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May 15, 2013

The music of the Arab Spring finds a home on the Stanford campus

Stanford scholars broadcast Middle Eastern music and culture on two KZSU radio shows, Arabology and Mediterraneans: Music of the Middle East, North Africa, and Beyond.

By Vladimir Troyansky

Stanford lecturer Ramzi Salti, foreground, hosts his weekly radio program Arabology. He is assisted by Ahmad Qousi in the KZSU studio. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

The Thursday lineup on Stanford's radio station KZSU has a distinctly Middle Eastern flair.

From morning to afternoon, two radio shows hosted by Stanford scholars play popular music from places like Cairo, Tripoli and Beirut.

Between 11 a.m. and 1p.m., history Professor Joel Beinin hosts the program Mediterraneans: Music of the Middle East, North Africa, and Beyond. Ramzi Salti, a lecturer in Arabic, broadcasts Arabic music and interviews with prominent Arab musicians from 3 to 5 p.m. on his show Arabology.

Beyond entertainment, both scholars see their programs as vehicles for fostering a better understanding and appreciation of Middle Eastern cultures and societies.

Beinin believes that one does not need to understand the words, if there are any, to appreciate music.

"Learning that you may like the music of a very different culture, perhaps even one you considered an 'enemy,' might make you more curious about assumptions you had about that culture," he said. "In Israel, for example, it is fairly common for Jews to enjoy Arabic music."

Salti's Arabology, originally intended for Stanford students, has become popular with listeners all over the Bay Area and beyond since the show's first broadcast three years ago.

Salti first conceived the show as a medium of cultural exposure for students in his Arabic language classes. Unlike disc jockeys on almost all other Arabic-themed radio programs, he conducts interviews and introduces songs exclusively in English.

"Arabology listeners," Salti said, "often tell me that they appreciate the fact that I attempt to contextualize each song before playing it on air."

Listeners have asked if a song is sung in formal Arabic or a dialect, if it addresses a male or a female, or if the genre breaks with tradition. These details give context to the music and "hopefully, contribute to bridging the seemingly eternal gap between East and West," Salti said.

Beinin, a scholar of Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, broadcasts songs on Mediterraneans in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish and Judaeo-Spanish.

Because we tend to think of the Mediterranean region as divided by national borders and historical grievances, it is important to "remember what the region shares as a whole," Beinin said. His multicultural playlist illustrates "just how intertwined the musical styles in the region are" and also reminds the public that there is "more to the region than tumultuous politics."

Politics and music

The Arab Spring, which engulfed the Middle East in a wave of uprisings, has been associated with a spike in the production of music that challenges stifling political and social norms.

From rap to hip-hop to traditional folk melodies, music has provided a popular platform for revolutionary messages and "opened new avenues for Arab musicians," said Salti.

Beinin noted that singers from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world have been producing music in alternative genres for years, but the Arab Spring changed the rules of the game.

Greater markets, new opportunities for creative collaboration and less censorship are among the positive effects the Arab Spring has had on the Middle Eastern music industry.

Lately, both scholars have been playing many songs that came out during the Arab Spring on their shows. Salti said Westerners ought not to think of the music of the Arab Spring as a single category.

"The music of the Arab Spring should be seen as a movement," he said.

This movement is influenced by two traditions: Western experimental genres, such as hip-hop and rap, and popular Arabic music that has been sung on the streets of Benghazi and Port Said for decades.

Salti noted that the movement accommodates music that can be described as alternative and revolutionary, whether in its message or form, and differs from the mainstream music that has been sanctioned by state-controlled radio stations.

Beinin pointed to the rap song Rais Lebled ("President of the Country") as an example of the revolutionary potential of music. The passionate track was released by El Général, a Tunisian musician, one month before the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, setting off the Arab Spring.

In the song, El Général rapped against the perceived injustices of the regime:

Mr. President, your people are dead. So many people are eating from the garbage.
There, you see what's happening in the country!
Misery is everywhere, and people haven't found a place to sleep.

The song, an instant hit on YouTube and in the blogosphere, became an unofficial anthem of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution.

New musicians take note of the immense power of music to mobilize masses.

Omar Offendum, a Syrian American artist whom Salti recently interviewed on Arabology, wrote a song titled "#Syria," dedicated to what he refers to as the "orphaned [Syrian] revolution," now entering into its third year.

In his song, he incorporates the rallying slogan: Al-sha'b yurid isqat al-nizam! "The people want the regime to fall!"

The Arab Spring protesters from Tunisia to Yemen have been using this chant in anti-government demonstrations. This song, Salti contends, is a reminder that the Arab Spring is far from over and demonstrates that its political message transcends countries and continents.

Social themes reign

Beinin argues that the music of the Arab Spring could be thought of as a thematic genre. This genre is not limited to songs that challenge dictators. Many singers call attention to social themes: corruption, unemployment, economic inequality, Islamophobia and freedom of speech.

Members of the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM (Da Arabian MCs), who visited Stanford in April, are active voices in support of women's rights, for example. Their recent single, Law Arja' Bil Zaman ("If I Could Go Back in Time"), produced in cooperation with UN Women, raises awareness of domestic violence and honor killings. It provoked much criticism for reinforcing Western stereotypes of Arab society but DAM members stand by their choice.

"We are big supporters of taking the dirty laundry out," they say.

Salti admits that it is hard to say what came first: the new music that fed the Arab uprisings or the charged political environment that produced new forms of music.

What is clear is that the Arab Spring, whatever happens to it on the political plane, lives and flourishes through the revolution in music, which is waged by a young generation of Arab musicians.

Beinin said he believes that a greater freedom of expression may have been "one of the most important achievements of the Arab Spring after the fall of the dictatorial regimes of Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Mubarak" in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Both radio programs will take a hiatus over the summer. Arabology will resume production in September and Mediterraneans in the winter of 2014.

Visitors to the KZSU website can view the previous playlists of Mediterraneans and Arabology; all episodes of the latter are also available to download online.

Vladimir Troyansky is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

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Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

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