Monday, January 27, 2014

Matariya Massacre January 25, 2014 + Mahragan + The Holy Family

Reading about the events of January 25, 2014, the three year anniversary of the launch of the Egyptian uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, I came across casualty figures. The first stats I saw were these (in Arabic, from Shorouk News, January 26), which give a total of 53. I noticed that a lot of the casualties seemed to be from al-Matariya, a popular quarter in the north of Cairo. I counted, and the total was 21. A more recent accounting from WikiThawra gives a total of 89 dead, 28 of them from al-Matariya.

I posted the early figure of 21 on Facebook, and my FB friend Alex posted as a comment this video of the events at al-Matariya, which is titled the "al-Matariya Massacre."

It shows a very large crowd of demonstrators, at Maidan al-Matariya, and lots of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) banners. (I've since learned that Matariya was one of two sites of MB demonstrations in Cairo on January 25, the other being Alf Maskan in Ain Shams. In Alf Maskan, according to WikiThawra, 32 died in confrontations with the security forces.) The young men who seem to be leading chants at the demo, shown early in the video, don't look like your typical Ikhwan members, but rather, like prototypical fans of mahragan (electro shaabi) music. Then you see confrontations between demonstrators and the security (who are not visible, you just hear shots being fired). And then, quite gruesome footage of casualties being carried from the lines of confrontation to (rudimentary) medical care. Quite gripping and shocking footage.

On twitter, I came across this photo of damage done to a wall of the shop by the firing of the security forces. You wonder what sort of ammunition they were using...

I've hunted around and been somewhat surprised that there has been very little coverage in English (or other European languages, as far as I can tell) of these events. One guesses because they happened in a popular quarter, which is far from the places that the Western media ever hangs out in, unlike Tahrir Square, which is very accessible. Al-Matariya is off the beaten path, like all of Cairo's popular quarters. One guesses as well that the absence of the usual subjects of Western coverage (young liberals/revolutionaries with Western education) is responsible for the lack of coverage. Finally, it was a Muslim Brotherhood organized demo, which is just not as sexy as a secular demo.

And yet al-Matariya is not, in fact, entirely unknown to the Western media. It's the 'hood of the celebrated mahragan (electro shaabi) posse, Eight Percent (Tamaniya fil-Miyya), composed of vocalists Wizza, Ortega and Oka. They're responsible for many great mahragan songs, including "Ana Aslan Gamid" (I'm Really Hard). This video, as of this writing, had been viewed by over 1,315,000 people.

These Matariya homies have received a great deal of publicity in both Egypt and abroad since 2011, including from yours truly, writing in Middle East Report, more recently for the Norient Musicfilm Festival 2014, and several times on this blog. They're among the mahragan stars featured in Hind Meddeb's fine documentary, Electro Chaabi, which screened at the Norient festival.

Al-Matariya is also an important pilgrimage site for Eastern Christians. The Holy Family is said to have stopped at al-Matariya village -- whose name is said to come from the latin Mater, for the Virgin Mary. (It was part of the area of the ancient city of Heliopolis, destroyed at the time of the Persian invasion in 525 BC.) Jesus is said to have used a staff that he took from Joseph, broken it into pieces, planted them, and then dug a well which made the pieces of wood take root and grow into a balsam tree. Mary (in the story about these events in the Qur'an -- not sure what verse) is said to have used the sweet-smelling water of the well (because of the balsam tree) to wash the clothes of Jesus, and so the well is known as the Tree of the Holy Virgin. A sycamore tree was planted on the site of the balsam in 1672, and a shoot of this tree still remains til today. 

Because Mary and Jesus are venerated in the Muslim tradition, and particularly in its popular versions (although Muslims do not believe in the virgin birth), both Muslims and Christians make pilgrimage til today to the shrine of Mary's tree. There are also a Jesuit Holy Family Church and a Coptic Virgin Mary Church at the site.

(A good source on the Holy Family in Egypt is Otto F.A. Meinardus' In the Steps of the Holy Family, 1963.)

