At 23 years of age, Ramy Essam admits “I’m very young for what happened to me.” He is possibly referring to the torture and brutality he experienced during and after the January 25 Revolution, but also to the responsibility he has come to assume as the voice of Tahrir Square.
When Daily News Egypt met the musician on the eve of May 1, Essam had already put to music a Beyram Tunsi poem “El Amel El Masry” (Egyptian Worker) that he would perform at the workers’ protest the next day.
Sitting at the Groppi café (a hub for erstwhile revolutionaries) in Downtown, he was also being signed up as the main attraction of the “Egypt’s Rise Festival” that will take place at the end of the month at the Pyramids.
Essam started to play guitar around the age of 16; singing came into the picture only two years ago. As front-man of the band “Mashakel,” he often sang about, as the band name suggests, problems in Egypt.
Hailing from Mansoura, Essam came to Cairo on January 30 to participate in the revolution. He camped on Tahrir Square, and has become a regular Cairene since.
Standing in Tahrir, in effect the center of the revolution, he put a melody to the crowd’s anti-Mubarak chants with his song “Irhal” (Leave). Essam recalls the day the song was born.
People were disappointed on February 1, when then president Mubarak said he would step down after elections in September. To some outside the square, that seemed enough.
“People called and asked ‘Why are you still in Tahrir?’” recalls Essam. The song came to bolster protesters’ spirits and the message reverberated. “The songs I sang were songs of the midan. People outside Egypt heard them too.”
The forthrightness of Essam’s songs signified the sense of freedom in Tahrir: they said what people believed but dared not express earlier. Essam’s songs are inclusive — they sang words of the midan back to the people, inviting them to sing along.
“Edhako Ya Thowar” (Laugh, Revolutionaries!) named absurd conspiracy theories — of infiltrators, of KFC-sponsored protests, and agendas, asking people to laugh along with the refrain “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Essam often sings poems penned by others, but his selections always eye sarcasm. The lyrics of Abou Zeid Bayoumi’s “Taty Taty” ask people to bow their head while reminding them of the ‘democracy’ in which they live.
“El Gahsh Wel Homar” (The Donkey and the Foal) speaks indirectly of Gamal wanting to replace his father, Hosni Mubarak, telling him he’s had the reins for far too long.
Yet the writer of the song is in fact anonymous. It is not written by the popular and outspoken Egyptian figure to whom even Essam at first attributed the poem. “Ahmed Found Negm told me himself that he didn’t write it,” said Essam.
Essam describes his poignant meeting with Negm, and recalls the poet’s kindness. “I kissed his hand and sang to him. And he told me he was very glad to have lived long enough to see someone like me, and hear me sing.”
Essam met many of his idols at Dar Merit, the publishing house owned by Mohamed Hashem. The other hub for revolutionaries was at the house of Pierre Sioufi who is at the other end of the political spectrum from Hashem.
“The one is a complete libertarian and the other is a socialist,” says Essam, “but during the revolution, both houses were open to everyone.”
Although injured during the revolution like many others, Essam stayed on the square and sang again. He was also among those taken and beaten at the Egyptian museum following the March 9 protests at Tahrir. He was tortured and his long hair was cut short.
Speaking to NPR, Essam still would not condemn the army as a whole for the March 9 attacks and believed his case would be investigated. He seems less certain now, “Yes, I believe there are good people, but where are they?” Essam continues to be monitored by the army, and sometimes concerts where he will play are closed down by authorities.
Yet, Essam continues to play across the country. He has been to Port Said, Suhag, Minya, sung at universities, and in the open air. Currently, he is also working on an album of songs from Tahrir Square, which he will call “Midan.” Producers worldwide have expressed interest, but he is yet to sign a contract.
Leaving “Mashakel” behind, Ramy Essam now goes by his own name.
Travelling with his music is also in the cards for Essam, “I want to take Egypt to the world,” adding “I want people to know that Egyptians are not strange or terrorists.”
“Just as I learn English to understand others better, I want people to learn Arabic to know what I sing.”
On the home front, “I want Egypt to be better,” says the artist, “and I want all to know that they have a greater responsibility to Egypt.”
Ramy Essam will be among the acts presented on May 13 starting 4 pm to 10 pm at the Street Music Revolution vol. 4. at El Saba’ Omarat at the garden in front of La Casetta restaurant, Heliopolis. Concert is free of charge.