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A Night in Tahrir Square

As the Barbican prepares to dedicate an evening to Egypt's revolutionaries, El Tanbura explains to us the important relationship between music and the spirit of a nation

Egypt’s street folk ensemble El Tanbura was one of several groups who played in Tahrir Square during the recent uprising. Ahead of their performance in London this month, Zakaria Ibrahim from the band talks about the close relationship between music and revolution. El Tanbura describe themselves as a group of “musicians, singers, fisherman and philosophers”, based in Port Said, a city at the Mediterranean entrance of the Suez Canal, the group have been influenced by the region’s turbulent history and the tradition of the protest song and are known internationally for their commitment to keeping traditional Egyptian folk music alive.

During the recent uprising in Egypt, El Tanbura were one of many artists who headed to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to perform on makeshift stages to the hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered there. This July the group comes to London to perform at A Night in Tahrir Square at the Barbican – an evening dedicated to the artists at the forefront of Egypt’s revolution. Ahead of the event Zakaria Ibrahim from El Tanbura spoke to Dazed about the unique experience of being in Tahrir Square during the uprising and the role that music is playing in the country’s fight for democracy.

Dazed Digital: Tell me about the atmosphere in Tahrir Square during the uprising.
Zakaria Ibrahim:
It was a special moment because the situation was somewhat risky. It was a risk to participate in the revolution because of the Mubarak regime, as at that time it wasn’t clear that the revolution was going to succeed or if everyone was going to have a lot of problems with the secret police afterwards. The police were taking many photos and filming the protesters in Tahrir Square, and as you probably know, Mubarak’s secret police have a reputation for their brutality.

It [Tahrir Square] wasn’t like anywhere we have performed before. The same place in Tahrir, just days before we were there, people died during battles with the police. It was not easy to make music and songs as the people in the Square were feeling this sadness for the people who died during the revolution. Before us on the same stage another group tried to play and the protesters stopped it. The people accepted El Tanbura however because of our old history in reviving traditional Egyptian music over the past 22 years. We have a special repertoire of resistance songs and these old patriotic songs reflected the mood and aspirations of the people.

DD: What role do you think music can play in the immediate future for Egypt?
Zakaria Ibrahim:
Music is already playing a very important role in the new landscape. Many of the musicians who participated in Tahrir Square are now trying to bring their music to people in the villages, away from the big cities, to people who didn’t hear contemporary folk music before - either because the national TV stations didn’t broadcast it or because for so long Egypt’s music has been dominated by Arabic pop.

El Tanbura have a long tradition of re-introducing folk music in the Suez Canal cities – Port Said, Ismailia and Suez - and now post-revolution, musicians like Azza Balba and Ramy Essam are also trying to share their music and lyrics with people across the country. It is a time for people who have a serious musical vision to take their place.

DD: What is the atmosphere in Egypt like now – are the country’s artists experiencing a new period of creativity?
Zakaria Ibrahim
: For sure. During the Mubarak regime most artists endured two forms of censorship – one from the state – having to get an official license to make a CD or cassette release and have the lyrics approved, and a second  - self censorship. As a writer or a singer you were always asking yourself “Can I say this?”, “How far should I go?”, “When does it start to become a problem with the secret police?”. But things are more open now. By some way, you can sing some things now you couldn’t sing before.

There’s more space for freedom of expression although it’s not yet certain if the big companies, satellite channels and mobile network owners who are responsible for Arabic Pop across the whole region, will have the nerve to enter into this new era of political music or just continue to push the same old pop stars with a new music video featuring them draped in the Egyptian flag and cut with footage from Tahrir Square.

DD: Are you looking forward to the event in London in July? Is it important for you to play to an international audience?
Zakaria Ibrahim:
For sure, I’m very excited to play at the Barbican and proud to be associated with the events in Egypt.

When we first toured the UK in 2006 we had a political message with our album “Between the Desert and the Sea”. It was 50 years since the nationalization of the Suez Canal and I wrote a song retelling the events of 1956 using some very powerful words from the Nasser era about having the courage to “get up and take your freedom”. For me I can see that the reaction of the people from the UK at the time was very different from other countries that we played. We played this “Canal Song” in France, for example and we didn’t have the same reaction and to me this means the British people are more interested in politics and world affairs. This time at the Barbican I think that things will be clearer; there is a political vision to the things I believe in and the music El Tanbura is presenting.

You know, the decisions made by the various parliaments worldwide, don’t reflect the needs and hopes of the ordinary people on the streets, so in fact everywhere, not just Egypt, needs to make a revolution.

A Night in Tahrir Square, featuring El Tanbura, Azza Balba, Mustafa Said and Ramy Essam, takes place on 22 July 2011 at 19:30, Barbican Hall