On Sunday, 1 May, 2005, on the eve of Shamm en-Nisim, five ‘indie folk’ ensembles celebrated the age-old Egyptian holiday before an audience of nearly five hundred people. Most of the audience members were from the cities along the Suez Canal. State media was conspicuously absent; there was no one covering the event except us — and a photographer from a local Port Said newspaper.
Like a religious sect reviving a long-forsaken rite, or the surviving members of a dwindling ethnic population gathering to conjure the spirits of their ancestors, those attending the annual ‘folk’ festival had abandoned the streets of Port Said to celebrate a night-time performance at Negma Café in Port Fuad, on the other side of the Canal.
When this particular festival took place for the first time in 1994, it was called the first Suez Folk Festival for Simsimiyya Music. It was held on the famous Abu el-Hassan Street, in the el-Arab quarter — the traditional stronghold of dhamma. The festival has been suppressed by the state in recent years. In 2000, it was banned, and the Day of Victory (Eid el-Nasr, 23 December) was changed into a local provincial holiday rather than a national day — on the pretext of preventing fires from breaking out as a result of the festivities’ ritual burning of an effigy of Lord Allenby. But despite official policies, the El-Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music has continued to celebrate both occasions.
The ritual burning of the Allenby effigy dates back to the 1919 Revolution and the post-revolutionary period, when demonstrators created an effigy resembling Lord Allenby (then the British High Commissioner) and burned it during Shamm en-Nisim celebrations. Years later, Ismailiyya witnessed an important period of armed struggle against the British occupation, which responded with a massacre on January 25, 1952 (ironically, that day eventually became Egypt’s National Police Day). Over time, it was only natural that Shamm en-Nisim celebrations became opportunities to commemorate songs of resistance that appeared and flourished in the cities of the Canal (which came to be known as “The Front”), and among those displaced by the 1956 and 1967 wars. These songs were distinguished by the instruments and rhythms of simsimiyya and Bambuti-style dancing — the unique musical heritage of the canal. As for the Allenby effigy, after the British withdrew, it became a symbol of all tyrants and aggressors. Sometimes it is fashioned with an eyepatch, like Moshe Dayan; at other times it has represented Ariel Sharon, George Bush, and others. (Whether it has ever been made to represent a local official is uncertain.)
I was utterly taken with what I saw and heard — and so were those who were with me. Despite rudimentary sound engineering and enormous, worn out, low fidelity speakers, the concert was like an Olympic, and Olympian, spectacle. Each individual who danced, sang, played or performed was completely fused with the others. Melding competition with collaboration, they also managed to incorporate the individual character and interpretations of the diverse participants.
Their number included those outfitted in galabiyyas and turbans, as well as those behatted in tarboushes, derby hats, and berets. Others appeared bare-headed. Their clothes were far from fashionable. And some — only some — donned outfits that hinted at a re-embodiment of times long past. Others dressed just as they did in their everyday lives as plumbers, mechanics, water meter readers, and fishermen.
Following a loosely defined set of rules, the audience members actively participated in the performance, responding with dancing and applause and singing as a chorus. Those closest to the front often burst into dance, spontaneously blending amongst the musicians (in the more accepted Egyptian version of the “stage invasion”). It gave me the impression that Egypt herself was epitomized by what I was witnessing, in a way that transcended time and space. At the risk of exaggerating or romanticizing, it felt as though Bes, the ancient Egyptian god of merriment, was there among them, playing the kinara (the forerunner to the simsimiyya harp and other lyres) while laughing and jumping about.
We used to attend concerts given by the main ensemble in Cairo, where stage and audience were divided. Here, by contrast, there was only one level, with no raised stage. The sohbagiyya (which, loosely translated, means “companions,” a reflection of the spirit of the simsimiyya gathering) entered according to the call of Zakaria, the leader, who did not take song requests from the audience — which, in turn, didn’t whistle or scream like the youth of Cairo do. They barely even clapped, in fact: instead, they indicated their amusement and approval by saying “ya ‘ayni”, touching the shoulders of the best performers encouragingly as singers and players thronged together, cigarettes in hand. Mimi, a singer and simsimiyya player, sang a mawwal that included shout-outs dedicated to “al-ma’allim Sayyed Rahal” and “the people of Ismailiyya.”
