El Mastaba Project

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El Mastaba Digital Repository Project: Music for cultural continuity and democratic civil society in Egypt

This project aims to promote the development of a stable, tolerant, pluralistic, diverse, democratic civil society in Egypt through musical arts, in collaboration with El Mastaba, a prizewinning Cairo-based organization devoted to Egypt’s rich folk music tradition, through documentation, performance, and teaching, in support of cultural continuity and the development of a dynamic, participatory, democratic civil society in Egypt.

We seek to partner with El Mastaba in order to help them realize their powerful social potential through the establishment of a well-documented, publicly accessible digital multimedia repository.


El Mastaba, an acclaimed non-profit civil society musical organization headquartered in Cairo, has played a crucial role before, during, and after the Egyptian revolution, and continues today as a formidable socio-cultural force promoting participatory democracy and encouraging a musical voice for the people of Egypt.

The current project entails the systematic description, preservation, and dissemination of El Mastaba’s musical repository, an invaluable multimedia archive and infrastructure lying at the core of their social and educational mission.

This project forms one component of a broader music/development initiative called Music for cultural continuity and civil society. By supporting traditional, participatory music, especially in mediated form, we hope to help ensure its continuing relevance in ensuring vertical and horizontal social solidarity: forging links across time and social space. Ironically, mediated traditional music is essential in order to compete with commercial media, rendering traditional music more accessible to more people, raising its stature, and enabling its injection into broadcast media space, where it displaces--however slightly--the dominance of commercial, westernized, passivating pop.

In this way, music helps foster cultural continuity and civil society, weaving a stronger social fabric and cultural identity during a period of rapid economic-technological change.


Music is never merely an end in itself. Its power can be turned towards myriad social, political, and economic functions in any society, a fact well-known to ethnomusicologists, as well as musicians themselves. Beyond profit and politics, such power may be harnessed towards general social progress.

El Mastaba has been working effectively, since 1995, to develop socially engaged music as a catalyst for positive social change, and promotion of a stable, democratic, civil society in Egypt. Beyond preservation or dissemination, El Mastaba takes an active role towards social progress through education, performance, and awareness-raising at the grassroots level, including activities for children as well as media production. El Masataba is active throughout Egypt, researching, recording and presenting community music genres (“folk”) in concerts and published recordings, as well as revitalizing a broader “music society” that harmonizes through performance participation, by creating and sustaining a number of music groups, and especially by involving children.

During the revolution itself El Mastaba’s many performing groups (12 in all, including groups especially for children) took on an active musical role in Tahrir Square, raising awareness about social injustice and the need for change (see the second episode of the video documentary, Songs of the New Arab Revolutions, featuring El Mastaba's crucial performances in Tahrir Square (watch from 16:05).

Now, more than ever, with Egypt’s body politic in a molten and fragmented state, El Mastaba is needed to help advance the process of building a civil society. Their massive media archive supports and documents their work, and its careful preservation and accessibility is essential to their mission.

A number of new NGO arts organizations have sprung up in Egypt of late, but many appeal mainly to the educated and intellectual middle classes. El Mastaba is uniquely positioned due to their focus on performing arts, and their grassroots activism, building from rural and working classes upwards.

El Mastaba comprises a set of groups, published recordings, and an extensive archive, and is active in cultural education as well as performance. The archive, however, is at present dangerously susceptible to loss—many recordings are not backed up offsite, or at all — is inaccessible to the general public, and is incompletely documented. El Mastaba wishes to make this rich resource available to a broader public, both in Egypt and internationally.

Through metadata documentation, permanent data archiving, and digital dissemination, we propose to establish a partnership with the University of Alberta/CCE by supporting El Mastaba on two levels, local and global:

  • assuring a stable permanent platform for El Mastaba’s precious archive, in support of their local

educational and social initiatives, towards a stronger, more stable Egypt, and

  • raising awareness and concern about Egypt internationally.


During the period November 2013 to March 2015, we will carry out three critical tasks in support of the repository infrastructure:

  • Metadata completion. During a one-month trip to

Cairo, I will oversee the systematization and translation of the collection’s metadata—tags fully describing El Mastaba’s extensive archive, in both English and Arabic.

  • Data redundancy. While the vast bulk of El Mastaba’s audiovisual

archive is digital, it remains dangerously at-risk without systematic backup in a hot, humid, dusty, unstable environment. We will back up data to a high-capacity 12 terabyte (TB) RAID storage, serving thereafter serve as El Mastaba’s primary data center, in partnership with the UofA, then copy it to portable hard drives, to be conveyed back to Canada.

  • Data permanency and access. El Mastaba’s data and metadata will be safely stored on the University of Alberta Library’s ERA digital repository system, providing robust, durable, redundant data storage and protection.
  • Ultimately, this ERA backend will serve as the basis for a searchable, browsable front-end digital

repository interface.