Traditional Egyptian music and the phenomenon of its creation are not very well known in the western world. One of the last guilds existing in contemporary Egypt is formed from professional musicians, and even nowadays, oral communication is the main way of transferring their knowledge and skills. Musicians often make their own instruments and pass this craft on to following generations. When meeting artists from different regions of the country, I encountered completely different local phenomena in each place I visited. A musical quest through Egypt means discovering a rich variety of instruments, styles, cultures and dialects. The publication titled “Mono Egypt” is the fruit of dozens of recording sessions organized over the past few years in private apartments and gardens, by rivers, in the back of bars, on rooftops, in no-man’s lands, and in other unusual places across the country. The selection of songs on the cassette represents a surprising diversity in the musical cultures of a region located at the junction of Africa and Asia. Below you will learn more about the inner history of work on the album, about the peoples, musical phenomena and instruments I had encountered. The sequence of the story corresponds to the order of the songs on the cassette. Immersive journey!
1. Ababda, Upper Egypt
This session was a big surprise. Leaving Aswan, I had a lot of expectations, and a romantic vision of meeting musicians from the Ababda tribe under a starry sky in a small settlement lost in the middle of the Eastern Desert. The actual circumstances, however, happened to be completely different, and Adel’s car came to a halt outside a very brightly lit football field near the town of Nasir, in the agricultural region of Kom Ombo. The Ababda people who lived here long ago had abandoned their nomadic life and settled in a concrete estate bordering the desert.
A handful of elders and youths gathered in the street; we sat on broad benches lined with rugs. There were refreshments, greetings and friendly gestures, but I could not stop thinking that something was going wrong. My discomfort increased when I noticed a group of eight dancers dressed in festive jellabiyas. with colourful shimmering vests, stripes on their sleeves and embroidered collars. “Here we go,” I thought, “Here I am, a European invader with a microphone and a camera, recording a choreographed show of forcibly revived oriental dance”. A little unsettled by the perspective of a recording session illuminated by spotlights on the brand new soft surface of the football field, I clumsily poured a glass of boiling hot tea and scalded myself.
It was necessary at that moment to respect all those present, and to do what should be done. Half-jokingly, I set up stands and microphones in the middle of the field, where the players kick the ball off at the beginning of matches. The crew members were preparing themselves, and I put on my headphones; there was no surprise: the place sounded exactly like a football field. However, the way the surrounding buildings were located gave quite an interesting flat echo that sounded very strange in the silence of the night. Also, a contact microphone, attached in an amateurish way to a five string lyre called a tanbour, raised my hope. The electrified sound of the instrument sharply contrasted with the quite surreal scenery.
The first song. It soon turned out that the newly-met singer was excellent and that his musicians knew what they were doing. The dancers, with broad smiles on their faces, were so relaxed and charming that after a while the entire event took on a new dimension, and turned into a leisurely celebration of well-being in the middle of the football field. The dance motifs clearly spoke about the boys’ initiation into manhood. I listened to the material again shortly after returning to Aswan. It was excellent. The opening track of “Mono Egypt” is one of the songs recorded there, and everybody can feel the freedom and unobtrusive self-confidence of these inhabitants of the desert.
In the life of the Ababda people, music accompanies the mainly evening meetings of the men. They have little interest in either Western pop or tarab, the emotional Arabian style, preferring Sudanese music. This music is based on a repetitive rhythm interjected with accords from a home-made tanbur, a five-string lyre. The origin of this instrument is uncertain but it clearly resembles the modern Ethiopian krar and the ancient Hebrew kinnor – the lyre of King David. However, we should not expect lyrical solos on a tanbur, as they are the sole prerogative of the lead singer. This music is not for listening, but rather for collective dancing. Handclapping, slow rhythms on doff drums or empty plastic jerrycans, the rhythmic plunking the strings of tanbur, the short chants and murmurs of the choir – all these elements create an intensity urging our bodies to move. Dancers hold swords or sticks, and choreographic scores tell the history of the people, and allow the passing of knowledge. The men of the Ababda people love music and dance, and it is heard and expressed in the unhampered way they move.
The musicians who took part in the session were; Huh Abdul Bari al-Qusi – vocals, his son Abdullah – tanbur, Mohammed Omar – tar frame drum.