I asked Shawqi el-Ridi, who plays the tanbura, simsimiyya, and gandooh, about a group of larger instruments that are often adapted into a quartet when played outside of Port Said.. He replied that there was no room for them that night. What most fundamentally distinguished the Port Fuad performance was the way it brought together voices and music and dance in their original, organic setting.
One sohbagy from Suez improvised a mawwal as an introduction to a song:
Time ago, we said hello by hand
Today, it’s a mobile phone from a distance
Tonight is sweet for you and because of you, Port Said
And thus in their lyrics (much more than in the music itself) the sohbagiyya continue to bring an improvisational boldness to their performances — bringing new compositions, additions, and developments to a vast inherited repertoire.
In 2003, when U.S. forces mobilized in the Gulf and invaded Baghdad, an Egyptian truck driver struck down a number of American soldiers on a military base in Kuwait. El Tanbura referenced the event in its first new material in years: “The Egyptian fida’i Lutfi el-Barbari.” Each of their existing albums at the time included original instrumental pieces. This tendency to depart from the existing repertoire eventually led them to produce an entirely original instrumental album, which at that time was tentatively titled Rawhana.
A group of black African descent entered in costume with a wooden instrument called the rango (similar to a xylophone) and upright drums. One member of the group (in the zar tradition, which encompasses both a musical genre and an exorcism ritual, his role is called “sutari”) was wearing a manjur, a belted instrument made of hooves, tied around his waist. They are members of a group that the people of the Canal refer to as alluun — a word that might be translated as “colored” (politically incorrect though it may be) and which has come to be used throughout Egypt to mean a person with dark skin, particularly one with southern roots. Even the name of the quarter of Ismailiyya where they live, which translates to “the slave section of ‘Araishiyya,” still bears the traces of discrimination and a racialized past.
Their instruments were on the verge of extinction — though some had made their way, along with the five-stringed tanbura, to the beats of the zar ritual — before Zakaria rescued them and brought them back to life. And so it may not come as a shock to see the rich complexity that emerges when Hajja Shadia sings in praise of the beloved Prophet Muhammad, accompanied by the simsimiyya with percussive darbuka, dohola, and castanet solos. It was the first time I saw her do that — and her songs bore no relation to the dhamma of the Sufis. Indeed, for all the talk about “experimental” art and hybridity, experimentation here is an act that is wickedly authentic. At its most basic level it depends absolutely upon starting with natural ingredients, rather than superficial or artificial ones.
Next entered Hassan el Waziri, leader of the group Sohbagiyya from Ismailiyya, powerfully striking the five strings of the simsimiyya to produce a sharp and resonant sound of terse notes and phrases. Later, members of another ensemble, Henna, burst onto center stage. Their performances led me to realize that simsimiyya music is not a single, unified genre, given the layers and variety of its sounds, the structuring of its lyrics, even the way its shared texts are sung to different melodies and rhythms. It remains a musical form about which very little has been published.
A sohbagy from Suez, dressed in the fellahi style, the middle section of his galabiyya tucked up over his sash to lift the hem off the ground, sang:
On the village ring road by the shadoof
I saw a beauty in a lemon dress
She threw me a glance with such bewitching eyes
That made me say: fishermen, help me out!
The melody they were singing was one that Walid Saad and Tamer Hosni stole — that is, they used it without crediting the original and forced it to carry trite lyrics. In the music video Tamer Hosni does a break dance and drives a flashy motorcycle. And even before that, Mohamed Mounir distorted the rhythm and collective spirit of the song “Ya Lally”, taking the simsimiyya itself out of it. He and his lyricist, Kawthar Mustafa, could easily have drawn inspiration from what the sohbagiyya call “lending banks,” sets of verses that can be freely borrowed and adapted from one melody to another — but instead they chose to neutralize the song’s candid and sensuous imagery: in place of “Who shall bring me my beloved to be comforted in bed?,” we’re left with the blander “Who shall bring me my beloved and put my heart to rest?.”
