The Suez Canal, foreign occupation, war and tax-free jeans are all aspects of Port Said’s identity which have shaped and influenced the city’s musical tradition. El Tanbura, a male troupe of singers, lyre-players, drummers and high-energy dancers was formed 20 years ago to preserve a musical heritage under threat.
The group are profiled in Philippe Dib’s 2007 documentary “El Tanbura, shown at Makan last Tuesday, before the group themselves gave a spectacular performance.
Tanbura are exponents of the Dama musical tradition, formed when workers from all over Egypt came to Port Said after the opening of the Suez Canal in the 19th century. Dama’s Sufi hymns, fishermen’s songs and popular Egyptian folk music are bound together by the simsimeyya, a type of lyre whose charm lies in its versatility: alternately jaunty and rousing, melancholic and pondering.
It was the simsimeyya which haunted inhabitants of Port Said driven out during the 1967 war with Israel until their eventual return in the 1970s. The city was kept alive during this period of exile through its songs.
But as Tanbura’s musical director Zakaria Ismail explains in the documentary, the opening of the tax-free zone in Port Said in the 1970s created new economic and social groups which in their turn influenced the mood of Dama gatherings.
Ismail says that this commercialism produced a form of patronage during performances, with singers announcing people’s names in return for money.
This mentality threatened the integrity of the Dama gathering, which was rapidly turning into a money-making enterprise, its identity compromised as a result.
Ismail opened a small key-cutting and bag repair business to support the band when it was first formed until the Ford Foundation took an interest and began funding it. But for Tanbura members themselves, the band is very much a passion rather than a profession.
In Dib’s film, we see the men doing their day jobs to a soundtrack of their music: Singer Sheikh Ragab repairs masonry five floors up on the outside of a building while perilously hanging onto a rope which appears to be tied to a sink inside. Another band member irons quickly and expertly, carried along by the beats.
A comic interlude in the film is provided when Tanbura performed in the UK, and the camera follows them strolling through London’s streets. They give an impromptu performance on the tube while fellow passengers studiously ignore them – as is the British way.
One of the band members says “hi! enthusiastically to a naked woman in a poster before the group launch into a full-on performance for a random woman in the street. “It’s my birthday today, she squeals in delight.
Dib’s juxtaposition of the band members’ everyday lives against the music contextualizes and explains songs which are so intimately related to Port Said’s history and surroundings. These are songs which celebrate resistance against foreign occupation, Prophet Mohamed, love, and beautiful women, and which are performed with breathtaking exuberance.
The film itself is reminiscent to Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club in that these are a group of middle-aged/senior citizen men who play excellent music.
But Tanbura’s live performance was like nothing I have ever seen. Tanbura has a varying line-up of around 10 singers, drummers, lyre-players and a man on castanets. The concert began with a hypnotic Sufi song, followed by Mawal before everything turned into a mad disco.
Sheikh Ragab is a senior citizen with the energy of a man half his age. When not dancing frenetically, he spent the performance dragging people out of the audience, in implementation of his involuntary volunteer dancer policy.
Around him, other members of the group danced freestyle; either leg kicking traditional Irish dancing style, shoulder shimmying or jumping up and down on the spot while Samy Bakry on castanets executed a continuous and impressive series of head spins.
Particular mention should be made of the excellent Mosaad, who has a stupendous range of staccato dance moves largely involving extraordinary manipulation of his hips and posterior while clenched of fist.
At one particularly memorable point in the concert, Mosaad was shaking his thing in the middle of the audience, two band members were dancing forehead to forehead, Sheikh Ragab was dancing on a chair, Samy the castanets player was spinning his head with death-defying ferocity and a male audience member was pretending to be a female belly dancer while five Americans danced like nobody was watching in the middle.
Tanbura are the best thing this reviewer heard and survived without being force-danced in ages. The Sex Pistols of Egyptian folk music, Tanbura are a group whose passion and innovation are a shot in the arm of the insipid contemporary Egyptian music scene.
Makan,1 Saad Zaghloul Street, El Dawaween.