The Holy Family visited Matariya because they were fleeing a massacre...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Stern Gang "Misirlou"

Over the past few years, and especially since Dick Dale's version of "Misirlou" appeared so memorably in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, a number of accounts have pointed out the "Eastern" origins of this great tune. I've posted on the song previously, noting the fact that (a) it emerged originally out of the rebetika tradition, which originated in the great cosmopolitan city of Smyrna, and (b) that Dick Dale's version is inspired by the rhythms of Arabic music, which he learned chiefly from his uncle, a darbukkah player. You can find more on Dick Dale (born Richard Mansour) and the Arabic origins of surf music here, more on the Eastern origins of "Misirlou" here and here.

There are lots and lots of cool versions of "Misirlou" besides Dale's version. Here's one that is not so cool (Hebrew title: "Lil Razim," and I'm not sure how to translate.)

It was released in 1953 and recorded by Shulamit Livnat, an Israeli singer who was known as "the singer of the Etzel and the Lehi." That is, the singer of Lohamei Herut Israel (Israel Freedom Fighters) or Lehi, the paramilitary Zionist group founded by Avraham (Yair) Stern in 1940, a radical splinter from the Irgun (full title, Ha-Irgun Ha-Tzvai Ha-Leumi be-Eretz Yisrael or The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel), the Revisionist paramilitary group which was led by Menahem Begin from 1943. The Irgun was also known as Etzel, the acronym for the Hebrew initials.

Although the Stern Gang split from the Irgun, during 1948 the two groups collaborated in all kinds of mayhem and terror operations, including most notoriously the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, which resulted in the killing of 107 Palestinian Arab villagers, 11 of them armed. It's been awhile since I have spent much time reading about Lehi and Etzel, but a classic account is J. Bowyer Bell's Terror Out of Zion: Irgun Zvai Leumi, Lehi, and the Palestine Underground, 1929–1949, 1977.

One of the songs that Shulamit Livnat was known for singing is the Lehi anthem, "Unknown Soldiers" (Hayalim Amonim) written by Stern in 1932. Here are the lyrics. An excerpt:

Our dream: to die for our people
we shall erect the homeland
with the tears of bereaved mothers
and the blood of unblemished babies.
Like with cement our bodies will bond into bricks

Here's Shulamit Livnat leading singing the anthem at a memorial service for Avraham Stern in 2012, on the 70th anniversary of Stern's death at the hands of British police in Tel Aviv. (Apparently of late there have been strong efforts to rehabilitate Stern's memory.)

Livnat is still alive (I believe) and as of 2005, had run the Rina Mor National College, the educational arm of the Jabotinsky Institute, for 20 years. In 2005 her daughter, Education Minister Limor Livnat, saw to it that her mother's salary was quadrupled. (Today Limor Livnat, a member of the Likud Party, is Minister of Culture and Sport; she is the only member of the Israeli Knesset not to have achieved a secondary school education.

As Education Minister, Limor Livnat was a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who passed away today. (He went into coma in 2006.)

Only fitting that the daughter of the diva of Lehi would serve under Sharon, whose crimes against the Palestinians, over a period of 55+ years, completely overshadow those of the notorious Stern Gang, still remembered as a "terrorist" group. Meanwhile, the US will be sending VP Joseph Biden to Sharon's state funeral.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dolly Dots and Muhammad Abdo

I had never heard of Dolly Dots til a couple days ago, when my friend Gamal posted this video on Facebook. It's Dolly Dots' 1981 hit, called "Leila Queen of Sheba."

What I noticed right away -- besides the fact that the song is very Euro early 80s Abba-esque -- is the fact that the chorus, where they sing "Leila Leila Leila" seems drawn from a hit by Saudi singer Mohammad Abdo's famous song "Aba'ad."

I got to know this song when I was doing fieldwork in the West Bank in 1984-85, it was much beloved by my friends, and I came to love it too. I thought the title was in fact "Leila," as that word is sung over and over in the song. And in fact many in the Arab world know the song by that name as well. If you're interested, here is a translation and transliteration of the lyrics.

In any case, check out Abdo doing a live version of the song. (And isn't it lovely? One of my favorite Arabic songs ever.)

