Jan Willem Vink reports on the Christian music scene of Egypt.
Despite what its enemies might claim Christian music isn't some cultural affectation dreamed up by Bible belt Americans. Neither is it a music locked to any particular national expression of Christian faith. Wherever the gospel is preached and local churches are established there you will quickly find music beginning to overflow from the churches. Once the dictates and prejudices of the Western Churches ensured that a kind of cultural imperialism stifled national cultural individuality in the newly planted churches. It isn't too long ago that misguided missionaries would insist that African congregations sing the songs of Anglican hymnody and disassociate themselves from any hint of "pagan Africanisms". Today such a mistaken confusion between the truly spiritual and the merely cultural is becoming less prevalent in the world's churches and everywhere there is a rich flowering of indigenous Christian music. From the thrilling guttural pyrotechnics of Zulu worship music to the haunting strains of Polish evangelistic folk rock, the Church is finding a seemingly countless number of musical forms through which to express faith in Jesus Christ. This world wide musical movement is still in its infancy. Some nations' churches still lack the size or the cultural confidence to develop fresh forms of church music preferring what tradition or accidents of history have left them with. So in Aboriginal settlements you'll still hear songs from the Baptist Hymn Book and in countless European countries you'll find pop gospel singers trying to clone the style of Amy Grant. But for all that, a world traveller going to wherever Christians make music would today find stunning diversity.
Song For All Nations is Cross Rhythms' attempt to document something of this diversity. We can't of course visit each of the hundreds of nations on this planet and investigate what God is doing musically through his Church. But each issue we will ask one of our reporters to file a story on the sights and sounds of a country's Christian music scene. Our first report, by Jan Willem Vink and homing in on Egypt, may at first glance seem a particularly perverse choice. Egypt is a country, like many Arab nations, which lives under the shadow of another religion, the Muslim one. Such is the ignorance of Western Christians that few of us even know there is a thriving Christian community there let alone a Christian music scene that enables an Egyptian worship group like the Better Life Team to sell 17,000 tapes (yep, 17,000!). For Bible-believing Christians the name Egypt has of course a particular connotation. Throughout the Old Testament Egypt is the nation that symbolises the false gods of nations outside God's specific revelation to his chosen people, the Jews. So it seems particularly appropriate to start this series in a nation where the Church has overcome opposition and oppression to flourish and grow and some Church growth experts believe now stands on the threshold of revival. This then is the Christian music of Egypt.
For many Egypt is a name that evokes picturesque stereotypes of camels and pyramids but little else. Yet this powerful Arab nation is a nation of extremes - the power and riches of its industrialists against the squalid poverty of the Cairo street people, and the dominant shadow of the mosque set against the scattered but growing evangelical churches which, against all the odds, have thrived. And there is a Christian music 'scene' to feed and encourage the growing number of Egyptian Christians. Three music groups effectively dominate that scene -the Praise Team, the Better Life Team and the Message Team. There are a few other groups and soloists, who are more classically orientated, but it's these three Teams which constitute the Egyptian First Division. It's of no small size. The tapes these groups produce are hot sellers. The Better Life Team's sales average about 17,000 tapes. The prices of these tapes are very low, varying between three and four Egyptian pounds, about 50-75 pence. They are sold in churches, a few evangelical bookstores and during concerts. (This price compares with tapes of secular pop music sold for six Egyptian pounds - all such tapes being bootlegs - there is no copyright act in Egypt!) CDs are still largely unknown in Egypt. Both the Better Life Team and the Praise Team have produced an enormous quantity of recordings. The Better Life Team have recorded nine 'normal' albums, two tapes for children, two instrumental tapes and two 'best of cassettes while the Praise Team have made 10 tapes in total. Egypt has its equivalents of Graham Kendrick. Boules Boushra and Magid Adel translate a lot of English language worship songs into Arabic and also write their own material as well. In a lot of Egyptian churches Boushra and Adel songs are used in the services, both in the youth meetings as well as the services on Sunday or Friday mornings. Their style can be described as strongly influenced by American praise music though with clear Arabic/Egyptian influences. It has the same sweet, haunting quality of Arabic folk music, often quite alien to Western ears.
