countries, often sung by women, but also by male members of the resistance. Some of the songs, such as “Min djibalina” (“From our mountains”), reached national prestige, and on May 8, 1945 it was performed by the Algerian Muslim Scouts (SMA) while leading the procession of the demonstrations, which was followed by one of the largest mass massacres committed by the French army. During the demonstration, hundreds of citizens roared the song in unison. However, the nationalist and anti-colonial songs embodied more a political positioning than to a musical style per se.