‘At the shows in Port Said, most of the audience is Egyptian – they know all the lyrics,’ recalls Maurice Chammah, a musician and journalist who has seen El-Tanbura perform six times now. ‘At times it feels like there is no line between the band and the audience; it’s just a big, exciting scramble of dancing, singing, clapping and strumming. Everyone smiles and hugs and winks at each other. You witness a community preserving a tradition not out of obligation, but out of sheer joy and enjoyment.’
El-Tanbura launched its third album in April of this year. Like all of its work, ‘26th of January’ is a compilation of old national folk songs and original sha’bi (of the people) anthems written over the past two years. The band members covered the production costs themselves, and recorded the entire album in a day. Having composed it in order to ‘raise national and political awareness,’ Ibrahim explains, they decided to sell it for a mere five Egyptian pounds. The members of El-Tanbura shun the notion of entertainment as the exclusive domain of the elite and glamorous, returning to the Port Saidi musical tradition’s roots as a communal production, a social duty, and a practice inextricably linked to the sea. For them, music is a way to preserve and celebrate a coastal legacy of dignified labour, humble living and righteous protest. ‘We are Bambutiyya,’ the collective sings on one of their albums, ‘and there’s no one else like us. We are Bambutiyya and you’ll find no one else like us, marine merchants working on the canal.’
Port Said was originally established over 150 years ago as a work camp for the Egyptian labourers brought from the countryside by the French-owned Suez Canal Company to develop the canal. Suhbagiyya is as old as the city itself. It is a musical amalgam composed of Red Sea sounds brought by migrants from the villages of the Nile Valley, fused with elements from the aural repertoires of the Europeans who operated the canal and resided in the city’s ‘foreign quarter’ until 1956, and peppered with crumbs from the acoustic tastes of entertainers who regularly passed through the canal on travelling ships.
Suhbagiyya performers were renowned for their damma songs, Sufi-inspired chants punctuated by maniacal drumming. The simsimiyya found its way to Port Said in the 1930s.‡ Café owners were quick to incorporate the instrument into their entertainment agendas, facilitating the birth of a new brand of folk music named after the lyre, its lyrics grounded in the lives and labours of workers on the Suez Canal.
Folk music served as Port Said’s primary oral vehicle for communicating social commentary and political satire. The city’s musicians were not of the people but from the people, often illiterate and impoverished ‘historians’ and ‘social analysts’ melodically narrating and rhythmically documenting their coastal town’s ongoing saga of foreign trade, migration, invasion and protest. Songs like El-Tanbura’s Heela Heela are a direct extension of this tradition. The band describes the composition as a traditional worker’s song popular among local fishermen. The chorus, ‘heela, heela’, translates to ‘do more’ – an incentivising melody sung by the fishermen to provoke their peers into completing their tasks.
With the evolution of Port Said into a free trade zone in the 1970s, performers of simsimiyya music were shoved backstage, replaced by cheaper and more ostensibly ‘modern’ keyboard players and DJs – that is, until Zakaria Ibrahim made his disappointed return to the city. After graduating from university in Cairo and completing a year of service in the Egyptian army, Ibrahim returned to Port Said in 1980, where he was met by disillusionment.
The performers of suhbagiyya had had their voices extinguished by the constantly growing army of commercial singers that invaded their native soundscape. They retreated into retirement and took with them a genre of music over a century old. ‘Our musical heritage and the songs that once gathered the people and gave them hope had been forgotten,’ Ibrahim explains. ‘Music had become commercial. Its social role had been sidelined. I saw a need to gather all of the old musicians who didn’t have a place within the mainstream music industry and therefore, had lost interest in their craft.’
It took Ibrahim eight years to find a simsimiyya player who agreed to ‘jam’ with him in the cafés of Port Said. Over time, positive word of mouth brought larger and younger groups of Port Saidis to his performances and more musicians began to participate in the jam sessions. A few years later, after saving some money, Ibrahim founded El-Tanbura with the musicians who took part in his performances most frequently. In the 1990s, using a grant from the Ford Foundation, he started organising El-Tanbura performances in Cairo and building an archive of traditional music. He soon amassed over 1,100 hours of audio and video footage and established El-Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music in the capital – home to his archive and the base out of which he now manages and promotes a growing list of traditional Egyptian folk bands. El-Tanbura has garnered international critical acclaim over the years, performing regularly throughout Egypt as well as participating in music festivals worldwide. Nevertheless, the band continues to loyally play El Negma for free every Wednesday in Port Fuad.
‘Traditional’ musicians are often accused of attempting to exhume a past identity or fighting a losing battle against the modern tide. In the case of El-Tanbura’s members, commercial music simply does not fit comfortably around the skin of their Port Saidi eardrums. They perform the music that naturally springs from and appeals to them, the music that gets them dancing from the inside out. It is the particular sound of their subjectivity – their aural reflection. ‘When the members of El-Tanbura perform in Port Said,’ comments Chammah, ‘they don’t seem to be consciously “preserving” anything. They are just playing the songs they love and teaching them to their children, because they want their kids to get the same rush of joy and gusto that they get when they sing and strum their songs.’
Coastal cities like Port Said expose their residents to multiple cultures through their welcoming docks. Unlike land – easier to harness, manipulate and demarcate – the sea can resist the imagined human notion of borders. And there is something ineffably distinct about the residents of such cities too. Perhaps that explains why, as Karawya points out, the natives of Port Said have long been singled out from the rest of the nation for their ‘expressiveness, independence and dissidence.’ El-Tanbura and their inimitable musical compositions poetically reflect, narrate and celebrate Port Said’s 150-year history of cosmopolitanism, sea trade and activism.
This article appears in the issue40Buy Now