Corona Ya Corona: Arabic Pop Music Takes on the COVID-19 Pandemic

In times of crisis, musicians use their craft to make sense of realities confronting society. They help others come to terms with changes taking place around them as well. They soothe, they comfort, and they keep people upbeat. In the Middle East, there is a long tradition of Arabic pop singers engaging with the issues of the time. During revolutions, they release anthems to mobilize the public. After war and conflict, they memorialize those who have fallen. This is true whether it was Um Kulthum touring to collect money to help free Palestine after the 1967 war, Shaaban Abdel Rahim lyrically condemning the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the many artists producing revolutionary hymns celebrating the 2011 Arab Spring, or Iraqi anthems celebrating the defeat of ISIS.

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the world, the Middle East has not been spared. The pandemic is impossible to ignore, and Arab artists have risen to the challenge. In this piece, I’ll explore musical responses to the COVID-19 outbreak across the Arab world, from musical public service announcements imploring the public to wash their hands to songs lamenting the toll the virus has caused, and onward to the upbeat dancey Egyptian pop hits that are causing hips to shake across the region. We’ll cover the good, the bad, and the ugly, and everything in between.

The first genre of music to emerge as the threat of the coronavirus reared its ugly head were Public Service Announcements (PSA), whether created by governments or by independent associations. These PSAs used music, rhythm, and catchy lyrics to alert the public to the dangers posed by the Coronavirus. They also stress how to avoid catching it – especially maintaining physical distance from others, washing hands thoroughly, and not shaking hands, which is an especially difficult thing to demand in cultures where people generally greet each other with a mixture of kisses, hugs, cheek grazes and handshakes.

We begin with a PSA from a musical trio in Morocco. This song is in the Andalusian rhythm, the musical form that was carried by Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain when they were expelled in 1492 across the Mediterranean Sea and took refuge in North Africa. The lyrics are quite simple, beginning with “Stay in your home.. Think of your health and those you love” and ending with the need to keep your country safe.

Moroccan music has a thing for musical trios, and our next is an upbeat song by a female musical group about how Morocco will stay strong and weather the Corona storm. 

In contrast to the classic undertones of these Moroccan videos, the next clip belongs to what is likely the most well-known and wildly successful song of the Coronavirus virus so far. For the last few weeks, this song has spread like wildfire across Egyptian stereos. With the catchy “We won’t shake hands, we won’t kiss, we won’t transmit the virus,” this song is right to the point – and hard to get out of your head.

“Clean your hands with soap, instead of once, do it a million times. There is no need for you to go out night and day, the situation is no longer a joke.” It’s straight forward, but what everyone needs to hear right now:

The next song is an oldie but a goodie that has been getting major circulation these days, blasted daily from the balconies of Beirut and in the living rooms of Damascus. Fairouz, in her evergreen wisdom, reminds everyone: “Stay at home!” 

From Lebanon, we venture south, beginning with a humorous video from Palestinian musician Saqar bin Khammash. In the clip, the Gaza-based singer explains to a group of men that when they sneeze, they need to sneeze into their arm, not into the air, in order to prevent the virus’ spread. At this point, one of the men sneezes and falls over.

Seeing this, the crowd scatters, and the singer yells: “Oh Arabs, listen up! Corona has invaded us from China! Ya Wely ya wely!” 

The crowd then moves into dabke dancing, which certainly does not respect the rules of physical distancing. But hey, at least they’re wearing face masks?

References to China pop up repeatedly in these songs. Most were released in late February or early March, when COVID-19 was still largely confined to China and was only just erupting elsewhere. Given the lack of information about the virus available at the time, or the foresight to guess it would reach the Arab World from elsewhere, a number of clips reference China.

While the above song was a largely humorous and self-deprecating take on the topic, this next song from Palestine was a major hit. It’s called “Co-Co-Corona”, a dance-y song from singer and youtube personality Mahmod Isawi and Amoo Khamis. Oriented towards kids, the song and its catchy beat stresses the importance of washing hands:

Next is a Khaleeji-style hit from the United Arab Emirates by Mohammad al-Shehhi and Adel Ibrahim. Nationalistic in tone, the piece describes the coronavirus as a “red line” for the UAE and urges people to believe the severity of the threat. 

Visually, the video makes an effort to show what physical distancing could look like in the Gulf: throughout the video, a crowd watches a speech from comfy benches, with a gap of about one meter left in between each of the viewers. Not quite the recommended two meter distance, but it’s a start.

