We Live in Cairo is a musical my brother Daniel and I have been working on for eight or so years about six students who took part in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Over this period, we have gone through workshops, written about 20 drafts, replaced all (and I mean all) 18 of the original songs (one of which was titled “A Little Whiskey,” which I still regret getting rid of), did a reading in the city of Cairo, and were fortunate enough to have a stunning production of the show at the American Repertory Theater directed by force of nature Taibi Magar.
The musical is more than a musical to us now; it’s become our community. The people we have met on We Live in Cairo’s journey range from street artists, musicians, students, theatre makers—all activists who make it their life’s work to bring about revolutionary change.
After We Live in Cairo at the A.R.T., we were fiending to put out the music from the show, but we knew we didn’t want to make a cast recording just yet, or some souvenir of a production gone by. We wanted to create something new, more spiritual, more democratic. What if we gave a song from We Live in Cairo to a musician we admired from the Arab world and asked them to interpret it? It was a long shot, especially given some of the artists we had in mind. These were international stars with insane touring schedules and were doubtless going to be way too busy to sit down and cover a song from a musical by two American brothers.
But then, the pandemic hit. Everything was halted and everyone seemed to have time. This is when we asked ourselves: could we pull this (or some version of this) off? Taibi, Daniel, and I reached out to Madeleine Bersin who said she would produce the thing, Madeline Smith who said she would arrange and music supervise, and Robin Buyer who said it was in fact possible to record and mix an album entirely remotely. Then we began reaching out to artists.
Some we had met along the journey of We Live in Cairo. The master Ramy Essam, who was coined the Singer of the Egyptian Revolution and who we had befriended a year prior, said yes to us immediately (because in addition to being one of the most talented humans, he’s also one of the most generous.) Emel Mathlouthi, who we met through Ramy and whose rousing anthem “Kelmti Horra” directly inspired …Cairo’s score, also agreed to interpret a song. The lauded Egyptian street artist Ganzeer, who created the art for the A.R.T. production, said he would make the album’s cover art.
Then, it was time for the cold emails. We were obsessed with Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila and got their contact from a mutual friend. We sent a shot in the dark, requesting they interpret the first song on the album. To our total surprise, the next week, they sent back an .mp4 of their first demo. We fell in love with Rotana after seeing her solo show in New York and sent her a note asking if she would record an electronic version of a song called “Cairo Street Scenes.” Another generous and surprising yes! And before we knew it, we had the makings of an album. We called it Flap My Wings (Songs from We Live in Cairo).
Flap My Wings (Songs from We Live in Cairo) is sort of a retrofit concept album. Thirteen songs—protest songs— from our musical, interpreted by Arab and Arab-American songwriter-activists, and recorded entirely remotely (in Cairo, Paris, Stockholm, and Mexico, among other places.) We are thrilled to be taking you track-by-track on this album and here’s how we want to do it: we’ll give you the mood of the track, where it is in the musical, some favorite lyrics, then some links to other work from our featured artists—which feels particularly important given its Arab American Heritage Month.
So, without further ado…
1. Genealogy of Revolution (featuring Hamed Sinno)
Mood: OK, Daniel and I are very proud of this track; it’s celebratory, it’s rousing, it’s metaphoric, it’s communal and simple, yet in its simplicity, hefty and spiritual as heck. Also, Daniel directed me to say that “the pentatonic scale is the most human of all the scales.” We wanted something that was “folk” in the purest sense of the word.
In the Musical: This song comes at the very top of We Live in Cairo. The cast comes out to the lip of the stage and asks the audience to sing the chorus of this song with them: “I was one person / who had an idea / who made it words/ and someone heard.”
Favorite Lyric: My favorite lyric comes halfway through the song: “I died and then I travelled on, I saw the riots in Helwan.” Revolutions have a different lifespan than ours, and change we set in motion comes to fruition oftentimes after we are gone.
Featured Artist(s): Hamed Sinno gives us his beautifully textured interpretation. Hamed, lead singer of Mashrou Leila, is an indie icon, queer rights activist, and one of the only openly gay celebrities in the Arab world. After a 2017 concert in Cairo during which queer audience members waved a rainbow flag, Hamed and Mashrou’ Leila were banned from performing in Egypt. Some essential Hamed tracks include “Aoede”, “Roman” and “Djin”.
Recording Location: Philadelphia, NYC
2. Wall Song (featuring Hadi Eldebeck)
Mood: This song wants to capture the ecstasy of creation, that infectious percussion (courtesy of percussion director Jeremy Smith) is really where it gets you, especially as the second verse kicks in, and then the oud solo sets you up for that final shout chorus at the end.