All this points to the essential difference between what is referred to as shaabi or folk singing, on the one hand, which cultural authorities have attempted to showcase like a museum piece and set aside as a “folkloric” sideshow curiosity (and which is different from the urban “shaabi” music of Cairo and the other cities) and the music of the major production companies that appear on radio and television, performed by the stars of mainstream Egyptian pop music, on the other. The former is a pristine expression of everyday people: their sentiments, ideas, and collective awareness. El Tanbura’s Mouss’ad Bagha makes us laugh with a performance that appeals to our inner sexist and classist tendencies with a song railing against the ugly woman in his life. Complaining to Ali, the cooking oil salesman, he lists Ali’s wife’s flaws, calling him to rid himself of her in a scandalous manner, without embellishment or elaboration — or any sense of shame, either. Meanwhile his companions do not shy away from singing about the hashish den and wine.
It is worth mentioning that Egyptian state censors cut out the erotic parts (a whole “bank” of lyrics) from the song “Shuft El Qamar” (“I Saw the Moon”) from the album Noh el-Hamam (“The Weeping of the Doves”). This is among the oldest songs in Egypt, preserved and passed down by the men and women who continue to sing it on wedding nights:
Stand up and play, you sweet halawa
A pretty maiden, with no husband yet
Sell your ring and get yourself a husband
To play with you beneath the mosquito net
Apart from the censorship are other reasons suggesting that a battle is being waged on multiple fronts. The Ismailiyya directorate of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture rejected the participation of any of the groups mentioned above (with El Tanbura at the top of the list) in the Ismailiyya International Folklore Festival. This is despite the colossal success El Tanbura has had in concert — not only in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, but also in Jordan, England, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, Mali, and beyond. The group took first prize in a folk music festival in Canada; moreover, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris put out a live recording of the group in the 1990s that sells for 20 euros (see review). While El Tanbura and its sister groups were innovating this brilliant musical feat, Channel Five was busy nearby featuring a handful of stars from Cairo.
So it seems that the state’s methods of imposing homogenization on the Egyptian people, combined with globalization taking the country by storm, have torn out the roots of local music. On our way into the city I jokingly asked the middle-aged Port Saidi bus driver to play a simsimiyya recording instead of Umm Kalthoum, and he answered without hesitation that “simsimiyya is done; drivers don’t even carry it around with them anymore.” When I asked why, he simply said, “we’re over it.” In the city itself, there wasn’t a single cassette vendor specializing in selling recordings of simsimiyya music. At some shops, only a handful of tapes can be found with any simsimiyya recordings — not even enough to warrant a full corner or shelf.
Perhaps this should provoke our astonishment because in the rest of the Egyptian provinces, local music still enjoys a degree of circulation, whether at public celebrations, private gatherings, or in the cassette market. There are small companies in the Upper Egyptian cities of Qena and Aswan, for example, that are exclusively devoted to producing recordings of local music genres like nameem and kaff. Even in Cairo, where such a wide range of cultural influences converges, there are distributors and vendors who specialize in provincial music, alongside Sufi chanting and other musical forms, featuring stars who appeal to the Cairene and Alexandrian cultural elite.
Perhaps the transformation of Port Said into a free-trade zone is partly responsible for the relative swiftness with which simsimiyya’s popularity and originality been diminished. The spirit of infitah (open-door policy) brought with it the restrictive demands of businessmen eager for the music to acquire commercial status and a “touristic” quality — which, in turn, contributed to a decline in the quality of the music, as the art form was emptied of any content that might offend or upset bourgeois sensibilities at nearby hotels and state cultural institutions, aptly named “palaces of culture.”
Port Said Has No End
Port Saidians’ love for Anwar Sadat — whom they consider to have restored peace, re-opened the canal, and revitalized the city’s economy — is remarkable. Perhaps Nasser had become associated, in their minds, with wars (in ’56 and ’67) and the subsequent evacuations of the city. This history is connected, too, with songs of resistance and the famous simsimiyya group Welad el-Ard (Sons of the Land). I had seen a Nasserist flyer promoting a concert featuring “the people’s poet” Ahmad Fuad Nagm and “the singer of revolutionary Egypt” Ahmad Ismail. It seems that both the opposition and the intelligentsia are producing a cultural discontinuity in politicized, elitist ways. El Tanbura and El Mastaba have faced fierce attacks from ‘anti-imperialists’ since accepting support from the Ford Foundation (after, that is, the Ministry of Culture neglected them).
