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Tahrir Square musicians keep revolutionary spirit alive

By Mairi Mackay, CNN
  • Music played to the protesters in Tahrir Square fueled the Egyptian revolution
  • Old protest songs from the 60s were revived and new protest songs written
  • Musician Ramy Essam: "Art ... came out of the ordinary people of Tahrir"
  • Many musicians inspired by the revolution, says record producer Mohamed Ghorab

London, England (CNN) -- The moment Egyptian musician Zakaria Ibrahim remembers best from the revolution is singing with his band El Tanbura as they snaked their way through the million-strong crowd in Tahrir Square on the way to the stage.

"It was a very special moment," he said. "We went through the crowd but we started to sing on our way to the stage and this was something special -- not from the stage, not with (a) soundsystem -- it was just acoustic."

The renowned collective of master musicians whose traditional folk is infused with politics had been invited to play at Tahrir, Cairo's nexus of protest.

It was early February, just days before former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and Tahrir Square was thronging with Egyptians clamoring for change.

Egypt's revolution at six months: 'We can't go back'

"(Music) can encourage people to continue to be in the square and recharge their desire and their mind and their spirit.
--Zakaria Ibrahim, musician

And fueling this huge revolutionary party were musicians, who had traveled from cities across Egypt, performing rebel songs for the crowds.

Protesters could listen to soapboxes from activists about the politics of the country, but it was music that kept their spirits up and steeled their resolve, according to Ibrahim.

"(Music) can encourage people to continue to be in the square and recharge their desire and their mind and their spirit.

" ... especially if the music goes with the reasons which push those people to be in Tahrir Square -- revolutionary songs, patriotic songs," he said.

Songs like "In Old Port Said," which El Tanbura, from Port Said in the south of Egypt, played for the crowd that night.

Play El Tanbura

"Port Said is very well known in Egypt as the city of resistance," said Ibrahim, 59.

In 1956, France, the United Kingdom and Israel attacked Egypt following President Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal.

"There is a big repertoire from this time," Ibrahim added. Many of these songs were revisited during the 19 days of the revolution, with old words gaining a new resonance.

Six months on from the start of the revolution on January 25, El Tanbura was at London's Barbican to perform with other musicians who played in Tahrir Square.

Art ... came out of the ordinary people of Tahrir.
--Ramy Essam, singer-songwriter

They include 24-year-old singer Ramy Essam. Essam came to be regarded as the singer of the revolution for his song "Irhal" or "Leave," scribbled down in a few minutes in his tent using protesters' slogans as the lyrics.

Watch Essam singing "Irhal" in Tahrir Square

"At first I thought only the younger generation would interact with my songs but it turned out everyone related to them," said Essam. "The songs were mocking the system and giving people a reason to laugh and get through time at Tahrir Square."

Play Ramy Essam

Like many, the previously unknown singer from El Mansour lived in the square: "We used to stay there for days and my family and friends encouraged me to bring my guitar," he said.

He describes the outpouring of creativity there as a way for people to express how they were feeling.

"Art ... came out of the ordinary people of Tahrir," Essam said. "Because people had strong artistic energy and honest feelings that they wanted to put out, to express their different feelings, whether it was fatigue, anger, or even happiness."

Mohamed Ghorab, founder of Egyptian label Hybrid Records, says lots of new musicians have been inspired by the revolution, particularly in hip hop and rock, and while there's always been an underground scene in Egypt, people are paying more attention to it now.

"People are just going to the square with their guitar and playing -- it's very, very hippie in Tahrir Square right now.

"This is the spirit of the revolution: Bringing the good out of everyone and the musicians who thought, 'Since life is going to change, now I'll try to work more on my music; I'll go to Tahrir Square and play; I'll record something and put it up on YouTube.

"You have a lot of trash but there is some really good stuff in there," he added.

Unfortunately, the peace and love ethic doesn't always reign at Tahrir: Essam was one of 220 people arrested on March 9 by the military council and beaten.

People are just going to the square with their guitar and playing -- it's very, very hippie in Tahrir Square right now.
--Mohamed Ghonim, Hybrid Records
  • Arab Spring
  • Tahrir Square
  • Egypt

"We were tortured for four hours. I was tortured more because they knew my name and knew what I do," he said.

But despite the incompleteness of the revolution politically and the continuing dangers, Essam said Egyptians like him have experienced a seismic psychological shift: "The biggest change is in the people. They can say 'No' now."

Egypt after Mubarak: A checklist

"There's a lot of hope," agreed Ghorab. "Society is going through a lot of changes right now."

But while the revolution has stimulated a new wave of Egyptian musicians, it will be a long time before there is a system that can sustain them.

"There isn't a music platform that (artists) can make money out of," said Ghorab. "People here just don't pay for music.

"The live music scene here in Cairo is still very tiny. You don't have many venues," Ghorab added.

Aroub Abdelhaq contributed to this story.