2. Mizmar, Aswan
I met Mahmoud Abdel Karim and his group on a busy street in the center of Aswan. Among the musicians who had arrived there were a few older people, for whom the August heat of the day was a visible challenge. It was early afternoon and the desert sun felt like a physical weight on the neck and head. Because the meeting was arranged spontaneously, no one had an idea where exactly the recording should be made. The west bank of the Nile is virtually uninhabited, so I improvised, in the hope of finding a shaded place away from the city noise. We were very close to the river, so it was not difficult to convince the musicians to join in such a plan. The Nile in Aswan is crystal clear and, because of the unbearable heat, I was tempted to jump in or drink the water. On the banks of the river, from Lake Nasser to Atbarah and Omdurman, there are only small towns and sleepy oases. The recording session took place in the shadow of a mango tree in a rural setting next to an old Nubian house.
The air-piercing sounds of the mizmar and the rhythms of the tabla, fast as an avalanche, create an incredibly charged atmosphere in which one can hear distant echoes of the Master Musicians of Jajouka from the other side of the Sahara.
3. Fellahi, Nile Delta
The recording took place in a guest room decorated with artificial flowers, in a brick house situated in one of the side lanes, in the town with the nice-sounding name Shatanouf. Several befriended local musicians discussed without hurry the choice of material. Ultimately, we recorded some completely new compositions consisting of many themes characteristic of the agricultural culture of the fellahin. The melancholic motifs present in the recording have been passed down from generation to generation; they tell the story of hardships and the joy of life of simple people who have always been associated with working on farmlands. The word fellah in Arabic literally means ‘a ploughman’. In the past, the fellahinused to work for landowners; nowadays they mainly cultivate their own small farms or work for cooperatives. The entire desert country is supplied in agricultural products by them. Their largest population has for thousands of years inhabited the fertile areas of the Nile Delta, irrigated by an ancient system of canals. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many of them, hoping for an easier life, moved to Alexandria, Tanta, Cairo and other cities, and created in those places a popular culture called sha’bi.
The tabla part was excellently played by Ibrahim Shazly, while Naim Farouk, another musician present during the session, played the mizmār.
4. Kunuz, Nubia
This recording takes us back to Upper Egypt, or to be precise, to a very special region of Upper Egypt. The Nile Valley from Aswan to Dongola in Sudan has been inhabited by the Nubians since ancient times. They are beautiful tall people and have a darker skin colour than the inhabitants of Lower Egypt. Until recently, their world was a narrow strip of green area that stretched hundreds of kilometers as the Nile crosses the desert. The mighty river, rolling its waters through the sun-dried monotonous landscape, made it possible to cultivate sorghum and dates. The inhabitants considered the river holy. The egalitarian structure of the Nubian society and the specific attitude to common property forced by difficult living conditions provided Western researchers and travelers with evidence that a harmonious social utopia is possible. Colourfully decorated Nubian houses, like the monuments of Ancient Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush, now rest at the bottom of Lake Nasser. This artificial reservoir was created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, several kilometers south of the city. More than 120,000 Nubians were resettled from these areas by the end of the 1960’s. Over half of them moved to several locations on the Egyptian side of the border. Despite the passage of time, the Nubians still use their own language and maintain considerable cultural distinctiveness. The variant of Islam professed by them is strongly intertwined with the ceremonies dedicated to the bemsego spirits and the daughters of the Nile, about which I will tell you a bit more in the following story.
I met Hamdi Rabiyya and Refat Sayed on the west bank of the Nile, not far north from Aswan. The blue clay house in which we recorded the material now serves as a centre of revival of the Nubian culture. We arrived there at night so the place was empty; the croaking of frogs and the hum of distant night express trains from Aswan to Cairo were the only sounds in the headphones during the listening session. Hamid and Refat are members of the Kunuz tribe, one subgroup of the contemporary Nubian population (the other two are the Faddika and Mahass tribes). The only instrument that can be heard in the recording – besides hands and vocal cords – is the beautifully decorated lyre called a kissir in the Kunuz language. The form of this instrument preserved in Upper Egypt originates from the period of the ancient Middle State, so is not less than 4,000 years old.
Adel „Araab” Mohamed Abdo Saleh Obaid took part in this session as backing vocal.
