Leaders Wanted: Protest Songs From The Arab Spring

Originally published on December 30, 2011 3:40 pm

You say you want a revolution? You're going to need music to fuel the fervor. And that's exactly what emerged across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula this year.

On Wednesday, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel checked in with a Greek music critic about protest music there. On Thursday, Russian musician, producer and activist Vasily Shumov shared the soundtrack of dissent in Russia. Today, Hani Almadhoun, the blogger behind Hot Arabic Music, lists songs that were a huge part of the Arab Spring protests. You can listen to the conversation by clicking the audio link above, and hear the songs they discuss below.

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Revolutionary protests and protest songs go together like the French Revolution and "The Marseillaise," or like the civil rights movement and "We Shall Overcome." And this week, we've been sampling the soundtrack of the global wave of protests this year. We've heard from Greece and Russia. And today, the movement that spread across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab Spring. Hani Almadhoun is here to tell us about what people were and are listening to in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia. Mr. Almadhoun has a website called HotArabicMusic.com, and he's here in the studio. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Let's start with where the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. We're going to hear a song called "The President of the Country" by El General.


ALMADHOUN: This is a song that came out during the early days of the revolution in Tunisia, and the singer or the rapper behind it, he was put in jail because he had a lot criticism for the regime and especially for the president.

SIEGEL: The longtime president of Tunisia was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He was thrown out. Tell me about what El General is rapping here. What is he saying?


ALMADHOUN: He's telling the president watch your people. They're starving. They aren't unemployed. They're having a lot of problems. You're turning your back on them. You have to do more to help the people. And it's a very passionate song.

SIEGEL: He and other local rappers actually performed at the Carthage Festival.

ALMADHOUN: Correct. Yeah. There was a night where this famous Tunisian musician - his name is (unintelligible) - he's a very well-known composer as well - due to his history and relationship with the ousted dictator, he was (unintelligible) and allowed the general and other rappers to have the night for themselves. That was a major turn of events in terms of music entertainment in that country.

SIEGEL: And out in the, you know, in the main drag on the Avenue Bourguiba, in the middle of Tunis, would one have heard this music?

ALMADHOUN: Mainly, it was the young people who are listening to this music because they have a lot of problems, frustrations. They sort of passed a CD or a flash drive to their friends. But now, this song went mainstream, even though those who in the past have not liked rap or have not liked the style of singing have came into the conversation and say wow, this is sort of an offer of support for a lot of people in the streets who are being shot and tear gassed.

SIEGEL: Well, let's move from Tunisia to Cairo and the band now that we're going to hear performing a song called "Leaders Wanted." The band has a kind of a pun in the name.

ALMADHOUN: Yes. It's called Cairokee, which is a play on the word Cairo and karaoke.


ALMADHOUN: And it's a pretty good band. They've made a big name for themselves since actually Pepsi hired them to do a promotional campaign for them in the past. They used to hire Tamer Hosny and other singers. This time, they went with this indie rock band that actually supported the revolution from the day one.


SIEGEL: Did they get the Pepsi-Cola deal after the revolution?

ALMADHOUN: Yes. After the revolution, they released a promo song for Pepsi.

SIEGEL: Well, the title of this song, I guess, says much of it, "Leaders Wanted." What are they saying? What are some of the lyrics?

ALMADHOUN: Well, they're asking for, like, you know, this is the vacuum of power. Hosni Mubarak left. Now, they need a new leader and they're asking, like, this leader needs to hear from the people. They need to be just. They need to be fairness and the fact that they say, if this president crosses the line again and abuses his or her power, we're going to come back to the streets again. It's a pretty mellow song.

SIEGEL: We've all been following the tension in Egypt between liberal, more secular groups and the religious parties. I assume this was the music of the more secular groups.

ALMADHOUN: Correct. This was popular by pretty much the liberal groups in Egypt, but the religious ones would have old Arabic poetry and they've listened to that. Plus, there is the national anthem, as well.

SIEGEL: Now, Hani, this is another song that you've brought us. It's called "Shame."


SIEGEL: It's from Syria. It is Samih Shkair.

ALMADHOUN: Correct. Yes. It is from the local Syrian dialect. It means shame and it's a song word. You don't say this word unless there is huge circumstances like what's happened in Daraa and Damascus and he's (unintelligible) the Syrian military and the regime who are slaughtering little children and banning them from milk and shooting little kids for going to get water.


ALMADHOUN: This song is pretty special to me because it's an eastern melody as opposed to the rock music they played in Egypt and the rap music they played in Tunisia and elsewhere. So for me, this is a special song. And it's remained the one and the only song from Syria, about Syria condemning the practices of the regime.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you for bringing these songs to our program and to our attention. Hani Almadhoun runs the website HotArabicMusic.com. Thank you.

ALMADHOUN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.