The "leila" section of the song comes in at about 8:40. Yes, it's late in a very long song, but rest assured, this is a very well-known segment of the song.

Listen, then go back and listen to the Dolly Dots "Leila." Don't you think their chorus is taken from the Abdo original?

Now, the I didn't know this song while my friend Gamal did is that Dolly Dots are one of those European groups (Dutch in fact) who never had any hits in the US but were big throughout Europe and the Middle East. (A much more famous case is Boney M.) Dolly Dots were so popular in Egypt (where Gamal is from) that they even toured the country.

I posted my conjecture about the origin of the Dolly Dots' "Leila" chorus on Facebook, and my friend Robin shot back with this video. It's a re-formed Dolly Dots performing their '81 hit in 2007.

What is notable about this live version is that Dolly Dots are backed by a small Arab music ensemble (a takht), which serves to bring out more fully the Arab elements (and the Abdo influence) than did the original.

Neil contributed the fact that the ensemble is composed of Jamil Al Assadi, on qanun and Latif Al-Obaidi on oud, who belong to the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, which regularly backs Iraqi singer Farida Mohammed Ali (based in The Netherlands), and the late Behsat Üvez from Turkey on derbuka. That is, it's a first-class ensemble.

(Shukran, Gamal, Robin and Neil!) 

Added January 20, 2014: I meant to say last night that I think one reason that the Dolly Dots were never a hit in the US is: the name sounds ridiculous!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Did Lili Boniche play Judéo-Arabe music?

No, he said.

«Est-ce qu'on dit d'un musulman qu'il joue de la musique islamo-arabe? Je joue de la musique arabe, un point c'est tout»

(I would like to get my hands on the original source for this quote...)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Slim Gaillard, Arabian Boogie and Yabra Harisseh

I just went to see American Hustle, which I truly enjoyed, and of course before I went I had been forewarned that I was going to hear a version of "White Rabbit" in Arabic, by Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa and that Robert DeNiro, playing the mobster Victor Tellegio, would speak Arabic. (The backstory of how that song came to be recorded is here. Dawn Elder, who used to work with Miles Copeland III on the label Mondo Melodia, that did so much to bring Arab popular music to the US in the early aughts, played a key role. I discuss this in my article "The 'Arab Wave' in World Music after 9/11.")

For some reason this reminded me of a 2010 post on Qifa Nabki about jazz singer and guitarist/pianist Slim Gaillard's 1945 song “Yep-Roc Heresay.” The post informs us that the song, mostly in Arabic, is mostly a recitation of items from an Arab (or maybe Armenian?) restaurant: "yabra (i.e. stuffed graped leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), lahm mishweh (grilled meat)" and also burghul (bulgur) and mahsheh (stuffed vegetable) and banadura (tomato) and so on. The title stands for Yabra Harisseh of course.

According to wikipedia, this is the back story: "the actual origin of these phrases comes from his time living in Detroit. He was out of money by the time he made it to Detroit and was turned down a job at Ford. An Armenian woman named Rose Malhalab took Slim in, where he lived in the basement of her and her husband's beauty shop on Woodward Avenue. She cooked much Arabic food for him, explaining Slim's entire song."

I had not heard "Yep-Roc Heresay" until recently but I have been intrigued for several years now by another Gaillard tune, "Arabian Boogie," whose lyrics go, "Sayidi, kifa kifa saha?...shu baddak? inta majnoun" (Mr., how are you? What do you want? You're crazy.)

It is claimed that he spoke 8 languages, but...really?? Where did he learn them? And where did he learn Arabic in particular -- not that these two songs show any sort of fluency but they do indicate at least some knowledge. He served in the army from 1941-45 -- was he in North Africa? Or maybe it's from Rose Malhalab? It's well known of course that Gaillard liked to fool with language and that he invented a language he called Vout and used its hip, bebop style language in a lot of his songs. (From "Flat Foot Floogie:" "Flaginzy at flagat, flaginzy ooh flagoo-jigee.")

Lots more info about Slim Gaillard here.

I'll never forget Gaillard's wonderful performance of "Selling Out" in Julien Temple's interesting but flawed 1986 film, Absolute Beginners.