5. Simsimiyya, Suez
We recorded the miniature performance by Musa Ahmed Musa in the center of Suez, in the office of a company selling furniture, just after opening hours. It was quite a challenge as the silence was constantly disturbed by sounds coming from the nearby lane. Rickshaws, cars, chants of the muezzin, kids kicking a ball, fruit sellers pushing their carts and shouting out their prices. I attached microphones directly to the artist and the instrument and – lucky enough – only two cars passed the street while we recorded the two-minute solo. The simsimiyya is an electrified lyre playing an Arabic scale; the number of strings varies between 14 and 25. A similar instrument is used in Yemen and – according to a popular theory – in 1938 sailors crossing the Red Sea brought it to Suez. The simsimiyya is associated exclusively with urban folklore of the cities located on the Suez Canal. Its sound perfectly complemented the local musical style; moreover, the instrument had a huge career by becoming a symbol of the turbulent socio-political changes of the region in the twentieth century. This issue will be discussed in detail in a story about the musicians from Port Said.
After the session, we spent some time with Musa in a corner bar, baladi, talking, smoking tobacco and drinking countless glasses of sugary tea. Coming here from other parts of Egypt, you can feel as if in another country. Indeed, there is a particularly strong contrast between the port cities of Egypt and other regions. Industry, modern buildings, the ease of manner noticed in the residents’ behaviour, western style of clothing, greater availability of alcohol – this dynamic city of working class is quite free of conservative traditionalism. The people of Suez like to talk about politics, a domain they are well-informed and active in. In 2011 it was here, and not in Cairo, that the first mass protest began, which lead to the outbreak of the Egyptian Arab Spring, which, to everyone’s surprise, brought Mohammad Mursi to power.
6. Dom, Nile Delta
We met in Shibin El Qanater, a small town near Cairo. A near sixty year old woman named Um Sayed and a young man named Sayed, both dressed very modestly, carried their instruments in worn sports bags. The house in which we were supposed to record was situated on a narrow sand-covered lane that I would never have found without the help of my companions. Colourful lights and fabrics adorned the narrow passage between the building – a wedding party was about to begin just below the windows of our room. Every few minutes the DJ tested the possibilities of the sound system with strong beats of sha’bi hits. We had to leave, as a recording session could not have succeeded in this place. After a while, we were sitting on boxes full of mandarins in a minibus driving fast through the towns of the Nile Delta, filled with nocturnal vibrations. Um Sayed and Sayed held onto their instruments. I, indecently stuffed with citrous fruits they had offered to me, stuck my head out of the window into the wind and felt as if entering another dimension. I felt love permeating everything . . . This drive however, had to finish, and after some time, hard to estimate, we arrived at a house I already knew, belonging to some friendly people. The small bedroom at the back of the house offered the best acoustic conditions. The musicians sat on the floor next to the wardrobe, and a gang of curious kids settled down on beds. The cheerful mess of this picture calmed down with the first sound of the rababa, which sounded like a beautiful complaint about a difficult lot, or as the sweetest love failure.
Rashida Sayed Ibrahim (that is the full name of the singer) and Sayed Salah belong to the Egyptian community called Dom. Between the sixth and eleventh centuries, their ancestors left the region of present-day Rajasthan and Punjab and settled in areas from Central Asia, the Middle East to North Africa. It is probable that the Dom people are related to the Roma people living in Europe, with whom they have shared for centuries common features – such as clothing, preferred professions and a nomadic lifestyle. The Roma and the Dom peoples, regardless of their location, have always been stigmatized and excluded from society in various ways. They usually fell into the category of the exotic “others” – at the same time dangerous, repulsive and fascinating. The conviction that the Roma people had come from Egypt was common in medieval Europe. Many Egyptians, however, are astonished at the fact that the European term Gypsy is derived from the word Egyptian, they are also surprised to learn about presence of the Dom people in Egypt. There are no data on the size of their population, because religion is the only distinguishing marker in Egyptian IDs. Thus, officially, there are no Dom people in Egypt. Their life changed as a result of the nineteenth-century modernization of the country – this difficult process I describe in more detail in another of my stories from Egypt. Until that time, they roamed in the streets of Cairo or crossed the Nile Delta, and were considered by the mainstream of Arab society as nomadic tribes trading, blacksmithing and playing music. Dom women – whose unconstrained behaviour and flamboyance of clothing and jewelery, set them apart from Arab women – were often dancers and fortune-tellers. Around 1848, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, issued an edict ordering anyone who was out of their town to return to it. As the English soldier and traveler Thomas John Newbold reported:
The distress this order gave rise to was indescribable; numerous gangs of the poor creatures, man, woman, and children, were chained together and driven from Cairo by a brutal soldiery to their distant villages, where they had no chance of employment, and consequently no means of support, except charity.