In the Musical: Karim, a Cairo street artist, goes out in the middle of the night to paint a mural on Mohamed Mahmoud street. He sings as he furtively paints, all the while keeping an eye out for the city police.
Favorite Lyric: I’m actually quite fond of the whole first verse “I’ve been here waiting for you / to do that thing that you do / I’ve seen the colors on all the others / o won’t you color me too.” Karim is communing with the wall, and the wall is speaking back to him, telling him what it needs. On stage, it’s quirky and fun, and says something about the process of creation—sometimes art is a passive act, something you just listen for.
Featured Artist(s): Hadi Eldebeck is a major cultural arbiter of Arabic music in New York City and as bandleader of the Brooklyn Nomads, he shares Arabic music, old and new, with audiences around the world. Hadi has been involved in developmental readings of We Live in Cairo since 2015. He is a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and is CEO of Circle World Arts. You can hear more of his magic here.
Recording Location: NYC
3. Cairo Street Scenes (featuring Rotana)
Mood: It’s bustling, it’s hurried, it’s kind of overwhelming, but in the best way. It’s trying to capture that feeling of being in the heart of the city—that sensory overload of human experience.
In the Musical: This is the first time we see Layla, an amateur photographer, understanding the political power of images. We see what she sees—the baker struggling to provide enough bread to her customers, the vendor afraid that a police officer will confiscate his stall, the child on the street without an arm begging for food.
Favorite Lyric: It’s not a lyric per se, but here, Rotana sings the Adhan (the Call to Prayer) at the end of the track. You don’t often hear a woman on the Adhan, and it is moving.
Featured Artist(s): Rotana is a powerhouse. That’s really all there is to it. Named BBC’s 100 Most Powerful Women, this Saudi singer-songwriter creates work that is bold and essential. Take a listen to her original song “Stuck in America” and you’ll hear something of pure honesty, and pop brilliance.
Recording Locations: NYC, Los Angeles
4. Movement (featuring Jakeim Hart & Parisa Shahmir)
Mood: This one is folktastic, romantic, indie. It’s a protest-love song (see Silvio Rodriguez for what that means).
In the Musical: Amir loves Layla, but Amir is a Coptic Christian and Layla is Muslim, so their love cannot be legitimized in Egypt. In this song, they sing about their options, and decide that, through revolution, they will change the laws of their country to be together.
Favorite Lyric: “Layla: What if I couldn’t leave? What if I said I loved my country? Would you hate me? / Amir: the day I hate you’s the day I die.” I don’t know, I think it captures young love, and that all-too-real feeling you don’t want to come up short in love… and to boot, it slightly foreshadows Amir’s death in the second act of the show.
Featured Artist(s): Jakeim Hart and Parisa Shahmir played Amir and Layla in the A.R.T. production of We Live in Cairo. Their chemistry was and is undeniable, and frankly, no one can hold out a harmonized “mooove” with as much passion and longing as they can.
Recording Locations: NYC, Mexico City, Boston
5. Loud Voice (featuring Mohamed Araki)
Mood: Revolution is a lot of things, but in this song, we hear the joy of it, the groove within a movement.
In the Musical: Fadwa sings this in the first scene of We Live in Cairo. She is an unapologetic revolutionary, always has been, always will be, and believes deep down we all are.
Favorite Lyric: “Join the creators who made a bold choice / Coloring the bricks that their father laid / reading from the books their fathers forbade.” The generations! How we use what our fathers have built before us, how we defy them for the sake of our future!
Featured Artist(s): Mohamed Araki and his friend from Cairo —who, for safety concerns, is going by “Haboya” —gives us this infectious, Sudanese-inspired interpretation. Mohamed is a Boston-based, internationally-touring keyboardist and producer and the first Sudanese musician to be nominated for a Grammy. Mo saw We Live in Cairo at the American Repertory Theater as protests were starting in Sudan in 2019, and we had many long conversations about the ties between what was going on for him back home and the show. And also, just listen to him rock.
Recording Locations: Cairo, Boston, Washington D.C., NYC
6. Flap My Wings (featuring animation by Ganzeer)
Mood: Restrained, furious, sung with gritted teeth
In the Musical: This song comes when the six activists learn about the killing of an Egyptian student, Khaled Said, at the hands of the police. It explores the ways the deep state manipulates, corrupts and makes injustice status quo—and how we have, totally and completely within ourselves, the tools to change that.
