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Black Theama hits the mainstream

A few weeks ago, after six years as independent musicians, Black Theama’s first album was released on Egypt’s Aarabica Music label. The production company, known for its pop releases of traditional Egyptian and Arab singers, welcomed Black Theama to its catalog of artists, facilitating the group’s move from the underground music scene into the wider commercial market. The band’s introduction to the mainstream comes after a remarkable yet limited success with a dependable audience at their irregularly scheduled live shows in Cairo.

Like many independent artists, Black Theama struggled with a minimal budget that left them unable to record or publicize their work on a large scale. Reaching out to widespread media channels was impossible, and self-production proved a big hassle. The average costs of producing a record ranges between LE100,000 and LE300,000, a video clip requires some LE40,000, and it costs an average of LE20,000 for a one week airing on private local radio channels.

“We have hard lined fans who grew up with us these six years, and are well acquainted with our music and lyrics. They might consider the new arrangements on the CD less revolutionary, and prefer the strong impression that live music leaves. However, we would tell them to listen carefully to the new tracks and try to understand that it is different to target a big audience with diversified tastes and cultures,” said Amir Salah el-Din, one of three leading performers and co-founders of Black Theama.

Choosing the twelve songs for their first album was not an easy task. In its short history Black Theama has written over fifty songs, dealing with critical social and political themes. It is this focus that attracted their initial audience and constructed their identity. “Our project is not to croon about starry-eyed love and teenage heartbreak. We assumed that there was a wide array of emotions and issues not yet tackled in contemporary singing, and we think that there is an insistent demand for that genre,” said Ahmed Bahr, the second performer and co-founder of Black Theama.

Black Theama’s rebellious lyrics are written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic and reflect the sociopolitical scene in Egypt. The poets writing for the band (among them Ramy Yehia, Mido Zoheir, and Diaa el-Rahman) drew from the group's focus on black musical traditions–jazz, R&B, soul, rap, blues–to help shape songs that voice the sentiments of today’s marginalized and underrepresented youth in Egypt.

“Southern music is one of the main tributaries of Egyptian music, and is a real part of our identity, not only because we originate from Nubia and are dark-skinned. We subconsciously came to recognize how much we’re affected by this unique character and culture, and moved by the music. We are always trying to work with the density of black music, including Nubian, and this provides our music with a distinct flavor,” said Mohamed Abdo, the third performer and co-founder of Black Theama.

Eventually, Black Theama realized that hitting the mainstream would require more than being politically assertive. The selection of their recorded tracks, arranged by the well-known pop arranger Osama el-Hindy, balances their critical pieces with other lighter tracks.

“Two years before recording, we started to realize that some light songs would encourage people who are accustomed to formulaic pop to listen to us and later appreciate the rest of our songs. When we presented “Eih Yaani?!” (“What If”)–about a guy who makes fun of a girl who deserted him–a lot of the fans of pop stars like Tamer Hosny and Amr Diab liked it, and now they are part of our audience and attend our concerts,” said Salah el-Din.

In “Zahma” (Crowd), the poet Mido Zoheir presents, maybe for the first time in mainstream music, a frank criticism of the everyday struggle of the poor. Lyrics give voice to Egypt’s disenfranchised people: “Ask me my love about what’s happening in the country/ where they condemned my dreams and sold my own voice/ I would tell you thousands of stories about the exhausted people/ who live half-dead and who died years ago/ those who never talk without coughing/ and those who dwell in pubs and sell themselves to earn their living."

Black Theama’s album is expected to profit from the growing call for change within mainstream music; listeners are fed up with the conventional productions of packaged and uninspired recordings. Bahr, Salah el-Din, and Abdo credit young listeners who follow the evolving music scene all over the world on the Internet for inspiring a homegrown Egyptian trend. “New generations are eager to embrace musical genres and lyrics that represent them, all over the world. We grow from the conviction that those bored up-to-date youth are our potential audience who would support the change that we and other serious artists would bring to the music scene,” said Bahr.

But one question remains on the minds of Black Theama and music critics. Will the trials of a few artists be enough to revolutionize a music industry that has continued producing standard pop cliches for decades?

Regardless of the outcome, Black Theama welcomes the challenge, "to exist and bypass the dominant audio culture and reach out for the audience awaiting us,” said Abdo. And now that audience finally has the twelve songs they’ve been waiting for.

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