An American Punk-Rock Band On Tour In The Land Of The Arab Spring

Sep 24, 2012
Originally published on September 25, 2012 5:11 pm

Last year, after the Atlanta rock band Black Lips released the album Arabia Mountain, its members planned a trip to tour the Middle East, but the wave of Arab Spring protests forced them to change plans. Yet even with simmering anti-Americanism persisting throughout the region, singer-guitarist Ian St. Pe was determined to see this through. Cairo, where I spoke with them on Friday, was the band's second stop.

"It is kind of wild to be over here at this time with all the stuff that's going on in the region," St. Pe said. "I just want to say, 'Hey, don't hate us because one person did something.' "

The crowd at the cultural center where the band played — known more for folk music and poetry readings — was a mix of Egyptians, European and American expats, even some families with small children, some of whom climbed up on the side of the stage to watch. Many admitted not knowing much about the Black Lips, saying they came for the local opening acts, rock groups called Zero-50 and Faking It.

20-year-old Ghada Ali said she supports the demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy earlier this month. But Ali, who wears a hijab, doesn't see any problem with coming to an American rock concert.

"When I attend here, it will not affect my attendance there at the embassy," Ali said. "Some people would say that if I totally boycotted the United States, I shouldn't attend the concert, but I don't see it that way."

Drummer Joe Bradley said the band is trying to keep politics out of their tour.

"We just want to share music, and we want to learn as much from the cultures that we experience as hopefully they can learn from us, but hopefully, we can get them movin'," Bradley says. "We got that rock and roll back beat. And they might not even know rock and roll but it makes your big toe shoot up in your boot and makes your hips go back and forth. I think they'll enjoy it all."

The crowd of more than 250 seemed to enjoy the show, with dozens dancing in a tight group pressing close to the stage — men and women in the mixed group still keeping a respectful distance. Security was no tougher than normal, a basic metal detector, and the no-smoking, no-drinking rules kept the rock concert pretty calm, with some help from the band.

The Black Lips acknowledge they sometimes tone down their shows for more conservative audiences. They learned a tough lesson in India in 2009, when nudity and same-sex kissing onstage cut short their tour and sped their exit from the country.

The Cairo show was a success, confirmed by the big smile on 23-year-old Ibrahim Abdul-Wahab's face after the concert.

"They were especially double awesome," Abdukl-Wahab said. "They were active with the people with the audience. I felt so high in the show, I lost myself completely. It was mind-blowing." Abdul-Wahab hopes more American bands tour Egypt, which he said sorely lacks in the rock department.

Backstage, Black Lips members Cole Alexander and St. Pe, sweaty after the show and perched atop a giant speaker, said they want that as well. They hope a documentary being made about their trek through the region will help.

"You have to build a circuit," Alexander said. "Like when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Iron Curtain was rolled back, some punk bands started trying Eastern Europe, to kind of like, make connections, and then share the connections with other people. So, yeah, we're going to try to pass along some of the information that we have."

St. Pe agreed. He hopes that others will be inspired and follow in their footsteps. "The other American bands will hopefully want to come over here, maybe after they see our documentary," St. Pe said. "There's no reason why the world can't be ours."

After Egypt, the Black Lips head to Lebanon, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's a tense time for many Americans living and traveling in the Middle East. Anti-American protests over a video insulting Islam turned violent in many countries, including Egypt. But that's not stopping all travelers especially one group with a musical agenda.

Kimberly Adams reports from Cairo on the Black Lips, an American punk band on tour in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's really nice to be in Cairo. This is our first time ever in Egypt. It's awesome to be here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, thank you all for coming. Thank you.

KIMBERLY ADAMS, BYLINE: The four members of Atlanta band, the Black Lips, were supposed to tour the Middle East last year, but the wave of Arab Spring protests forced them to change plans. And yet even with the simmering anti-Americanism persisting through the region, singer-guitarist Ian St. Pe is determined to see this through. Cairo is the band's second stop.

IAN ST. PE: It is kind of wild coming over here at this time with all this stuff that's going on in the region. And I just want to say, hey, don't hate us because one person did something.

ADAMS: The crowd at this culture center, known more for folk music and poetry readings, is a mix of Egyptians, European and American expats, even some families with small children. Some of them climbed up on the side of the stage to watch. Many admit not knowing much about the Black Lips, saying they came for the local openings acts - rock groups called Zero-50 and Faking It.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAMS: Twenty-year-old Ghada Ali says she supports the demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy earlier this month. But Ali, who wears the hijab, doesn't see any problem with coming to an American rock concert.

GHADA ALI: (Through translator) When I go here, it won't affect my attendance at the embassy. Some people would say that if I totally boycotted the United States, I shouldn't go to the concert, but I don't see it that way.

ADAMS: Drummer Joe Bradley says the band is trying to keep politics out of their tour.

JOE BRADLEY: We want to share music and we want to learn as much from the cultures that we experience as hopefully they can learn from us. But hopefully, the music will get them moving.

PE: This is Ian. We got that rock and roll back beat. I think of the one - they might not even really know rock and roll, but it makes your big toe shoot up in your boot and makes your hips go back and forth. I think they'll enjoy it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAMS: The crowd of more than 250 seems to enjoy the show with dozens dancing in a tight group pressing close to the stage - men and women in the mixed group still keeping a respectful distance. Security is now tighter than normal. A basic metal detector and the no-smoking and no-drinking rules keep the rock concert pretty calm, with some help from the band.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hey, watch your language.

ADAMS: The group acknowledges they sometimes tone down their shows for more conservative audiences. They learned a tough lesson in India in 2009, when nudity and same-sex kissing onstage cut short their tour and sped their exit from the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

ADAMS: Twenty-three-year-old Ibrahim Abdul-Wahab has a big smile on his face after the concert.

IBRAHIM ABDUL-WAHAB: They were especially double awesome. They were active with the people, with the audience. I felt so high in the show, I lost myself completely. It was mind-blowing, yeah.

ADAMS: Abdul-Wahab hopes more American bands tour Egypt, which he says sorely lacks in the rock department. Backstage, Black Lips members Cole Alexander and Ian St. Pe, sweaty after the show and perched atop a giant speaker, say they want that too, and hope a documentary being made about their trek through the region will help.

COLE ALEXANDER: You have to build a circuit, you know, like when the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain was rolled back, like, some punk bands started touring Eastern Europe and they had to kind of like make connections and then share the connections with other people. So, yeah, we're going to try to pass on some of the information that we have.

PE: The other American bands hopefully will want to come over here after they maybe see our documentary or something and it'd be kind of cool. There's no reason why the world can't be ours.

ADAMS: After Egypt, the Black Lips head to Lebanon, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. For NPR News, I'm Kimberly Adams in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.