After four decades of dictatorship where Qaddafi’s handpicked singer dominated the airwaves and stifled a once vibrant musical scene, Libya is now rocking and swaying to a flood of joyous and defiant sounds.
At a recent Libyan pro-revolution rally in the midday heat of Doha, the protestors needed inspiration. They sang Libya original national anthem which Qaddafi hand changed when he came to power, laughed through a spoof of a song by Muhammad Hassan, the dictator’s preferred singer, then chanted, “The blood of the martyrs will not go in vein!”
Then just as the several-hundred strong crowd were running of out steam someone remembered a line from a new pro-revolution song. Magically, a sound system minivan blared the song into the surrounding blocks. Kids broke into dance, adults of all ages rocked to the song, and everyone joined the catchy chorus when it sounded.
The new song “Ya Misrata” which has been a hit, is a full-on celebration of the city of Misrata’s defeat of Qaddafi’s forces. Praising Libya’s cities and regions for rising against the Qaddafi regime, the song gores the dictator for his decades of misrule and for his frizzy mop of dyed hair.
The singer’s identity remains unknown. A search on the net found no release date for it, copyright insignia, or any obvious sign of career planning. This is typical of the state of music in Libya now. Songs are coming out from everywhere, and fast. After four decades of dictatorship where Qaddafi’s handpicked singer dominated the airwaves and stifled a once vibrant musical scene, Libya is now rocking and swaying to a flood of joyous and defiant sounds.
“Ya Beladi,” chosen as the original national anthem in 1951 at the time of libya’s independence reclaimed its place of honor after being banned for four decades. A melodic song titled “We shall remain here” could be heard blaring from hundreds of cars in Benghazi in the early days of the revolution. The court house in Benghazi that has been converted to a media center now houses several studios and practice rooms for numerous new bands.
One of the first musicians to have distinguished himself during the Libyan revolution is the U.K. based rapper Ibn Thabit who hails from Tripoli. Ibn Thabit’s powerful anti-Qaddafi songs had been making the scene a few years before Libya’s current revolution and were its de facto sound track as it took off. Other rappers such as Hamzi Sisi and Khaled M, who raps in English, have
The profusion, diversity, and anonymity of Libya’s revolutionary music are a complete turnaround from the stifled state of Libya’s music of the Qaddafi era.
Libya’s musical heritage is rich, but little known to the rest of the world. As the country stands geographically in the middle between the Mashreq and the Maghreb, and in close proximity to Europe, Libya’s music echoes all the cultural currents that run through it.
The mid-1960s to the mid-1970s were the golden years of Libyan music. As oil was discovered in the early 1960’s the government began to send aspiring musicians to conservatoires in Beirut and elsewhere. The radio orchestras were placed under experienced ensemble leaders, such as the Egyptian Atia Sharara, who led the Benghazi radio orchestra.
Succeeding Salam Qadri, Ali Shaalia, and Khadim Nadeem, a slew of fine singers and composers that included Khaled Saeed, Adel Abdelmajeed, and Ibrahim Fahmi, raised the bar considerably. Performing in the neoclassical tradition of the Mashreq, they made Libya’s sound competitive with the rest of the Arab world.
Nadeem was in demand in Tunisia next door where singers such as Ni`ma and `Ulaya sang his compositions. He was among the first composers to have scored a poem by Nizar Qabbani, long before Qabbani became the favored poet among the Arab world’s leading singers.
The 1970s saw two urban trends emerge. Merskawi music, referring to the region of Merzeg in the south, became the favored music in Benghazi first, and then in Tripoli. Though its lyrics were traditional, its rhythms and the hard living of its singers made it the favored sound among the young and disaffected. Young singers such as Abdeljalil Abdelqader made their successful careers by singing at private gatherings where he and other Merskawi performers commanded top dollar. He is still hailed as a local hero in Benghazi.
On the other end of the 1970s youth rebellion spectrum, the iconoclastic Ahmad Fakroun struck on his own as a pop singer and has produced a substantial body of work that riffs off well known western hits, and incorporates folks songs and chants from Libya. He is considered a pioneer of Arabic Jeel music which kicked off in the 1980’s in Egypt.
Tripoli’s Nasser Al-Mezdawi led a pop band that also mixed Western rock with local Libyan rhythms and gained considerable fame across the Arab world. Since the 1980’s he has resided in Egypt and has composed mega hits performed by the likes of Amr Diab and Hamid al-Shaairi, who is also Libyan.
The 1970’s, it should be noted, saw the emergence of Libya’s first modern female signers such as Abeer and Tunis Meftah. They were a welcomed change from the folkloric wedding singers such as Najma al-Trabelsiya and Khadija al-Foonsha who were in constant demand, but whose limited repertoire and performance style made them seem arcane. Abeer and Muftah were touted and celebrated while songs by Najma and the raunchy al-Foonsha’s were never played on radio or television until late in their career.
The late 1970’s saw Col. Qaddafi take Libyan politics by the throat. These were the years the music died.
The diversity of influences and aspirations that made the Libyan music scene vibrant was deeply impacted by Qaddafi’s aggressive ideological dictates. The colonel’s insistence on music, and arts, of the people, in reality meant an insistence that all artists praise his rule and his vision of the country. Many artists were sidelined or pushed aside. In their place emerged Qaddafi’s handpicked singer-composer, Muhammad Hassan, who in dress and manner bore a striking resemblance to the dictator he served.
Videos of Hassan’s songs represent a visual montage of the Qaddafi ethos. A single singer who composed his own songs is backed by a huge ensemble of musicians and vocalists all dressed in traditional robes. The stage setting never varies from a tent-like structure in a desert landscape. Running under song lyrics derived from a shallow sense of Bedouin purity and timelessness, Hassan’s musical compositions of the last thirty years also hardly differed from each other.
Hassan arrived as his special status by writing frequent songs in praise of Qaddafi. The height of Hassan’s achievement was a 1978 multi-cassette musical journey that featured several of Libya’s best young singers. Rihlat Nagham, (Musical Journey) as the compilation was called, mixed traditional songs with new ones. It was appreciated as work of art despite the obvious spoilers, mainly the songs in which Hassan heaped praise on Qaddafi’s so-called “people’s democracy.”
Like the man whom he chose to serve, Hassan has been intellectually and artistically bankrupt for decades even as his own personal fortune and power have grown. Since the start of the revolution this February, Hassan has been among the crowded ranks of Qaddafi’s servants who have been too ashamed to go on with their shameless trade, and too tainted to join the revolution’s ranks.
Since the February 17th revolution began in Benghazi, new songs, especially by young and unknown singers, are coming out every day from Libya. The courthouse practice rooms are packed and open 24-hours a day. New radio and TV stations are playing their songs and filling the airwaves for a variety of sounds. Rap has been the choice of the young, but the ever-ready Merskawi sound is at its heels.
There is much to look forward to in this new era of Libyan music. As of now, the moment is full of energy, momentum, and inspiration. My favorite number in this category has been the song that poured out of that loudspeaker van in Doha a couple weeks ago. Such spontaneity and joy has not been heard in Libya for decades, and it could not come any sooner.
[An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Daily Beast.com]