Boules Boushra is leader of the Praise Team. He plays the piano in a fast, somewhat nervous way and writes and translates songs for the Praise Team. He talked about the start of his band: "In 1977 I visited a number of European countries and found that the Christians in diverse churches and meetings use music to praise and worship the Lord. In Egypt most of the songs at that time were about the problems we face, with lyrics like: 'Lord, when will you come back to take us away,' and 'Lord, I am so tired spiritually, please help me.' I started translating some English songs. Some of it went quite smoothly, with other songs I got stuck. Then I started writing songs myself. After I wrote about 50 of them I thought it was a good idea to put some of them on a tape, so people could get to know them more easily. I formed a group to make the tape. The final result was we had two tapes. We felt united as a group and decided to go on. We decided to call ourselves the Praise Team because that's the vision that united us." The Praise Team consists of 19 people, six female singers, three male singers and ten musicians playing bass, drums, clarinet, trumpet, flute, electric guitar, Spanish guitar, saxophone, keyboards and piano, and a sound technician. The ambition of the Praise Team is to "encourage Christians in the whole Arabic world to praise God the way He wants them to." Their motto is Psalm 150:3, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." The Praise Team is the only group specifically focussed on praise and worship. Both other groups, the Better Life Team and the Message Team, see their music as an evangelism tool. Worship is part of what they do, but not their total vision.
The Message Team is the sibling of the Better Life Team. Both groups originated in the same church. The vision of the Message Team is still young and ambitious. "We want to reach the whole of Egypt with the gospel," said their spokesman. "We hope to do more in the south of Egypt, where on a musical level nothing happens."
Magid Adel is leader of the Better Life Team, the oldest and most popular Christian group in Egypt. The Better Life Team started with a dream. A number of people, Magid included, came together and wanted to combine their church music with drums, bass and guitar. Magid explained: "At first this dream was really vague. We knew people wouldn't accept us. We collected some instruments and amplifiers and started rehearsing. The first two years were terrible. Almost nobody accepted us. Of course, we were very unprofessional; it was very difficult for the Christians to accept us. But there were people accepting us. They kept us enthusiastic. We knew God wanted us to do this. That's how we started. We were the first group and we had to take the spanking!"
Watching the Better Life Team perform live at a meeting of Christian doctors, there's not even the smallest hint of controversy. The band takes their own pastor along to do the talking in between the songs and for the rest of the performance the whole audience sings along. But of course, the Better Life Team is the most popular of the three groups. Magid describes their music as "Mediterranean". "I think we combine the warmth of Eastern music with the harmony in Western music," said Magid. "I think that's unique for our own music. We don't have a distinct style of our own, but we do have a mark which you can recognize as the Better Life Team."
Magid continued, "The Better Life Team functions in different ways. Encouragement is part of what we do, but also repentance, getting to know Jesus, conversion. Other songs talk about the life of a Christian and devotion to Jesus Christ. Finally, we have songs that are stories from the Bible. Eighty percent of our songs are known among Christians. The tapes we produce are used all over the country. We have tapes for kids as well; parents give tapes to their kids and vice versa. Sometimes our songs are used in religion classes in schools. Once in a while you recognize a song is used in a different way in comparison with what you first thought it would be."
In the future Magid would like to see an extension of the number of bands. "We would like to start a group directed towards teenagers," explained Magid. "Finally, we would like to work with three or four bands. We need that very much."
Contemporary Christian music is definitely in its infancy in Egypt. But it's beginning to be heard. One day I was driving through Cairo with a Christian friend and the Egyptian driver was playing a Christmas album by Amy Grant. I asked him if he'd heard the new Amy Grant album 'Heart In Motion'. The other passenger declared that he had heard that Amy didn't sing 'only gospel' anymore. "It's very sad; we can't be friends with the world," he said.
Egyptian gospel music clearly has a long long way to develop fully its own cultural identity. Too much is still derivative of the Western praise and worship industry. But there are signs that the courage and commitment of Egyptian believers living in a culture sometimes hostile to the Christian faith are beginning to develop their own stirring, original music. Let's pray that will happen. - Jan Willem Vink
Facts About Egypt
Geographic location: North Africa
96% desert, 3% arable
Growth rate of 2.7%
Rural areas - 48 people per sq km
Urban areas -1,600 people per sq km
Capital city: Cairo. Massive population explosion resulting in great poverty and squalor. In 12 years the population has doubled to 13 million. Rapid urbanisation throughout the country - 48%
Nationalities: Egyptian 86.4%, Arab 6.3%, Nubian 3%, Bedouin 2%, Berber 2%
Language: Official - Arabic
Economy: Crippled, lack of arable land, very high birth rate. USA aid.
Religion: State religion - Islam
Intellectual capital of Islam - Cairo
Atheist - 0.4%
Christian -17.2%, Officially 6%
Coptic Orthodox Church -15.7%. Ancient church has survived 1,300 years of Muslim
Roman Catholic - 0.33%
Protestant - 0.86%
Fundamentalist Muslims pressing for full Islamisation of society. Christians are free to worship but not to evangelise to Muslims.