Monday music: Passion and politics

A belated Eid Mubarek to any readers who celebrated the end of Ramadan last week. This week’s post, in recognition of that significant time, is devoted to female singers from some of the Muslim countries of Africa. 

The voice of Egypt

The famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum seems the obvious choice to introduce this blog post. Yes, it’s a very long video. No, you don’t have to listen of all of it right now.

I was going to post a shorter video until I found out how long her songs usually were (often over an hour) and realised that a short extract wouldn’t do her justice, or convey the experience of listening to a whole song. To make sure this was the right choice, I plugged in my earphones when I had a mindless task to do at work, and listened for an hour. Even without understanding a word, I was …well I think if I hadn’t had to keep a portion of my brain on my work I would have been entranced. That’s entranced in the literal sense of being put into a trance. It certainly put my brain into a different space. If you can, take the time to listen to the whole piece. I think it’s worth it.

I’ve found myself fascinated by Umm Kulthum this past week. At first, she seemed straightforward – a gifted, adored diva, ‘the voice and face of Egypt’. She dominated Egyptian music for over 50 years until her death in the mid 1970’s, with regular 5-6 hour long concerts, a monthly radio program, and advocacy and support for Egyptian musicians. Her fame grew when she went on an international concert tour to raise money for the Egyptian treasury after its defeat in the six day war with Israel in 1967.

A recent biographer, however, suggests that Umm Kalthum was very strategic – especially in her later life – in shaping a public image of herself as a fervent patriot, ‘humanitarian, national symbol, and political activist, and artist’, in order to bolster her musical career. Her international concerts, for example, had been planned before the war, but were ‘reframed’ as ‘selfless acts of fundraising for Egypt and as demonstrations of Arab cultural unity’.

Well, Umm Kulthum wouldn’t be the first woman from a poor background to exploit her hard-won fame and fortune to her own ends, or to carefully construct her public persona. Don’t most celebrities do that these days? I don’t know enough to judge whether she was completely cynical in the choices she made. Perhaps she believed the story she presented to the world. I don’t doubt that she was passionate about her music.

Algerian women sing against sharia law

I had an Algerian boyfriend in the 80’s who introduced me to Rai, the rebellious youth music which some people referred to as ‘Rock and Rai’, because it was explicit about the forbidden topics of sex and drugs (alcohol). I used to have an album of a famous Algerian Rai singer – a woman – but I couldn’t remember her name. So I went looking. And found this. It needs no words from me.

This interview tells the story of producing the song and of changes to the Family Law Code since then. It shows that change is possible.

After such an inspiring song, I wasn’t going to bother looking for the elusive Rai singer. Hunting down a bit of frivolous Algerian pop didn’t seen that important. But then I suddenly remembered her name – Chaba Fadela – and when I rediscovered my favourite song, I remembered how good she is. And he’s not bad either. Chaba Fadela was one of Rai’s first female starsN’sel Fik (You are mine) was an international hit, not surprisingly.

As with last week’s post, I lack the French to translate the interviews –  a bit of help, someone?

Freedom and equality

One of the first CDs I ever bought (as distinct from vinyl) was The Wassoulou Sound: Women of Mali.  This compliation of music from women of the Wassoulou region in Northern Mali was playing when I walked into Folkways in Paddington  one day. There didn’t seem much point in buying anything else, once I’d heard it. That is how I discovered Oumou Sangare.

I’ve never needed to understand the lyrics to enjoy a song, so  it’s only now that I am regularly writing about music that I’m finding out what some of my favourite singers are actually singing about. Oumou sangare, it turns out, sings about issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), polygamy, ‘and the challenges of living in a patriarchal society’. Google translates her words below this song on YouTube: “My fight is for freedom and equality for women around the world, and I would fight for it forever”. So she’s not just a magnificent voice.

I was lucky enough to see Oumou Sangare perform at the Sydney Opera house in 1998. I cried. I cried because her voice is so lovely, and so moving, but I also cried because I felt that she – a black African woman – had received the ultimate recognition that Australia could provide. I don’t know how promoters organise venues for visiting musicians. I don’t really believe anyone prostrated themselves before Oumou Sangare and said, ‘Oh nightingale of Africa, Australia values your talents so highly that we wish to bestow upon you our finest honour – please perform in one of our greatest national icons, the Sydney Opera House.’ But it felt like it.

Singing for peace

Hey – hang on – is that Fatoumata Diawara just to her left there? The woman with the braids and the sweet smile?

I’m not entirely sure, but it looks like her. She’s Oumou Sangare’s niece and has been her backing singer, so it’s certainly possible.

I saw Fatoumata Diawara perform at the 2012 Sydney festival, (and let me tell you, the Spiegeltent is not a good venue for dancing), but that’s not why I mention her.

Like Oumou Sangare, she sings about issues of concern to women, such as FGM. Like other singers in Africa’s Griot tradition, she also sings about how people need to find ways to live well.

After Islamic militants banned all but religious music in the north of Mali last year, Diawara mobilised over 40 Malian music stars to record a song of protest. A song that called for peace.

Go girl.

Fatoumata Diawara recognises that her position as a popular musician has given her opportunities denied to many women: ‘We need someone like me to debate on TV what it means to be a woman today in Mali. We need more women emancipated to talk about that,’ she says.

I’m reminded of Umm Kulthum, even though her political interests were quite different, and her sincerity debated. I’m taking another look at the video of those women on the street in Algeria. I’m thinking about how these articulate, outspoken Muslim women contradict the average white Australian’s stereotype of Muslim women as completely passive and oppressed.

Songs of return

I was going to stop there. Then a friend gave me a link to Sudanese American singer Alsarah and her band the Nubatones. Here is a small taste of the vocals. Alsarah (on the left) is singing with her sister.

I don’t know about the lyrics of this particular song, but Alsarah says that ‘Nubian songs of return’ are an important part of her repertoire. These are songs of lament and yearning for the lost homelands of the Nubian people, which were flooded by the creation of the Aswan dam in the 1970s. (Nubia is a region along the Nile river, spanning northern Sudan and Southern Egypt). Alsarah connects this to her own experience as an immigrant. In another interview (with enticing snippets of song), she talks about the themes of other Nubatones songs, such as the experience of being a Muslim woman, and war.

So … another African Muslim woman singing with passion about matters of broad social and political relevance. Is it just a coincidence that I happened to stumble across these highly aware and political women singers? Or is it a sign that they belong to thriving musical traditions in which women are able to vividly engage with the issues of their time? Is it just an African thing, or do Muslim women in other countries share this tradition? Maybe it’s not a tradition at all, but the emergence of something new? I don’t know, but the questions are worth asking.

Not far from where I work, a white Aussie man has been painting ‘ban the burka’ murals on the wall of his business for several years.  In the US, a white woman wore the veil for nine months to try and understand Muslim ideas about female modesty.  If they really want to understand and support the enormously diverse experience of Muslim women, I suggest they get to know some Muslims (which may be difficult, given their approach to Islam thus far). In the absence of that, they could challenge their ignorance by listening to the powerful, passionate, political — and beautiful — voices of Muslim women. I hope this post has made it clear that Muslim women are more than capable of speaking for themselves.


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