Libya’s music scene reborn after years of suppression

BENGHAZI, Libya: Patriotic songs composed by Libyan rebels during their revolt against Moammar Gadhafi fill the air every evening in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square. After years of censorship under his ousted regime, a new music scene is taking off.

In the seafront former parking lot which became a key symbol of the seven-month uprising, an eclectic bazaar has sprung up at which vendors sell CDs and tapes honoring the conflict’s “martyrs” and extolling the “free Libya.”

“Salah Ghaly, please,” a girl asks anxiously at one stall, referring to a young Libyan singer famous for his hit songs about Tripoli and Benghazi.

“It was important to sing for the two cities,” Ghaly told AFP by telephone from his base in Cairo.

During the conflict, there were fears that antagonism could grow between the capital, which was always pampered by Gadhafi, and Benghazi, the neglected second city that served as the rebels’ war-time base.

“Tripoli is capital of free Libya,” Ghaly sings, echoing the slogans of Libya’s new rulers. “I will never accept any other.”

Young Libyans say Ghaly’s songs boosted their confidence.

“You cannot imagine what his songs did for our morale,” said Safa Fathi al-Fakhri, 19. “In the past, we only knew Moammar Gadhafi, his ‘Green Book’ and his regime’s green flag. There was nothing else. We were ignorant, we did not know any artist.”

Patriotic songs have flourished since the uprising began. Libyan youngsters are taking advantage of their newfound freedom to express themselves in ways that were unimaginable under Gadhafi’s iron-fisted 42-year rule.

The pop group Guys Underground formed in Benghazi in 2008 but failed to get off the ground until the revolt broke out on Feb. 17.

“Under Gadhafi, we could not deal with sensitive issues such as politics,” one of the group’s members, 23-year-old Marwen Gargum told AFP.

“We tried to talk indirectly about what was really going on in Libya,” he continued. “We did not have the means to record CDs. If you wanted a sponsor or a studio, you had to sing for Gadhafi.”

Gargum said the old regime created all sorts problems for the group.

“They cut the power three times during our concerts. They forced us to sing in Arabic. They hacked our Internet site. They liked to prevent people from having fun,” he said with a wry smile. “That was Gadhafi’s regime.”

One of Guys Underground’s hits is “We Win or We Die,” a song composed by a friend who was killed by a stray bullet to the chest a few days after completing it.

Before the fall of Gadhafi, the group “had lost hope and thought of fleeing the country,” said Gargum. “We want to make ourselves known in the U.S. and Europe. We do not want people to say, ‘Libya equals Al-Qaeda and Libya equals desert and camels.’”

Abdel Moneim al-Erwiya, 59, applauded enthusiastically as he listened to the youngsters perform on a makeshift stage in Benghazi.

“Before Feb. 17,” he said, “the people were frustrated. Today talent is springing up everywhere. And it is only the beginning.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2011, on page 16.




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