Egypt Underground musicians leave negotiation table soured

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Talks between the Musicians’ Syndicate and underground musicians protesting fines end sourly and under extreme pressure from an ex-regime law governing the arts. Originally published in Ahram Online.

A committee from the Syndicate of Musicians forced the cancelation of Mohamed El Nahass’s concert at El-Sawy Culturewheel roughly two weeks ago because some of the musicians in the band are not members of the syndicate.

Underground musicians then staged a protest outside of El-Sawy Culturewheel centre on Friday to press for a resolution of the pending issues between the syndicate and independent musicians. Both sides met at the River Hall in the Culturewheel.

According to the 1979 law governing artistic syndicates, whoever works without a syndicate membership can be prosecuted and jailed from one – three months and is fined between LE500-20,000.

“The committee gave us the option either to cancel the concert or pay the fine, which starts at LE500 per musician playing in the band without syndicate membership, totalling LE2500 ($410) with a reduced offer of LE600 ($100). So we cancelled,” explained Hani Bedair, a percussionist performing in the concert in question, to Ahram Online during the protest.

“My main objection that I voiced to the syndicate is that they are practicing a judicial power, which can only be practiced by a prosecutor or a police officer – not the syndicate,” Bedair argued.

“El Sawy also had a protocol with the syndicate, since their logo is placed on Culturewheel publications. We’ve been performing in El Sawy for nine years and no one ever asked us to show membership,” he added.

From that incident a group of underground musicians voiced their concerns through a variety of media. At one point Islam Ismail, who manages underground bands, made a call on Facebook for a protest outside of El-Sawy Culturewheel on Friday to apply pressure and reach an agreement with the syndicate.

“We need the syndicate to take into consideration that people who perform in cultural venues do not make money; the money they make is much less than what they spend on rehearsals and preparation, so they cannot take a percentage off of their shows like they do with commercial artists who perform in hotels or big events,” Ismail told Ahram Online.

Ismail explained that he, along with other musicians, held a meeting during the week with Syndicate Board Member Conductor Khaled El-Tohamy and he expressed the syndicate’s wish to resolve the issue and make it easier for musicians to join.

“The Culturewheel and other cultural centres, like Darb 1718 and El-Geneina, have been coordinating with the syndicate to solve the issue and have been very cooperative,” Ismail commented. “The Culturewheel even agreed to pay the two per cent (for full-members) or 10 per cent (for Associate Members) fee musicians must pay from their revenues to the syndicate,” he added.

Ashraf El-Qenawy, the director of El-Geneina Theater was also at the protest to show El-Geneina’s support for the musicians. “If a fair deal is reached we would be the first on board.”

The protest, which started at 2:00pm saw a small turn-out of about 100-150 demonstrators, considering that, according to the musicians, Cairo alone has about 500 independent musicians and bands across different genres. As the sun went down, members of the syndicate, along with the director of El-Sawy Culturewheel, Mohamed El-Sawy, invited the demonstrators into the River Hall of the Culturewheel to have an open discussion on the issue.

El-Sawy welcomed the musicians, who sat in the audience chairs, as well as syndicate members, who sat as a panel on the podium and gave a short speech setting the tone for the discussion.

“We all have one goal here: to reach a consensus for the future of music in Egypt,” he said. “We want everyone who creates and innovates to have the space and ability to do so,” he added.

Syndicate board members Khaled El-Tohamy, Ahmed Ramadan and Mostafa Helmy sat at the panel, joined by the Syndicate’s legal advisor, Saad Metwaly.

Ramadan started off by explaining that the syndicate has many financial responsibilities, such as paying out pensions for more than 35,000 musicians since the syndicate was established in 1979, along with healthcare benefits that totals to more than one million Egyptian pounds per month.

“The current syndicate board was elected after the revolution and we are trying to work on developing music in Egypt as well as supporting musicians in their endeavours,” he told the young musicians. “If you are part of our family we can support you better,” he added inviting the musicians to join the syndicate.

The board expressed that they will take all measures to ensure flexibility within the system, such as allowing them to pay the LE500 ($80) fee for the membership test in instalments and to make the process for obtaining permission to host concerts more fluid.

“Our role is to protect and provide work for our members,” Helmy asserted.

He cited the example of when a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm filed a case against the Heavy Metal musicians and the syndicate testified that it is an art and not “satanic rituals” as the claim read. He also claimed that whenever any syndicate members are arrested for street performances or prosecuted in any way the syndicate is always there to give the musician legal support.

Some musicians tried to encourage everyone to register with the syndicate, who had promised to have evaluators ready to test everyone and give the membership cards by the start of next year as long as all the musicians submit their applications by the end of November. Others were more resistant.

“The law is flawed,” said musician Ahmed Yassin into the microphone from the audience as he walked towards the podium. “I shouldn’t have to join the syndicate by force of law,” he stated.

El-Sawy had expressed the same thought earlier in the evening.

“Membership in syndicates should be voluntary,” said the director. “The previous regime controlled the arts through oppressive laws and constitutional changes to make sure no one had the right to speak against it. We are now in a new political climate and things are changing.”

However, El-Sawy was sympathetic to the position the syndicate is in. This law still exists and it will not change before a new constitution and new parliament is put into place, and therefore, the syndicate is obligated to apply the law. He also expressed his sympathy for the financial constraints the syndicate is facing; both the debt along and obligations to provide for its members.

“We already pay LE3,000 ($490) to the syndicate, and we will donate the River Hall the first Thursday of every month for the syndicate to hold a fundraiser concert,” he announced to the audience.

Many musicians expressed their dismay at having to join the syndicate, saying it does not give them anything, that their artistic activities are independent in nature and they don’t want to be part of a body. “Underground music is freedom and we should not be put in a cage with rules and regulations,” musician Hussein Darwish said.

The syndicate members assured the musicians that these rules apply only to concerts in cultural venues or other spaces where tickets are sold at the door. In the case of public performances on the street or in squares, the syndicate has no authority to intervene. They also assured the artists that the syndicate does not intervene in the topics musicians choose to tackle – be they political or social.

“They promise that no one will say what is art and what is not; they will simply judge whether the musician has talent,” Ahmed El-Haggar, a musician and the moderator of the discussion said.

His comment inflamed outrage from the audience with questions and statements like: Why is there judgment to determine if the person is talented? What is talent? This is against freedom of expression.

Discussions went downhill from there, with blame tossed back and forth between the musicians and syndicate members over several issues they faced with testing, fines and other issues of specific cases. The tension rose higher and higher until the meeting ended on a sour note, leaving everyone frustrated.

The root of the problem seems to be the Egyptian law governing artistic syndicates itself, which forces artists to join to be able to practice their art – in this case music.

“The law is stupid and bureaucratic, of course, but for now we cannot do anything since the syndicate has no right to change the law. It must be changed by a presidential decree or parliament,” El-Haggar told Ahram Online.

“This is another fight for another time, right now we have to deal with this law,” El-Haggar concluded.

 

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