Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cairo Journal: Pre-Ramadan Zar at Arabi's Place

One of the key musical rituals we wanted to experience before Ramadan begins is the African healing ceremony known as zar.  Zar is comparable to the Gnawa lila in Morocco in the sense that it is a tradition rooted in the pre-Islamic life of sub-Saharan Africa that has been accommodated to the Arabic, Islamic north.  It is also about healing through driving out bad spirits.  Spirits, or djinns, are recognized by Islam, but the notion of driving them out using music, rhythm and trance, is not to be found in the Koran, or any other official Islamic teaching.  Indeed, during the long buildup to the zar we experienced, a loud call to prayer echoed through the narrow alleyway where we were waiting not once but twice.  As best we could see, no one answered it.  "Because the two things are in conflict," our guide opined.  You begin to see why these rituals are not performed during the holy moth of Ramadan.

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!
We walked a short distance into a tight alleyway where kids on motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, cars, hand trucks and various other vehicles vied for space amid a crush of human life, all the more crowded as people gathered outside in preparation for the zar.  People were drinking tea and smoking sweet tobacco from chishas (water pipes), generally relaxing, and patiently waiting.  The event itself would take place in a kind of tent, separated from the alley only by beautiful, hand-embroidered cloth curtains.  Inside, warm light emanated from strings of incandescent bulbs and towering candles set alongside a table set up with bowls of nuts, fruit and other foods--none of which was eaten during the six hours we spent there.  As the hubbub went on outside, five or six elderly women sat in a row before piles of drums.  The way we finally knew music was approaching was that these women began heating the heads of their drums over hot coals.  The sharp tak and dumm of drums being tested was a sure sign that the zar would soon begin. 

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
From the moment they began, the Egyptian women's group created an atmosphere of trance.   Some women stood with frame drums, while others sat with barrel-shaped drums.  They played strong, simple rhythms and sang in unison, sometimes in two interlocking melodies.  Sometimes the rhythm began slow and then reached a point of rapid acceleration.  The idea of zar is that an ailing person is considered to be inhabited by a spirit, and the musicians' job is to try different rhythms and eventually discover the one that seems to affect the spirit.  You can tell, because the person comes forth and begins writhing or shaking, not violently, but in undulating moves through the back and shoulders.  Then the musicians stay with that rhythm and work it in an effort to drive the spirit out.  A woman at the far right tended a coal stove with incense.  She had used it to run smoke over and "bless" my microphone and tape recorder.  She also used it to wreathe smoke around the faces of the possessed and afflicted.  During nearly two hours of music, interrupted by the odd cigarette break for the musicians, a unique atmosphere prevailed, part celebratory, part reverential, and very much nurturing toward those "in need of zar."  Women's groups specialize in women's problems and most of those who came forth for healing were women, typically old women.  But there was one man who came forward near the end and danced in a splendidly fluid manner. 


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.

Hassan Bergoman

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