Hamdan al-Balushi’s soft pop song and pleading tone is reminiscent of an ode to a lover named Corona – but instead, this is a plea for redemption and for sins to be forgiven. As his name suggests, he traces his origins to Baluchistan and is part of the large Baluchi diaspora scattered across the Persian Gulf countries. 

Our next hit is this Iraqi music video about the coronavirus in which singer Jalal al-Zein takes over a pharmacy and hands out face masks for free. Everything about this song is peak Iraqi – from the tuk-tuk honks that interrupt the chorus to the super-high gelled hair of the two singers, to the fact that they never stop smiling and dancing throughout:

From the Sudan comes Wadah Ahmad’s beautiful call-and-response song that is accompanied with a beat that will definitely make you dance around your living room:

And another Sudanese song from Mohtarmax has instructions for how to combat the coronavirus. It’s just as fun and just as catchy, though the green screen behind them flashing coronavirus tolls strikes a more serious tone:

The musical production we’ve seen so far from across the Arab World pales in comparison to the steady stream of dance hits that Egypt has been producing since day 1 of the crisis. Egypt has long been a center of music and film production for the entire Arab world, with its hits becoming the region’s hits and its taste consistently defining commercial pop music across the region. Due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian pop culture, dating to the mid-20th century, even the Egyptian accent of Arabic is widely understood all across the Arab World, the only accent of spoken Arabic able to claim that honor. It is therefore hardly unexpected that this Arab cultural juggernaut of 100 million people leads the way in Corona-themed music hits.

Abu Shouq’s “The Shock of Corona” is a pop hit in the style of mahraganat, the youth-oriented genre that combines Egyptian Shaabi with electronic reggaeton and rap to create the hottest sound on the Arab street (literally) over the last decade. Mahragan music was technically banned back in February by Egypt’s military ruler Sisi for being too racy and “immoral”. But that doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect, with mahraganat like Abu Shouq’s continuing to roll out of Egypt.

“The Shock of Corona” narrates the story of a young man who leaves Egypt, only to later discover he contracted the coronavirus. Released at the beginning of March, this song reflects early fears that imagined the coronavirus as something you could only get from traveling abroad, long before local transmissions were confirmed in the Arab World.

The mixture of dance track with a classic warning tale about the dangers to be found outside one’s own country is a bit jarring. This is especially true when the story reaches a climax with the boy, who the singer explains wanted to travel and planned to come back and get married eventually and settle down, calls his dad and says, “Dad, I’m sorry to tell you that you won’t be hearing my voice ever again, I’m sorry to hurt you like this… I got Corona, and there’s no cure.”

In comparison, Hamo Bika’s mahragan hit “Corona Virus” has a much dancier beat. Also released in early March, this song gives a basic description of Corona – there’s no cure – and describing the scene in China – “if you go outside, you find the streets empty.” 

“The coronavirus could lead to millions of deaths, you need to take it into accounts, Oh Egyptians!” And urging people to take the lesson from China to heart and begin preparing for the virus’ coming.

The song takes a detour into the racist tropes, however, as it beseeches Egyptians not to go to East Asia, and demands to know, “Why do people in China eat dogs?” A completely irrelevant question, but followed up with the advice to Egyptians not to eat anything suspicious looking. Besides being racist, much of the lyrics are downright stupid, in addition to the hackneyed tropes about Egyptians – who he refers to, for unclear reasons, as “symbols of masculinity” – which he floats for extra points with an assumed nationalistic audience.

Mahragan music evolved from Shaabi, a hugely popular genre of Egyptian pop music that literally means “people’s music,” denoting its humble origins as a cassette tape genre originally popular among rural migrants to the city. The Shaabi genre today in Egypt is still going strong, and they’ve produced their own Coronavirus-themed hits as well. 

The top contender is “Corona” by Islam Khalil and Essam Shaaban. The combination of belly-dancing beat, curses against “Corona’s mother”, helpful tips for listeners to wash their hands, and great lines like “Corona is a crazy disease” make it an instant classic, one that will surely find its way to the Arab wedding circuit once this is all over.

We round out our Corona music coverage with this Egyptian pop song, which is catchy, sweet, and full of tips to help keep you safe:

So who’s the winner? So far, my vote definitely goes to Egypt’s anti-hugging PSA. The classic Shaabi beat – replete with a woman making zaghrouta tongue trills throughout – means it will probably enjoy the greatest longevity of any of these songs… And not just because it’s being blasted by government trucks with dancing furry animals on top of them day in and day out across Egyptian cities. 

Don’t believe me? Take a look:

Say it with me:

 !مش هنسلم مش هنبوس …مش هننقل الفيروس

 

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