Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Folk music of Isamailiyya: the El Waziry Group

One of the best things I did while in Cairo in late March was to go to see the El Tanbura group perform at El Tanbura Hall in Abdeen. El Tanbura play the music of Port Said, which is well-known for the fact that its central instrument is the simsimiyya, a lyre of very ancient origin. (There are paintings of the instrument on the tombs of the Pharaohs.)

Here's a photo of El Tanbura Hall, from the outside.

And here's a shot of some of the members of the group, from their concert on March 24. The photo shows two simsimiyyas. I filmed the concert, and hope, eventually, to post some of the concert footage on youtube.

El Tanbura Hall is a project of the El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music. You can read about El Mastaba here. It was founded by Zakaria Ibrahim, who I met, and who performs with El Tanbura. El Mastaba sponsors a posse of groups who perform regularly at El Tanbura, including Rango, who are absolutely terrific and who you can read about here. El Mastaba has also issued a number of CD's, which are excellent, and are for sale at El Tanbura Hall.

El Mastaba participated actively in the Egyptian Revolution. Three groups associated with El Mastaba performed in Tahrir Square when it was occupied by pro-democracy forces: the Hinna band from Suez, from the El Tanbura band (Port Said), and the El Waziry band from Ismailiyya. Please watch a video of the El Mastaba groups at Tahrir here.

I recently read the posting below on Facebook, announcing a concert by the El Waziry group. I reproduce it below, because it provides an invaluable account of the history of the "popular art of Ismailiyya," which flourished from the 50s til 1967, and which El Mastaba is doing its best to revive and to promote. I don't know who wrote the text below (it's translated from Arabic), but I hope the author will not mind my attempt to recirculate it. It announces a performance by the El Waziry group at El Tanbura Hall, that will happen tomorrow, Thursday May 12. Wish I could be there. In the meantime, I do have a CD from El Waziry himself: El Wazery & Suhbagiyya, Wallah Zaman (El Mastabah Center for Egyptian Folk Music, 2006).

El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music presents

El Waziry Group

The three cities of the Canal (Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez) share similar traditions of music and song, though each has its special features.

Three tributaries combined to bring these arts to Ismailiyya, which is located half-way along the Canal. The first of these was the Sudanese, who have lived in the oldest quarters of the city–the “Slave Stockades” (‘arayshiyyit il-‘abid)—since it was built in the last third of the nineteenth century. The second was the interaction of local musicians with others from Port Said or Suez, as well as with the shipping passing through the Canal, which, at the end of the 1930’s, brought the instrument known as the simsimiyya (a type of lyre). And the third was the influence of the other shores of Lake Manzalla, at one end of which Isma’iliyya lies, and especially that of the fisher families living in ‘Izbit el-Bahtini, who brought with them fishing songs and the songs of the damma (“street gathering”- a genre with its roots in Sufi music).

On the streets of the city, these tributaries mingled to produce what may be called “the popular art of Ismailiyya,” which flourished from the beginning of the 1950’s up to the war of June 1967.

After the war, the inhabitants of the city were forced to migrate to areas further inside Egypt, far from the battle line. In their diaspora, in the cities and villages and displacement camps, the people of Ismailiyya survived, and shared their singing with the displaced from Port Said and Suez, to the accompaniment of the simsimiyya, which, with its songs expressive of their common concerns, played an important role in creating a bond among them.

With the end of the war and the return of the displaced to their cities, things were different, in Ismailiyya as in the rest of Egypt. When the “open door” economic policy was adopted, social values changed and, at the beginning of the 1970’s, the trend towards commercialism started to take over the old artistic tradition. Competition for the rich pickings of the wedding market intensified, leading to the withdrawal from this field of the authentic musicians, as some died and others retired.

Only one, the musician Muhammad El-Waziri, refused to retire into obscurity and continued to cherish his own simsimiyya, though he had no idea what to do with it on his own. Things changed when El-Waziri met the writer, and embarked on a relationship with the Tanbura troupe experiment in Port Said, which attempted to collect the music and songs of Port Said by bringing together the old musicians, who, like their fellows in Ismailiyya, had gone into retirement.

The legend "Muhammad El-Waziery" the king of simsimiyya at Canal zone had passed away in 2008 in the age of 73 years old, cuddling the simsimiyya instrument and leave the heritage of Ismailia city in the hand of his troupe which he was the leader of it (Souhgbagya group) and we changed its name to "El Waziery group" in recognition of his history and saving the heritage of Ismailia city.

Now there was hope that what had happened in Port Said might happen in Ismailiyya, as, together, we were able in the same year to begin the foundation of the El Waziery troupe, by bringing together the old popular musicians of Ismailiyya to prevent the loss of this heritage.

To date the El Waziri Group have performed a number of times, in Ismailiyya itself and in Port Said, Suez and Cairo, gaining new friends all the time.

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