Favorite Lyric: There’s one verse that I think distills the hypocrisy of autocratic governments: “Their rooms are filled with men/ who tell them yes and ask them questions on the cost of roads / and just how much is left / for the function celebrating thirty years of this / they rent a tent to celebrate and then they celebrate / as they meditate on all the ways to tell the truth while drinking cups of tea / no whiskey for them / well maybe some / maybe some though it’s haram.”
Featured Artist(s): Daniel and I sing the vocals on this one, but our friend and close collaborator Ganzeer, along with incredible animator Paul MacLachlan, made a stunning music video for the song. You can watch it here.
Recording Locations: NYC, Boston
7. Living Here (featuring Emel)
Mood: Heart wrenching, life-affirming, honest, then overwhelming, powerful, rousing.
In the Musical: Layla’s love Amir has been killed in a protest, and Amir’s brother is in jail. Layla visits Hany at a moment of intense doubt—is revolution even worth it? How far can one go, how much can one lose for the love of their country? She can’t go on, she can’t go on… then she sings “Living Here” and realizes: she must go on.
Favorite Lyric: “I fold my clothes / the way my mother does.”
Featured Artist(s): Emel Mathlouthi, known as Emel, is a Tunisian singer-songwriter, activist, and icon. Emel is best known for her protest song Kelmti Horra (“My Word is Free”), which became an anthem for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring. In our writing of We Live in Cairo, we became obsessed with Emel’s Kelmti Horra and it actually influenced the tone of Living Here! It’s wild to us that Emel is interpreting a song that she directly inspired. Some other Emel songs you must listen to: Holm and Ma Lkit.
Recording Locations: Paris, NYC, Boston
8. Each & Every Name (featuring Naseem Alatrash)
In the Musical: Fadwa, the most outspoken activist of the group, sings about the martyrs of the revolution and the responsibility we have to honor them.
Featured Artist(s): This song has been interpreted by the Palestinian cellist Naseem Alatrash as an instrumental piece—an ode to all martyrs who give depth and meaning to all movements. Hear more of Naseem’s aching, expressive playing here, with Lifta.
Recording Location: Washington D.C.
9. The 18 Days: In The Morning
10. The 18 Days: A Million People
11. The 18 Days: Our Square
Mood: This one is so much: it’s uncontrolled, it’s larger than life, it’s power ballad, it’s chants, it’s hollers and found recording, it’s experimental, it’s expressionistic, it’s rousing with crazy hand percussion and kinetic string lines.
In the Musical: This comes at the end of Act 1 of We Live in Cairo. It is a devised music and movement-based journey through the 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square, January 25–February 11, 2011.
Favorite Lyric: At the end of the song, Layla sings a line that’s rather simple, but I think packs quite a bit of punch, especially how it’s set musically: “I’m one person of one million / every person is one.”
Featured Artist(s): Music supervisor Madeline Smith was the mastermind behind these tracks. Her arrangement creates a sound world that takes listeners through the major moments in Tahrir Square. The A.R.T. cast—Sharif Afifi, Abubakr Ali, Jakeim Hart, Dana Saleh Omar, Gil Perez-Abraham, Parisa Shahmir and Layan Elwazani—are the featured vocalists. They give us the same fire and electricity they brought to the stage every night in Cambridge.
Recording Locations: NYC, Mexico City, Boston, Washington D.C., Various
12. Tahrir is Now (featuring Ramy Essam)
Mood: Rousing, the moment
In the Musical: Dictator Hosni Mubarak still hasn’t stepped down. Our characters are exhausted, depleted, then Amir decides to sing the song he’s been working on throughout Act 1.
Favorite Lyric: Ramy contributes an entirely original verse in Arabic. You just have to hear it. No one can beat Ramy’s voice, its strength. The thing is gorgeous.
Featured Artist(s): Videos of Ramy Essam singing for hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square was our first access point to the Egyptian Revolution back before we even wrote a word of We Live in Cairo. Now, Ramy, the Singer of the Revolution, is interpreting Tahrir Is Now. I wish I could accurately convey how major this was for us, to have the man whose story fueled every draft of this show sing its score. Here is a video of Ramy singing for the people in Tahrir Square in 2011.
Recording Locations: Stockholm, NYC, Various
13. Dreaming Words (Demo)
Mood: Raw, simple, loving
In the Musical: In the second to last scene, Hany sees the ghost of his brother Amir. They sing together about the revolution that could have been.
Favorite Lyric: “And we’ll be a city of the sky, a river to the sea.”
Featured Artist(s): Daniel and I sing this one.
Recording Location: Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz, California