Around this time, the Dom people living in Egypt gave up their nomadic life and merged into Egyptian society. They had no place to return to, so they scattered all over Egypt, from Alexandria to Luxor. The music of the Dom is a living testimony of their history and hundreds of years of existence outside of Egyptian society.
Um Sayed is a unique artist. Although she is an experienced musician and an heiress to the culture of the invisible Dom community, she shows no pose of a stage star and leads a modest life. Immediately I heard her recording, I was fascinated with her personality and phenomenal voice, and decided to find her. The recorded song is her original interpretation of a traditional motif popular among fellahin. Um Sayed beats the rhythm on a frame drum called a doff, and her raw and lively voice tunes beautifully with the accompanying rababa – a string instrument with Persian roots that is widespread in the Arab world. Once again in Egypt, in the modest conditions of the province, I had the honor to record eminent and experienced musicians who could tell the complex stories of entire communities playing simple instruments. After the session, we spent some time together eating and talking. It was one of this rare moments in life when you are sure you know someone from ages even if you have just met.
7. Shabab il Nasr, Port Said
This recording represents a unique musical phenomenon and tells the story of the socio-political turmoil of the region over the past 150 years. In the context of Egypt’s time scale, Port Said and Ismailia are entirely new cities. Suez also falls into this category, because it was destroyed in the Six-Day War and later required complete reconstruction. The character of these port cities was established by workers constructing the Suez Canal. Since 1859, thousands of people from various parts of Egypt and other countries began to settle there. All of them brought their own music traditions that started merging in different ways to create new qualities.
In the early 1900’s, Port Said was a global commercial city with 20% non-Arab population. The Egyptian community would organize regular meetings called damma, during which chants mixing Sufi tunes and workers’ songs were sung to the accompaniment of homemade instruments. To beat the rhythms people used tablas (an Egyptian goblet drum also known as a darabuka), bottles, spoons, cans and anything that was at hand. The simsimiyyāt only appeared in the 1930’s to supplement the set of instruments of the damma sessions. Their clear metallic sound soon became a symbol of resistance to the British occupation; the instruments were associated with the Suez Crisis events and created a nationalism-tinged soundtrack of the fall of the colonial dominance of European powers. Between 1968 and 1973, the sound of simsimiyyāt comforted the refugees from Suez who left the city destroyed by the Israeli army. The simsimiyya is also crucial for the bambutiyya dance. The name of the dance comes from the English term “bum-boat”, referring to a fleet of small rowing boats, enabling the local population to carry out small-scale trade with the crews of passing ships. There are no traditional costumes in the Suez Canal region, so dancers of the bambutiyya (and other dances) usually wore clothes characteristic of professional groups: fishermen, sailors or coast guards.
These musical phenomena belong to the history of a generation that is about to leave us. Times have changed and young people growing up in the new political contexts are unlikely to revive damma music and play the simsimiyya, even if they sincerely respect their parents’ stories. Musicians of the older generation, however, still rule at wedding parties and remain very socially active. Staying with Mahmoud Ghandar and the group Shabab il Nasr, I felt a bit like in the Egyptian version of Buena Vista Social Club. Musicians who have spent their entire lives together, were laid back, open-minded, and humorous. We recorded our session in the back room of a bar run by one of their friends. After the session, in good moods, we went together into the street, talking about everything, laughing, and joking. Joyful and slightly dazed because of the whiskey and good hashish, for a moment I forgot that I was in Egypt. Only a long bargaining on the price of a night ride by a collective taxi to Cairo brought me back to reality.