Despite all this, at the concert we spoke with Rayyis Hassan el-‘Ashry, who formed a simsimiyya group in the late seventies and produced an annual series of records through the then-small company ‘Alam el-Fann (Rayyis is the title conferred on certain veteran simsimiyya musicians). In contrast to the record covers of a quarter century ago, however, he appeared this time unaccompanied by the young men in matching outfits and fishermen’s hats. His son, Mohsin el-‘Ashry, is a member of El Tanbura and its singular composer, and his grandson, Mohamed el-‘Ashry, joined the company of sohbagys as a singer and dancer when he was hardly ten years old. So it seems that wanton hands and winds of change haven’t managed to uproot the tradition entirely.
We might conclude, however, that the existence of the simsimiyya of the Canal faces a serious threat. Indeed, extinction was very nearly the fate of dhamma, another of Port Said’s musical forms (and one whose reincarnation has contributed to El Tanbura’s music). The last living connection to the art and tradition of dhamma might well be Ali Abu ‘Auf (a dancer, singer, and musician with El Tanbura), who took part in his first and last dhamma ceremony in 1987, when he was still in secondary school. Ali was raised in the home of one of the senior figures in the dhamma tradition, Rayyis Imbabi Abdallah. And so even though dhamma practice had disappeared completely after the second wave of displacement of Canal inhabitants, Ali memorized dozens of adwar (the term used to refer to the musical pieces of the dhamma repertoire) without actually having seen them performed once in his life. He relates with pride how he performed “Khalli ‘Anka el-Yawm” in that one exceptional dhamma session in which he took part — which was like a retirement performance — the retirement of an entire generation of older sohbagiyya.
Imbabi died in 2001, after recording with El Tanbura three-fourths of the material that it has now acquired and preserves through memorization and performance. The rest was entrusted to Rayyis William and Rayyis el-Dashin and Usta el-Qot — all of whom died in the early nineties — and some others. Thus, after years of being confined to the dufuf and kasat — the mostly percussive music of Sufi songs and traditions, performed in circular sessions and standing lines — we now find dhamma in an adapted form, played with the music of the simsimiyya, the tanbura, and the kawala. Over time, nabawi (Prophet) praise poetry, the songs of pilgrims on the Hajj, and songs of divine love have been integrated — along with adwar of both love and playful banter — in a blend that remains distinct from the genre of simsimiyya, which is concerned with more worldly things: battlegrounds, the workplace, social gatherings, nightspots, drinking and smoking.
Although Europeans represent a significant segment of El Tanbura’s fan base (we were told that some of them make a habit of traveling from abroad specifically to attend performances at Negma Café), they were absent from the audience that night. It was unknown whether their absence was related to the recent attacks in Cairo. After much experience, Zakaria Ibrahim is convinced that the existence of his group in Egypt will never go beyond its singular goal (which, if achieved, would not be an insignificant accomplishment): the life of its art and its artists — i.e., hazz (good fortune), merriment, gatherings, and companionship. But as for material support and cultural awareness, those things would only come from the ‘Happy West.’ And so according to Zakaria’s wishes, the production and distribution of El Tanbura’s next (studio) album “Rawhana” will be foreign (their first album was a live recording of two concerts in Paris, and the second two were produced in Cairo).
Whatever the case may be, these enthralling and inspiring sohbagiyya have an incredible sense of pride — which is what led many of them to stop performing entirely in the ’80s and ’90s. Tariq el-Sunni, a percussionist with Sohbagiyya of el-Ismailiyya says that you can tell those who haven’t worked on simsimiyya by their inferior sense of rhythm. Tariq does not perform “in the street,” he does not accompany a “synthesizer band” and does not play for tips (‘noqta’), like a belly dancer, either.
Our conversation followed the performance of his group, El Sohbagiyya, led by el Waziri, which opened a set with a witty and sarcastic song:
All the people come to sing
In the Ismailiyya Festival
They will present art
From their own Folkloric Arts
In the festival, the festival
The Festival of Ismailiyya!
To which he added lines from a familiar children’s rhyme:
When is papa coming?
6 o’clock at night!
Riding, or walking?
Riding on his bike!
