The haunting traditional Egyptian music sets the background for the beautiful sparkling Nile River, the awe-inspiring Great Pyramids, the hazy deserts, the donkey and cart riding through a dusty village and the right-royal Temples of the Pharoahs.
The Folkloric Arts Committee in Egypt’s Ministry of Culture is working with UNESCO to save Egypt’s musicians.
“One of the country’s most famous folkloric troupes is the Nile Folklore Music Troupe, founded in 1957 by Egyptian writer Zakariya el-Hegawy (1915-1975). El-Hegawy went on his famous tour of Egyptian villages, gathering folkloric artists, musicians, singers and dancers, whom he moulded into the first folk art troupe in Egypt, named ‘ El- Falaheen Troupe’ (The Villagers’Troupe).”
Egypt is the geographical heart of the world, the cornerstone of civilisation. It is also the gate to Africa and part of Asia, overlooking Europe on its North Coast. It is the confluence of the great Nile on its sacred journey from the heart of Africa to the Mediterranean coast.
Egypt is land, sea and desert. Through its geographical location, long history and several eras of civilised experience Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic Egypt has enjoyed tremendous cultural variation.
Meanwhile, its huge artistic heritage is struggling not to be borne away by the currents of cultural diversion.
“And now the Ministry of Culture is protecting it,” says el-Shafei.The troupe has participated in local and international festivals; back in 1975, it performed in France, having been invited by artist Farouq Hosni, the Egyptian cultural adviser in Paris at the time.
Since then, the troupe has performed in the United States, Italy, France, China, Russia, North Korea, England, Canada, Australia, India, Austria, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Ireland, Denmark and Oman.
“The members of the troupe are all professional, devoted solely to this kind of art,” the director stresses, although the Government pays them very little. “You really have to love this kind of work to persevere, as the pay is abysmal.“
The members of the troupe use the following instruments: wind instruments like the pipe, argool, setaweya and mizmar; stringed instruments like the tamboura, simismiya and rababa; and percussion instruments like the dirbakka, d u f f, tabla, naqqara and sagat.
Sagats are Arab instruments made of dried wood and ivory. The musician plucks his sagats to activate the rhythm. Sagats are used in pairs, fixed in the thumbs of both hands.This instrument first appeared in Pharaonic Egypt, but its emergence was delayed because of the difficulty of manufacturing it from metal.
The mizmar, another Arab instrument, is a cylindrical-like pipe with seven holes.
The pipe gradually widens till it ends with a horn and, on the tight edge of the pipe, there is a double feather made of reed and boxwood. The mizmar is made of apricot or hazelnut wood.
Famous Egyptian percussionist Ragab Sadek, 46, started playing as a hobby as a teenager, but now he has devoted his whole life to it.
“I have performed with the troupe all over the world. Westerners really appreciate this kind of art. They’re fond of oriental music,” says this bass drum player.
The bass drum ( el- Tabla el-Kebira), a circular wooden frame with patches of leather tightened on both sides, is beaten by wooden or bamboo sticks.
It belongs to a family of drums that dates back to the Old Kingdom in Pharaonic times. Tanoura dance is usually performed as a main show in any concert. The tanoura dancer whirls round and round, like the Dervish dancers in the Levant and Turkey.
They wear long colourful skirts that create a beautiful image as the dancer revolves faster and faster, seeking inner purity, in order to satisfy God. Each colour on the skirt represents a Sufi order.
Moustafa Abdullah, a 30-year-old tanoura dancer, is the youngest member in the troupe. He started his career as a folk dancer, then he was taken by tanoura dancing.
“I read a lot about tanoura and its philosophy, and it attracted me greatly. I worked in many hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere, and the tourists were fascinated by my art,” Moustafa says.
In their recent performance in Malta, the European audience were astonished by the Egyptian troupe and its Oriental folkloric music.
They were amazed that Moustafa didn’t get dizzy while performing his tanoura dance. When he starts swirling round, Moustafa becomes separated from the material world.
“It a matter of tagali [transfiguration]; when I dance, I feel that I’m very close to everything I love and want to be with,” he says. The troupe’s rababa player is Shaker Ismail, 52 years old.
A member of the troupe for 30 years, he started as a violin player, before switching to the rababa, a compound musical instrument that consists of the following:
Forearm: a wooden tube with two keys installed on top of it to tighten the strings. The other end reaches the sonorous box of the instrument.
Sonorous box: a totally hollow coconut opened from its topside like a circle, while a patch of leather is tied and tightened on the top opening. Many holes are opened on the lower side of the coconut. It is fixed to the forearm with an iron spit. Strings: thin
threads of horsehair or wire tied in a metal circle and fixed to the wall of the coconut.
Bow: a bamboo stick, simply bowed by tying both ends with horsehair threads. Shaker, born in Upper Egypt and brought up in Cairo, made his own rababa from horsehair and a coconut. “All the good old players are gone now, but there are some youngsters beginning to emerge – they are also good,” he comments. Although Shaker is appreciated all over the world or his rababa player, the Government isn’t quite so appreciative.
“When Abdel-Rahman el-Shafei asked me to join the troupe, I welcomed the idea. But I was shocked when the Ministry of Culture told me that my contract would be like that of a security guard, not an artist, because I have no educational certificates. So I refused,” he says.
In fact, almost all the members of the troupe have the same problem for the same reason. This is why Shaker has been working with a temporary contract for the past three decades, without any security or pension rights.
Imagine the echoes of the past – an Egyptian playing his harp (lyre) as it has been played for thousands of years, accompanied by an hynotic veiled dancer, and leading you through his land, Egypt.