They’re not garbage: Zabaleen, Digla help spread peace through music

Chitra Kalyani
6 Min Read

“If it was a good world, there would be ceasefire everywhere and people would be allowed to go into the conflict zones,” says 19-year-old Soliman El-Ashkar, in commemoration of the Peace One Day initiative.

Ashkar and his friends from CISV International — a volunteer organization run by youth aged 15-25 — create public awareness of various issues by throwing special events. On Sunday, one of these events was the Peace Festival, a series of musical performances organized at El-Sawy Culture Wheel’s River Hall.

“Peace can be something as small as hanging up a peace sign in your school just so more people can be aware of peace,” says Ashkar. “And not just in the sense of ‘no war’ — in the sense of personal peace and being at peace with yourself.”

Katie Plathonoff of CISV explained the history of the Peace Festival. When filmmaker Jeremy Gilley first started the Peace One Day initiative, no international peace day existed at the time, according to Plathonoff.

“Gilley advocated and campaigned for this day,” said Plathonoff. All of Gilley’s campaigning seems to have paid off. In 1999, the September 21 was established as the International Day of Peace through the UN General Assembly.

The musical line-up for the Peace Festival included the bands Zabaleen (garbage collectors) — some of whose members are also active CISV International participants — and Digla, who are considered “CISV family friends.”

Though one might find it strange for a band’s name to reference garbage, the Zabaleen derives its name from its band members’ instruments. Zabaleen’s percussion ensemble uses a range of pipes, trash cans, a big empty water jar, a jerkin, makeshift shakers and a host of other objects commonly found strewn about the streets of Cairo.

The band opened with an earthy and entertaining boom, with the percussionists — who are frequently compared to the British percussion-dance ensemble Stomp — seated near the floor, getting their hands dirty (pun intended) with music produced from garbage.

The unique percussions were a welcomed accompaniment to a snaking saxophone, adding a softer layer to their intricate musical performance. Their musical styles transitioned seamlessly between reggae rhythms to Arabic tunes, with the singer asking audiences to sing along to “Give Peace a Chance.”

Their performance also featured a bit of impromptu belly dancing, which simultaneously entertained the audience and perturbed the Sawy Culture Wheel administrators who swiftly rushed backstage to stop the dancing.

A couple of Zabaleen’s songs are actually about garbage collection, with lyrics such as “Irmi zebaltak, naddaf baladak” (Throw your garbage, clean your country).

Yet the band’s name does not limit its causes, according to Zabaleen guitarist Aly Morad. “Two of our songs are environmental, [but] the rest are social, maybe even political,” says Morad.

The band first formed in April of this year when Youssef El-Kady — one of its members known for playing drums on garbage — was approached to play at an event for environmental awareness at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Although all members of Zabaleen are from AUC, Morad insists that they “did not meet through classes.” And despite having formed the band less than six months ago, they have already composed 10 original songs which they play alongside numerous cover songs.

Digla, the band performing after Zabaleen, was started by lead singer Tarek Borollossy and drummer Omar Raafat, who played together during their high school years. They made their public debut by performing cover songs at talent shows for schools and universities.

In 2003, Digla (formerly named Disconnected) was one of the very first rock bands to ever play at El-Sawy. In 2004, Digla established itself as an original band. In 2007, bassist Mohammed El Hakim and guitarist Sary Hany joined the group.

With influences like Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Verve, Digla’s music frequently cycles between gloomy and energetic tunes.

Borollossy writes the group’s lyrics mostly in English, and sometimes — as is the case with “Highlights,” a song about Cairo — he fuses Arabic with English in the same song.

“It has to come naturally,” says Borollossy. “We don’t force it.”

In keeping with the event’s theme of peace, the band adjusted its usual style to fit the occasion.

“Usually our band is all about energy,” says Borollossy. “[But] today we’re sort of calming it down,” he said of the performance.

“Today will be chill,” adds Hany, referring to the Peace Festival’s musical line-up.

Both Zabaleen and Digla enjoyed the attention of fans that grouped around the stage, dancing and sometimes even singing along to their original lyrics. Ironically, the scenario was not far from that presented in the promotional flyers for the event, which feature a sketch drawing of one attendee tempted another to the peace-fest by mentioning that Zabaleen and Digla would be playing.


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