He continued with more references borrowed from here and there, concluding with a line from a famous Egyptian commercial for baby formula:
Bring us Riri
Bring us Riri
Bring us a package
Bring us two!
Port Said “lives and sleeps like any city. But upon a boat’s arrival she awakens, no matter the hour. And before long, life begins to stir within her with force and with speed: movement spreads, lights flicker on, and the heat rises. In the evenings the most enchanting folk songs ring out from the many corners of the ports.” Thus a character in Naguib Mahfouz’s Love in the Rain describes Port Said before the Naksa (defeat) of 1967.
As we returned from Port Fuad on the ferry boat El-Raswa 12, close to dawn, there were steamships, barges, feluccas, and punts; there were qalaftiyya (caulkers) and bambutiyya(bumboat vendors) too. There were no folk songs playing. But that night, I saw a vibrant and resilient Port Said — a Port Said that was never abandoned or left behind — and my head rang with what had been sung in the copper throat of the African-Egyptian woman:
Sing with me
Come along, let’s go
Port Said has no end
Heila hoppa, heila hoppa!
El Tanbura Timeline (2006–2013)
2006: El Tanbura performs in a Port Said Festival on the fiftieth anniversary of the tripartite aggression, and releases an album, “Bayn el-Sahra’ wel-Bahr” (“Between the Desert and the Sea”), produced by 30IPS. It stops its free weekly performances in Cairo after low attendance at a ticketed concert at El Sawy Culture Wheel.
2007: After thirteen years, funding from the Ford Foundation stops, based upon the claim that this amount of time was considered to be sufficient for the organization to be financially self-sustaining.
2008: The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) finances an album, “Arwah” (“Spirits”). Though originally intended to feature only El Tanbura’s music and with a different title, it includes folk music from all over Egypt.
2009: El Tanbura records another record, “As-hab el-Bambuti” (Friends of the Bumboat Dancer), also produced by 30IPS
2009–10: Salah el-Husari (2009), ‘Amm Hamam, Mos’ad Bagha, and ‘Amm Ragab (2010) pass away in separate illnesses.
2010: El Tanbura opens a space on Balaqsa Alley in the Abdin area of downtown Cairo, where it performs on a Thursday evening once a month. The group planned to offer simsimiyya music lessons under the direction of Mohsin el-‘Ashry, but the lessons did not have high turnout.
2011: After the 25 January revolution breaks out, El Tanbura revives the street festival of Shamm en-Nisim three times in the three subsequent years. Following the massacre at the Port Said stadium and resulting incitement against the city, the Allenby effigy is made to represent Ahmad Shubair, a member of the former ruling party and former Ahli goalkeeper. In 2013, the effigy represents an Egyptian president for the first time (then-president Mohamed Morsi), among other officials. The effigy is not burned on any of these occasions, due to security restrictions.
In 2011, the group presented five concerts on different nights in the January and February sit-ins/protests in Tahrir Square, and established (something that it called) the Lowest Council of Culture, the goal of which was to promote its music among peasants, workers, and students. After that, it toured around campuses in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, and worked with the Popular Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Suez and the neighborhoods of Shubra, Matariyya, and Waili in Cairo, and the village of Tahanub in Qalyubiyya.
2012: A Mobinil ad features the song “ʿAshan Lazim Nekun Maʿ Baʿd” (“Because We Must Be Together”), a kind of cultural national unity anthem, with a section representing the Canal performed by Ali Abu Auf. The group tours France and England.
2013: El Tanbura responds to a call for civil disobedience by participating in protests in reaction to court rulings about the Port Said stadium massacre — which result in further killings on January 26, 2013. It releases another album, “January 26,” featuring songs from the repertoire of resistance music. It also performs at the World Social Forum in Tunis and the commemoration marking the passage of 40 days since the assassination of Chokri Belaid. It participates in the sit-in at the Ministry of Culture calling for the dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood-appointed minister. In the lead-up to the June 30 protests demanding Morsi’s ouster, the ensemble releases a music video of a new song titled Tamarrod (Rebellion) after the name of the anti-Morsi movement; it features clips of concerts at universities and public squares of Egypt, including footage of the Maspero martyr Mina Daniel dancing at one of the group’s concerts.
[This article originally appeared here, in cooperation with Ma3azef. Translated from the Arabic by Anny Gaul.]