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Libya's Explosive Music Revolution

The years Gaddafi took power were also the years the music died. Now, songs are coming out from everywhere, and fast. Plus, a video gallery of the hottest new songs and the old classics. By Khaled Mattawa

05.28.11 7:29 PM ET

At a Libyan pro-revolution rally in the midday heat of Doha last week, the protesters needed help. They sang the independence anthem, laughed through a spoof of a song by Muhammad Hassan, Muammar Gaddafi's chosen singer, then chanted "the blood of the martyrs will not go in vain."

Then, just as the several-hundred-strong crowd was running out of steam, someone remembered a line from a new pro-revolution song. Magically, a minivan sound system blared a remixed version 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.

Gallery: Libyan Pop Music

The new song is a full-on celebration. A litany of praise that lists all Libya's cities and regions, the song blasts Gaddafi for his decades of violent misrule and his very bad hair. Since February, when the revolt really took hold, rebels and Gaddafi's forces have been at war. But the rebels are using music as fuel.

So far, the singer's name on this anthem remains a mystery. A search on the Internet found no release date for it, copyright information, 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.

Libya hasn't seen a resurgence of music like this since the late 1970s, when Col. Gaddafi really took Libyan politics by the throat. He had released his notorious Green Book and renamed the country. Those were the years the music died.

The profusion, diversity, and anonymity of Libya’s revolutionary music are a complete turnaround from the stifled state of Libya’s music in the Gaddafi era.

Now, Libya's independence-era anthem came back roaring after being banned for four decades. A melodic song, "We Shall Remain Here," has been the anthem most specific to this revolution. The courthouse in Benghazi that has been converted to a media center now houses several studios and practice rooms.

One of the first musicians to have distinguished himself in the Libyan revolution is the U.K.-based rapper Ibn Thabit. To his credit, Ibn Thabit's pro-revolution songs had been making the scene before the revolution.

The profusion, diversity, and anonymity of Libya's revolutionary music are a complete turnaround from the stifled state of Libya's music in the Gaddafi 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 between Africa, Europe, and the Arab world, Libya's music echoes all the cultural currents that run through it.

The late 1960s to the mid-1970s were the golden years of Libyan music. As oil was discovered in the early 1960s, the government began to send aspiring musicians to conservatoires in Beirut and elsewhere. The nation's radio orchestras were placed under experienced ensemble leaders. Benghazi's was led by the highly accomplished Egyptian musician Atia Sharara, whose antics and elegance made him a childhood hero of mine.

The 1970s saw two urban trends emerge. Merskawi music, with its conventional lyrics and traditional rhythms along with the hard living of its singers, made it the favored sound among the young and disaffected. Singing mainly at private gatherings, Merskawi performers commanded top dollar, as well as the commensurate supply of local moonshine and hashish, which were all happily provided to them even in conservative Libya.

On the other end of the 1970s' youth rebellion spectrum, the iconoclastic Ahmed Fakroun from Benghazi 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 folk songs and chants from Libya. 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. Both are pioneers of Arabic Jeel music, which kicked off in the 1980s in Egypt and Lebanon.

The 1970s also saw the emergence of Libya's first modern female signers, such as Abeer and Tunis Meftah. They were a welcome change from the folkloric wedding singers as Najma al-Trabelsiya and Khadija al-Foonsha, who were too raunchy to receive any radio or TV play.

All this diversity pretty much ended in the late 1970s. Gaddafi's aggressive ideological dictates began to infiltrate all cultural production in Libya. The colonel's insistence on music, and arts, of the people, in reality meant an insistence that all artists praise his rule and person.

As a result, many artists were sidelined or silenced. In their place emerged Gaddafi'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 Gaddafi ethos. Singing songs he scored, Hassan is usually 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 30 years also hardly differed.

Like the man that 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 Gaddafi'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 17 revolution began in Benghazi, new songs, especially by young and unknown singers, are coming out every day from Libya. Rap has been the choice of the young, but the ever-ready Merskawi sound has caught up with it. The more studious, classical composers have yet to gain the quietude to meditate on the diversity of emotions that have characterized Libya's revolution.

I look forward to this new era of Libyan music, in all its facets. As of now, the moment is about energy, momentum, and inspiration. My favorite number in this category has been the song that poured out of that loudspeaker van in Doha. Such spontaneity and joy has not been heard in Libya for decades, and it could not come any sooner.

Khaled Mattawa is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Tocqueville (New Issues Press). Winner of the 2010 Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, Mattawa is the translator of Adonis's Selected Poems which is a finalist for the Griffin Prize this year. He teaches literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.