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- Published on Monday, 10 October 2011 08:42
- Category: Artist Profile
The phrase wust el-balad literally translates to "downtown" in English, but the term means more than just a city's district. In Cairo, wust el-balad is also a way of life: subversive, oppositional, modern in tastes but also traditional in memories. Think East Village, and images of artists, Bohemians, and counterculture come to mind.
That's wust el-balad, an almost cult-like vigilance that rebels against cultural norms and expectations, explodes beyond boundaries, and ultimately connects not just the old with the new, but also the Arab with the Westerner.
This sensibility is at the heart of one of the hottest bands to hit the Egyptian and Arab music scene in years. Formed in 1999, Wust El-Balad pioneered what is now Cairo's thriving band scene with a Latin/Rock/Arabic sound that blended traditional Arabic vocals with western instruments and contemporary Latin and jazz rhythms. What made the band so unique wasn't just its antithesis to mainstream Arabic music, but its mixture of the members' diverse musical backgrounds. Each musician brought his own tastes to the group: Flamenco from lead guitarist Asaad Nessim and percussionist Abdel Hameed; blues from guitarist and vocalist Hany Adel; African sounds from percussionist Mohammed Gamal EIDin and bass guitarist Ahmed Omar; and Asian/Oriental stylings from vocalist Adham El Said and oud/flute player Ahmed Omran. For years, they mostly rehearsed in downtown Cairo coffee shops, constantly intermingling with natives and tourists, learning from their stories. Their lyrics took on social issues that dominated Cairo's youth, a stark contrast to the overly romanticized Arabic pop songs that dominated Egyptian airwaves.
It's been a long road for the group, which originally started out as Al Far Al Roumandi (The Grey Rat Band), but later changed its name "to represent a more inner and intimate meaning." Their goal is to bridge cultures and generations with music, which not only defined them as the first band in Egypt and the Arab region to achieve the large following and success it has today, but also paved the way for emerging Egyptian bands after them. Every band in one way or another is a reflection of the musical culture it came from, and for Wust El-Balad and today’s Arab youth culture the counter-culture they represent doesn’t eschew tradition so much as it wants to find a way to honor it while still progressing towards the modern.
So far it's been a busy year for Wust El-Balad. During the Egyptian uprisings, Hany Adel and friend Amir Eid released Sout El Horreya (The Sound of Freedom), and it went viral on YouTube; on the 18th night of protests, the band sang for fellow demonstrators in Tahrir Square. This past June, they opened for the 31st Palestine Festival for Music and Dance. Their second album, “Rubabeyka” (Remnants) was released earlier this year, and is available to download for free from their website. The band is now on tour with the Arts Midwest World Fest, an initiative to bring international music to small towns in the Midwest.
Egypt’s youth is a generation in search of a balanced fusion between tradition and modernity, and it’s that same fusion that Wust El-Balad strives for, whether they’re singing to the unheard voices of their country’s unrest, or to a group of Midwesterners who may have never seen a foreign band before. Their success comes precisely from that fusion, because it’s a balance all of us yearn for, no matter where we are from. That’s the bridge that has made Wust El-Balad not only superstars, but also catalysts for fans who believe that counter-culture isn’t a zero-sum endeavor.
Watch the video hereBy Safa Samiezade'-Yazd, Aslan Media Contributor