Seven years in the making Yallah! Underground, a documentary that tells the stories of various young musicians from four Middle Eastern countries between 2009 and 2013, premiered in Berlin on August 14.
At the Berlin premiere Musiqa Mustaqilla had a chance to talk about the film with director Farid Eslam (Istanbul United) as well as Maii Waleed and Zeid Hamdan, who are featured in it.
Musiqa Mustaqilla: Was it hard for you to get in contact with musicians? How did you approach them with this kind of project?
Farid Eslam: Some of the artists I knew before I started making this film, because I had been working there [in the Middle East] for two years already. I already met Zeid [Hamdan], for example, in 2006. As in any subculture, many more doors open when you have a couple of contacts, because people are connected. They point you to other artists in different countries and different cities. So it wasn’t really hard to get in touch with artists.
MM: Did anyone decline in participate in the project?
FE: No, nobody declined. We filmed many more artists than we actually showed.
MM: How did you decide which artists to include?
FE: Which artists to include in the final edit depended on the amount of time we were able to spend with the artists, on what the artist had to say and on the topics they were talking about and, at the very end of the selection process, to a small degree on my personal musical taste
MM: How much has changed in the underground scene since 2009?
Maii Waleed: In Egypt there have been great changes. Since the revolution people have realized the power of the internet, and since then we have seen a lot of artists, independent musicians, who produce music from their home studios and put it out there. With time a lot of new projects developed and many are still developing. There has been a difference since then and I think the revolution played a part in it. Not that the music or expression has been strictly political.
MM: Do you think music got more politicized after the revolution?
MW: Speaking for myself, I think it was a trend around that time specifically to speak or write about politics. A lot of people tuned in into this frequency, but I don’t think that all of the musicians continued in that direction. Now it is kind of forbidden or it has serious consequences. People are focusing more on individual aspects of society and experiences.
MM: What about Lebanon? Has the success of bands like Mashrou3 Leila helped the scene reach a broader audience?
Zeid Hamdan: I feel these times are not a ‚blossoming period‘ for the music scene in Lebanon. The country has gone through hard times with the Syrian war, lack of presidency, the Garbage Crisis and so on. In such times young people tend to plan to leave. When the times are good, people are working, forming bands. In this period we have fewer and fewer bands. Mashrou3 Leila is doing well, but it’s one of few successful bands in Lebanon that come from the alternative scene.
MM: Some people say an underground scene doesn’t exist. How would you define the underground? What are the factors that would characterize the scene?
ZH: I think the alternative and the underground scene for us is those musicians without a label or any structure who decide to create a project, who go for it seriously and just start to exist, whatever their style is. This is how we do it, with absolutely no support and only as a personal initiative, we build it slowly but we are focused on it. Then there are the pop stars, there are structures around them. They have the media and the radio. We just work on the internet.
MW: I think in Egypt a lot of people fall under the umbrella of the alternative scene. It doesn’t bring in any money, so they have to have other jobs which requires more effort. I wouldn’t say that the alternative scene in Egypt is taken seriously by a lot of individuals. It’s still in the gray area.
FE: In the context of the movie the definition of underground is pretty broad. It’s basically everything apart from the mainstream. It’s quite easy to define it in such broad strokes because the scene is rather small compared to scenes in the US or Europe, so you can throw in a lot of different genres that all qualify as underground just for the fact that they’re not being offered a platform in mainstream media.
But it’s also about taking chances artistically and about the content, with a certain political or social commentary. The artists we portrayed try to create something on their own without the security of knowing if this will sell to a certain target audience.
MM: What is your target audience? For whom did you make the documentary?
FE: My perspective is obviously more a western perspective, so my target audience was primarily a western audience, as I felt a certain need to show them a different perspective on Arab culture. I believe in communication. If you see something, if you understand something that you didn’t know before, it opens your mind to new and different aspects. It’s harder for you to judge something or somebody per se without any founded knowledge.
MM: How was it for you to be represented in the movie? How did you think it represented you?
MW: I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I don’t mean whether the reflection is truthful or not. It’s just seeing a little bit of a bigger picture from a different perspective. It reflects certain aspects of our position that are really true and worth acknowledging. Realizing that as Arabs we’re subjects of either judgment or justification — that’s why I have mixed feelings, because I never identified myself as an Arab, as an Egyptian, as a Muslim. I think it has to do with me growing up, seeing the order how things fall and how people place things.
ZH: Every time I see the movie, I enjoy seeing the musical process. The time and the energy and the problems we’ve gone through. Maybe I’m ashamed a bit of how I look so tired sometimes in the documentary, but I enjoy watching it because it was a beautiful time making music with very good friends and being interviewed. It’s a nice piece of archive for me and I am happy that it exists. But I’m just disturbed by how tired I was sometimes [laughs].
MM: The film ends with a hopeful message. Do you think music can be a tool for people to create hope?
MW: Any form of expression can do that, but I think it requires a lot more on a bigger scale and this is why honestly, personally, it is not my concern anymore to change things, because I don’t know where we’re supposed to head to. In western countries where they supposedly have democracies, there are certain aspects in society and people that I still don’t like. Of course, music or any art of expression helps to give awareness, reflecting things, opening up minds. But I don’t know where it’s supposed to head.
FE: For me it was important to show similarities and not an anthropological-like look at some exotic different culture. It is contrary to the “us against them” narrative we can find all over the media which is completely fabricated and politically motivated. There are more similarities than differences and we all want basically the same from life. And it’s a shame that many people need to be reminded of these simple facts today.
MM: Did you have problems while filming in these countries?
FE: We mostly shot without permission, except for Jordan. The only inconveniences we had to face was entering Palestine through the Israeli border control, which was not fun, and the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution when some people became paranoid, sometimes aggressive and violent, which caused some tricky situations. But other than that there were no problems really.
The Interview was conducted by Tugrul Mende and was originally published with Mada Masr. You can read it here.