We learned of this zar from Zakaria Ibrahim of the group El Tanbura and the Mastaba cultural center here in Cairo. Zakaria could not accompany us because he's on his way to London to perform in a concert called "A Night in Tahrir Squre" at the prestigious Barbican center on July 22. (By the way we visited Tahrir on the morning of the zar to interview the young political singer Ramy Essam, who will also be part of the Barbican show. More on Tahrir and Ramy in a future dispatch...) In any case, while zar music is performed for the stage at cultural centers like Mastaba and Makan, this was the real thing, a private event aimed at healing, and at closing the zar season before the start of Ramadan.
We made our way through gnarled Cairo traffic to the Boulak Abouelaila neighborhood, with Zakaria's right hand man, Mamdou El Kady at the wheel. We passed industrial markets, butcheries, and streets packed with somewhat ragged looking Caireans. We had been told to come at 4PM, though we didn't make it to the designated meeting place until 5:30, and the music didn't start for some hours after that. We were met by Hassan Bergoman, leader of the group Rango, named for a rare form of xylophone long used in Sudanese zar rituals. Hassan explained to us that there would be three groups performing at this zar, an all-women's Egyptian zar group led by Umm Hassan, Bergoman's own Sudanese zar ensemble, which features the ancient, low-pitched tanbura lyre, and finally, a local Sufi zar ensemble. The Sudanese aspect is key, because zar came to Egypt along with waves of mass migration following Egypt's 1820 conquest of Sudan under Ottoman Egyptian leader Mohammed Ali. For much more on this history, see our Hip Deep interviews on Sudanese history with Ahmad Sikainga (Sudan: A Musical History) and Eve Troutt Powell (African Slaves in Islamic Lands).
|Street in Boulak Aboulaila (Eyre 2011)|
|Hassan Bergoman, pre zar!|
|Umm Hassan's Egyptian zar group|
|Preparing the drums|
Our host was a man named Arabi, the gentleman in white smoking the chisha in the photo below. Everyone was very friendly, but there was no getting around the oddity of our presence with cameras and microphones. Kids asked to have their photos taken, and delighted in viewing them. This at first amused and eventually annoyed their mothers and aunts. Once the music began, with loud drums being played right before the faces of the singers, it was not easy to position microphones where they would get well mixed sound and not be in the way of the action. Awkward? You bet. But we made the best of it.
|Arabi (in white) before the zar|
|Banning in Boulak Aboulaila|
|Afropop intern Mariam Bazeed and Sean Barlow at work|
Hassan Bergoman's Sudanese zar group came next. Hassan himself sat and played tanbura and sang most of the time, though he occasionally stood and joined the elderly men singing and dancing before him with heavy belts adorned with pieces of animal horn that rattled loudly in rhythm as they shook their hips. Here the musicians themselves seemed possessed, and the mood became almost festive. Even I was invited to join the dance. I can't say I was possessed or healed, but definitely moved.
We did not stay on for the Sufi zar. It was already 2AM. But our next stop is a Sufi saint celebration (moulid) in Assiout, some 6 hours south of here. For that, we'll be off line for a few days. Like zars and weddings, moulids also do not happen during Ramadan. This will be one of the last of this season.