Philosophical party music

Rachel Aspden meets El Tanbura, an Egyptian group who are adapting folk traditions to the upheaval o

In a backstreet of the old workers’ quarter of Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean, 20 musicians have drawn up a ragged semi-circle of wooden chairs. Strings of coloured lights swing overhead, and the tarmac is covered with flowered carpets. The entire neighbourhood has emptied out on to the street: old ladies in long robes packed tightly together with girls in acid-green and pink headscarves, young men in tracksuits and old men in jackets and flat caps. To a rolling rattle of drums and handclaps, a man leaps up and begins to sing:

“Fifty years ago today, Gamal said in

Manshia Square . . .”

“. . . This water is Egyptian!” the audience roars back. Men shake clenched fists in the air and families dance on the balconies lining the street, celebrating Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1956 nationalisation of the canal a few blocks to the east.

The ecstatic chaos is the usual reaction to home performances by El Tanbura, who have been playing typically Egyptian music in Port Said’s streets and coffee houses for 20 years.

The singer, group founder and musical director Zakaria Ibrahim swaps vocals with another six or eight of the musicians, who also play simsimy­yas, small metal-stringed lyres, a triangle, castanets, a reed flute, drums and tambourines, and the tanbura, the large Sudanese lyre that gives the group its name. Everyone in the group dances, and so does the audience.

By 2am, El Tanbura have been playing for five hours without a break. Mimi the tanbura player strikes up mournful, resonant damma music – devotional songs to the Prophet and his family.

A woman in her sixties with a sparkly white headscarf is pulled out of the crowd to sing with the men. “Sheikha Zeinab!” everyone shouts: she is a sheikha, a Muslim holy woman, and, unusually for a woman, a musician herself.

The street performance is an annual party by El Tanbura to mark Sham al-Nessim, a spring festival that dates back to pharaonic times. Port Said’s Sham al-Nessim traditions are less ancient: the city celebrates with street bonfires and the burning of “Alimby” – effigies of Edmund Allenby, a much-hated colonial officer who captured Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917. The British are still the villains of popular imagination in Port Said. Another favourite song remembers Anthony Moorhouse, an officer who was kidnapped and killed by local people during the Suez crisis. “Murhowz, why did you come? It would have been better to stay at home.”

The songs are snapshots from the city’s 150-year history of foreign trade, immigration and invasion – forces that have also shaped its music. “Nineteen fifty-six was the turning point for so many things,” says Ibrahim, a slight 57-year-old who is Egypt’s leading authority on the country’s traditional music. “Including the simsimyya itself. It became the sound of the resistance.” With Nasser leading a wave of nationalism across the Arab world, the ringing, rousing sound of the simsimyya lyre became an expression of Egypt’s independence and pride in its history. In the canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, it blended with the teasing, disreputable mix of dance and song called bambouti (from the English “bum-boat”, the small traders’ sea vessels that hawked goods to ships passing through the canal) and the much older Sufi damma tradition to produce El Tanbura’s philosophical party music.

These communal forms of music-making are now threatened by both a repressive government and encroaching globalisation. As the socialist ideals of the Nasser era have faded, Egyptians have grown to consider their folk music to be old-fashioned and baladi (“country”). Cars full of young men cruise the wide streets of Port Said’s fashionable “European” quarter, once home to colonial officials and traders, blasting out Beyoncé and Usher. Beneath the veneer of westernisation, however, small groups of people keep alive the old music, and the customs that support it.

One of them is the zar – a secret healing ceremony that uses music to cure people possessed by dangerous spirits. The tanbura is its ritual centrepiece. “El Tanbura is the first group to play this instrument in public,” says Ibrahim, who promises to show it to me in its original setting.

The next evening, we drive out to the rows of scruffy concrete blocks on the desert fringe of the city to visit Sheikha Zeinab, the last zar mistress in Port Said. The tiny front room of her apartment is thick with cigarette and hashish smoke and incense, and packed with heavyset women in brightly coloured housegowns. They all have problems they believe are caused by spirits, and have come for healing. Three male musicians – Bulbul, Abu Hossein and Araby Jacomo the tanbura master – squat along one wall, smoking. The zar is usually closed to outsiders, but to gain their trust, Ibrahim spent a year serving the musicians, carrying the incense at ceremonies and collecting their fees.

The zar begins by the light of the korsi, an altar to the spirits bearing two candles and a shallow bowl of unshelled peanuts, toffees and dry beans. Sheikha Zeinab circles the room with a plate
of incense smouldering on charcoals, dousing everyone in smoke. Then the musicians strike up. Three women draped in white cloths throw themselves into the centre of the room and dance violently, weeping. Led by Sheikha Zeinab, the musicians spur them on through call-and-response songs with rapidly shifting, skittering rhythms, clattering cymbals, handclaps and drums, all underpinned by the soft, dry tones of the tanbura. In the tiny space, the sound is overwhelming. The women collapse on all fours or throw themselves to the ground, then stagger to their feet. After two hours, they have all been treated and the music stops. Exhausted, everyone sits in the light of the candles, handing round the toffees from the altar.

Bulbul and Sheikha Zeinab, cigarettes alight, sit down to tell me more about zar and its music. Bulbul (“nightingale”), a small, mischievous-looking man who has been playing at zars for 50 years, explains that people can be possessed by Muslim, Christian, male, female or child spirits, whose names and characteristics reflect zar’s roots in Egypt and Sudan. He lists the most important of them: Yawra Bey, the dandyish, sword-wielding king of the Muslim spirits, the child spirit Lady Racosha, and the Red Djinn, leader of the Christian spirits. For my benefit, the musicians have avoided the usual animal sacrifices, but the spirits demand a surprising menu of treats if they are to be pacified.

“Christian spirits usually want bananas, apples, beer or whisky,” Sheikha Zeinab explains to me. “Muslim spirits might want ground coffee or beans.”

“Why is zar dying out?” I ask.

“Religious fanatics,” she answers. “Religious TV channels broadcast from the Gulf tell people not to go to zar, and if they have a problem, to contact the channels’ own experts about it instead.” Bulbul adds that “the bearded ones” – Islamists – often interrupt the zar and harass the participants. They now play only once every year, rather than once a week as they did 30 years ago. Their ancient repertoire of Sudanese and Egyptian songs is disappearing. Ibrahim wants to save it along with the tanbura.

El Tanbura is one way of doing this. Together, the musicians are a living archive of songs and melodies, built up over generations, that document each aspect of Port Said’s culture and history. But, as Ibrahim explains, they believe these traditions also speak to the present and future – and to the world far beyond the Suez Canal. The group are constantly improvising and writing new songs, and have set up “Young Tanbura” schools in Port Said and Ismailia to teach children the old songs and instruments. For El Tanbura, music is the force that builds a community and binds it together – when life is hard, it is the best consolation.

“Our audiences treat our performances like a zar,” one of the musicians told me. “They come every time we play, and it makes them – and us – feel better.”

It’s not necessary to believe in spirits to find El Tanbura’s performances magical. For everyone lucky enough to see them play, they provide a glimpse of a secret history that is still very much alive.

El Tanbura tour the UK from 4 to 11 June. For details visit: www.eltanbura.com

Sheikha Zeinab and Araby Jacomo tour the UK in October. Details: www.elmastaba.org