SWATUHA ♬ Post-Revolutionary music of the Arab Spring

Sawtuha, a compilation released by Berlin-based Jakarta Records, showcases the diverse talents of female singers, songwriters, and MCs hailing from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya. Throughout the length of twelve well-crafted, engaging, and energetic tracks, the female vocalists use music as a medium to express and assert their position within shifting post-revolutionary national landscapes.

In 2011, the popular uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)- from mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, to full blown war in Libya, and spiraling into a three year-long bloody civil war in Syria- saw a young generation, fed up with oppressive social and political conditions, take to the streets and face violence to demand the removal of despotic regimes. Hand in hand with the turmoil, the region saw a flourishing art movement: the medium of art has been a central driving force for the revolution, where song, among other art forms (graffiti in particular) became the language of protest and resistance. Women were, and still continue to be, in the front-lines of these revolutions, leading efforts to counter violence and exclusion from the public sphere, particularly as gender is instrumentalized for the imagining and preservation of a patriarchal nation. Art has thus functioned as a tool for women’s own self-representation and counter-narratives, of challenging and redefining womanhood through their own cultural production, and it is from within this context that Sawtuha emerges.

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 The opening track “Nouh Al Hamam/The Doves’ Mourning,” about the pains of love, is soulful, warm, melancholic, and grounded in tradition all the while being contemporary– partly courtesy of the production of talented American-Sudanese hip-hop producer and MC, Oddisee. Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh has an immediate and intense delivery of a cover of a folkloric song, known as semsimiya style in the Suez province. It diverges from her second featured track “Watan El Aak/Messed Up Nation,” which stylistically assumes a more overt modern form as Black Joy provides a background of pulsating beats and synths, combining juke and footwork with elements of Egyptian ‘shaabi’ all set to a sample of “Moudnak Jafaa,” a classic track by seminal Egyptian composer and singer Abdel Wahab. “Let us love this messed up country/bang your head against the wall/and you’ll get some of that sweet chocolate,” Saleh nonchalantly delivers these lyrics as she addresses Egypt’s sociopolitical situation, of the ubiquitous corruption and failed infrastructure, by stepping into the role of the ‘shaabi’ singer ‘who’s had too much of that kush.’ Saleh mobilizes a historic popular tradition of dissent through song, of constructing simple sarcastic lyrics to critique the regime through a specific language common to the ordinary Egyptian, a language of political survival and dissent dependent on humor. It is no coincidence that the compilation opens with her song; the theme of tradition weaves itself across the rest of the tracks.

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This tension is rendered the more palpable across “Manaa” and “Gammary.” Blundetto’s remix of Badiaa Bouhrizi’s “Manaa,” originally a minimal traditional dub-influenced track with haunting vocals, delivers a chilled beat as he mixes and layers synth, electro-pop, and dub, carrying Bouhrizi’s haunting coos and yeahs throughout the length of the song to a soothing effect- a harmony between the spectral and futuristic. On “Gammary,” Donia Massoud blends traditional and modern as an accordion strums along with some thumping beats, all held together with her powerful rendition of folkloric singing. Both tracks, and inevitably the compilation as a whole, challenge and raise questions in relation to Tradition and Authenticity –yes, all with the ever threatening capital T and A- as there is constant clashing between elements of contemporaneity and past, tradition and modernity, regional and national, local and global, resulting in the construction of complex and contradictory narratives.

On highlight “Nheb N3ish Hyeti/I Like to Live,” a track that’s guaranteed to get anyone anywhere near it to impulsively start head-nodding, Olof Dreijer, half of The Knife, provides pounding aggressive electro-beats which coupled with Medusa’s sassy and fierce flow, agitate and liberate –and, it is liberation, specifically liberation from patriarchal gender norm that the Tunisian MC is calling for.

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Hip hop, deemed the “soundtrack of the revolution,” became a central platform for the construction of masculinity, and MCs such as El General, hailing from Tunisia, Egyptian Arabian Knightz and Deeb, or Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit, to name just a few, were hailed as icons for crafting revolutionary anthems, obfuscating and excluding the possibility of female talent and presence. Medusa, who’s made her way to hip-hop by way of breakdance, reclaims this medium to challenge patriarchal gender norms as she boldly declares, “I want to live my life/ prostrating only to myself/ looking only ahead/I want to have a good time with my girlfriends,” and at one point in the track there’s even an allusion to gender bending as her voice distorts from feminine to masculine, and is echoed by Libyan MC, Nada, who similarly laments with bravado on “Don’t Lose Your Way,” “we’re tired of the scorn/ of being taken advantage of….” Along the same thread but through different stylistic forms, singer/songwriter Nawel Ben Kraiem, deploying both French and Tunisian, similarly addresses more tangible personal issues faced by women. In “Figurine,” yet another melancholic ballad produced by Oddisee, she tackles women’s role and position within the revolution, and in “Safsari,” an up-beat track, mourns the current trend of islamization and the threat it poses to Tunisian culture and identity, positing the replacement of the safsari, the traditional Tunisian dress, by the veil as symbolic of such threat.

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The compilation winds down through a somber and melodramatic turn: the track “Janna/Paradise” is a solemn sounding instrumental piece, it starts off with a piano solo and ends layered and enriched by various traditional instruments, conjuring a sound that is particular to the Levant region. Rasha Rizk’s morose ballad “Elegie,” recorded during her asylum in Cairo, pays tribute to the martyrs of the Syrian revolution through a poetic engagement rich in imagery, addressing the situation without overtly spelling it out. It is no coincidence that these Syrian collaborations invoke something that’s powerful while simultaneously stirring pain, representing a landscape that’s in a real struggle for definition.

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Sawtuha, literally meaning “her voice,” is a testament to the multiple voices and counter narratives currently present across MENA, showing a revolution where women are active participants in resisting, resignifying, and reimagining their roles and possibilities. However, the compilation treads uneven grounds; ultimately, it is split between an untranslatable and unrepresentable voice and vision, which is concretely heightened through non-Arab listeners’ literal inability to access the language, and an appeal to a universalistic voice and vision of change and democracy, for music is constructed and chosen as the ‘aesthetic of resistance.’ It cannot be denied that Sawtuha is situated at the crux of a paradox: it wants to give voice to the Arab revolution, especially to the plight of women.  At the same time, it is a contradictory blend of allowing women express themselves through a western, male-centric production, framing them in a way which conforms to western parameters of modernity and ‘cool.’ The women’s narratives go untranslated and is therefore inaccessible – literally because of the  lack of translated lyrics. Though, it must be acknowledged that the untranslatable is somehow still recuperated through the affective and a genuine interaction with the tracks, or so I hope.

SaniyaSaniya is currently navigating her post-graduation transition by mastering the art of throwing shade, stargazing, and mostly, continuing her obsession of consuming inconceivable amounts of music -“all day errday” is appropriate to use in her case.