Against the Odds, An Egyptian Alternative

Violin i i

hide captionBlack Theama violinist Mohammed Samy, backed by drummer Mahmoud Abdulaziz.

Amir Salaheldeen
Violin

Black Theama violinist Mohammed Samy, backed by drummer Mahmoud Abdulaziz.

Amir Salaheldeen
Group i i

hide captionBlack Theama in performance at the Rawabet Theater in Cairo.

Iman El-Ashry
Group

Black Theama in performance at the Rawabet Theater in Cairo.

Iman El-Ashry
Singers i i

hide captionFrom left to right: Black Theama singers Mohammed Abdo, Amir Salah Eddin, and Ahmed Bahr perform in concert.

Marwan Mahmoud
Singers

From left to right: Black Theama singers Mohammed Abdo, Amir Salah Eddin, and Ahmed Bahr perform in concert.

Marwan Mahmoud

In Egypt, popular music is dominated by slickly packaged songs and videos that critics complain are formulaic and uninspired. But a few bands are providing an alternative.

One is Black Theama, which combines Nubian rhythms with R&B, hip-hop, reggae and other African-influenced sounds, with lyrics sung in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. With nearly no budget, the band still manages to pack every show with adoring fans who seem to have memorized every song.

Getting to hear Black Theama isn't easy, even for Cairenes with a taste for music found off the beaten path. The band refuses to work inside the commercial music industry, preferring to painstakingly save money to produce its own recordings one at a time, with the help of friends and supporters. As such, it has almost no records to speak of, and its shows are not heavily advertised.

Until the band's financial situation improves, Black Theama fans have to content themselves with seeking out irregularly scheduled live shows. Which they do — Black Theama's avid underground following regularly packs venues, where fans sing along with songs apparently learned from low-fidelity amateur live recordings passed around on the Internet.

The song "Sheraton" is one of the band's most popular. Its lyrics, sung in a shorthand that assumes a lot of local knowledge, describe an early-morning Cairo scene as ordinary Egyptians walk home to their poor neighborhoods, shuffling past the tourist-filled towers of the five-star hotels that line the Nile River.

Nubian actor Amir Salah Eddin is one of three singers who front the band. He says the group takes its name, "Black Theme," seriously, as it does its goal of avoiding standard pop-music cliches in its lyrics.

What Black Theama does provide is very personal, street-level views of Egyptian life. Singer Mohammed Abdo, who met Salah Eddin through theater work, says they try to celebrate the black experience in Egypt through their music.

"It means being special, and being dark-skinned in Egypt is always connected to the South," Abdo says. "And people from the South have their own character, their own culture — even their tone of voice is different."

Ancient Nubia included much of northern Sudan and southern Egypt, and dark-skinned Egyptians are invariably referred to as Nubians. Traditionally, they were given menial or servants' jobs.

But Black Theama doesn't want to be mistaken for a protest band. A song called "Magnoon," Egyptian for "crazy," features one of the group's most popular musicians, violinist Mohammed Samy. For now, the only available version is an amateur recording posted by a fan on YouTube.

Amir Salah Eddin says young Egyptians are familiar with alternative bands from other countries, and that they're eager to embrace a homegrown group that bypasses the music industry to speak directly to them.

"When they found a band here that achieves this, they said, 'Yeah, we should support this band,'" Salah Eddin says.

While mainstream Egyptian singers may croon about starry-eyed love and teenage heartbreak, a character in a Black Theama song responds to his fiancee's question about marriage by asking: "Why not ask me about the corrupt politicians who stole my dreams? Or about wealthy countries with children sleeping under bridges?"

Salah Eddin says Black Theama's amazingly loyal fans, who flock to concerts that cost around $2 to attend, have reinforced his desire to pursue this so-far unprofitable style of music-making.

"We are not into this to be famous, because if we had wanted to be famous, we could have done one of the... just a 'Nubi' song — we dress like Nubians and we do the Nubian dance and we could have been famous," he says. "But we are trying to do the thing that we believe in, the thing that goes straight to the heart of people."

Music critics say it's not clear that Black Theama could have achieved instant fame by sticking to traditional Nubian folksongs. But it is clear that the band has tapped into a hunger among young Egyptians for something that feels authentic to them today.

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