8. Zar, Delta Nilu
Powerful drumming and singing resounded behind the wooden door – it was impossible to mistake it for anything else. We were in the middle of a weekly hadra (participation). The small room was tightly filled with people and instruments, and the air was thick with incense and cigarette smoke. Women sat in a circle on the floor, smoking shisha and sipping beer while excited kids bustled around. There was also a group of male musicians playing beautifully asymmetrical doff drums, brass cymbals called sagat, attached to the fingers, and kawala flutes. Their voices were strong, while their faces and eyes soft but focused. The source of the spiritual phenomenon of zar rises from the foundations of the community and originates from very ancient beliefs. There is no place for religious demagogy here. Zar micro-communities value experience, commitment and support. The Nile Delta and Cairo are their microcosm. Each group is slightly different but all of them function as self-sufficient systems, almost invisible in mainstream culture. Zar is mainly a female domain. Male participants are usually initiated by women. Gheitaniya is a specific variety of zar, closely related to the Sufi brotherhoods, in which men are contracted to play music.
Recording of zar ceremonies is an ongoing project by JuJu Sounds and a full album dedicated to this culture will be out soon. You can find out more about the zar culture in one of the previous stories on this website.
9. Sufi, Al-Rifai Mulid, Kair
Mulid is an Egyptian term for Sufi festivals reversing everyday order and organized at the tombs of deceased saints. In March 2018, I was lucky enough to participate in Mulid al Sayyid Ahmad al-Rifa’i in Cairo. We jumped out of the taxi near the citadel. A dozen or so quarters were completely annexed by the Sufi carnival. Mulids are neither religious holidays in a strict sense, nor folk entertainment, where rigid borders are blurred. Next to Sufis, we can see street artists, costume parades, carrousels, shooting ranges and all the colorful flashing trashiness of folk feasts.
On Egyptian mulids, the Sufi spiritual practice of zikr begins every day after dark and lasts until the next morning as a collective, ecstatic ceremony led by professional musicians. Many brotherhoods arrive with their singers, called munshid. Ad hoc stages are built in colourfully decorated rag tents for performances of more or less known vocalists with the accompaniment of drums (doff, riq), flutes (kawala, ney), violins, sometimes lutes (oud) and synthesizers. Gain on mixers is regulated in such a way that the display shows the maximum number of red lights and to achieve the characteristic sound transforming each song into a drone. The close proximity of the tents in which subsequent groups perform is supportive to this effect. During Mulid al-Rifai, almost ten similar hadras (meetings – celebrations) took place on one square, so it is easy to imagine how the sonic layer corresponds to the spirit of the entire event.
The best Egyptian munshids – like Mohamed El Sharnouby recorded here –
they try to outdo one another in inspired literary improvisations, and particularly successful phrases are rewarded with a scream from the participants praising God. Singing mixes with the grunts and roars of the vocalists or trance solos of the violins and flutes. Zirk, upfront and amplified in this way, attracts passers-by; everybody can turn from an observer into a participant. Local youth, dancing under a rain of colourful lights, and intoxicated with any available substances, fall into a trance, shoulder to shoulder with members of the tariq, a Sufi brotherhood, as – according to the Sufi doctrine – the event is open to everyone. The purpose of zikr is communion with holiness, and it is achieved bodily. Prolonged whirling to the sounds described above with the intention of connecting with a deceased saint inevitably leads to a trance. All the borders are blurred and baraka (blessings) can flow without obstacles.
More about Sufi festivals in Egypt can be read in another extensive post on the JuJu Sounds website.
Luka Kumor, September 2019.
Translated from Polish by Andrzej Wojtasik.
Tuija Rinne, Sing, o simsimiyya, Translation of the article Laula simsimiyya in Finnish, published in Ishtar magazine 1/2005, El Hosseny Dance Web. http://www.elhossenydance.com/layali_simsimiyya.html
Thomas John Newbold, The Gypsies of Egypt, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 16, 1856
Alexandra Parrs, Egypt’s Invisible Gypsies, Kırkayak Kültür Sanat Web. https://www.middleeastgypsies.com/egypt/
Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Musical Instruments in the Arab World, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 6, New York and London: Routledge, 2002
Rachel Aspden, Philosophical party music, New Statesman America Web. 04.06.2009 https://www.newstatesman.com/music/2009/06/tanbura-music-ibrahim-spirits
Alain Weber, Music of Upper Egypt, Folkways Records FW8512, 1979, cd booklet