Luxor to Isna

Musicians of the Nile, 1989

From the depth of Upper Egypt, the players of the village, the nomads of celebration - The Musician of the Nile - now perform in the spaces and cultures of the West. They are professionals of pleasure possessing a very particular ethnic identity, re-living their traditions with pride and effervescence.

In the heart of this region, a stone’s throw from the ancient columns of the temple of El Karnak, is the village of Abú-al-Djúd, now a part of the city of Ál-Áqsur (Luxor). From these outskirts have sprung the members of the Mataqil clan- men gifted in the art of the ‘rababah’ (spike fiddle) and of folk and epic songs. Linked to the old Nubian families that were formerly victims of slavery originating in Sudan, the Mátáqil learnt their art from the gypsies with whom they intermarried.

The gypsies of Egypt form different groups, each with their own identity rooted in a legend or a particular vocabulary. The Nawar, famous for their ‘ghawazis’ (public dancers), the Massálíb and the Halab (from Syria) are by virtue of their artistic function very close to the Mátáqeil.

In Egypt traditional music is, as with most societies, performed by ethnic minorities who undertake a professional function that can be very disadvantaged. The music itself - a mode of expression replete with ambiguity because of the emotion and pleasure it generates (two elements commonly disapproved of by society) means the musicians are forced to wander between social rejection and individual adulation.

AL BAHR AL GHARÁM WÁSAH (LOVE IS AS VAST AS A RIVER)
On stage The Musicians of the Nile exude complete sincerity. Punctuated by bursts of percussion the acrid, yet magical sound sparks off a real acoustic frisson.
During a ‘tahmílah’ – a piece written so that each musician can briefly develop a ‘táqasím’ (improvised passage), Mohamed Murád, ‘enfant terrible’ of the rababah (traditional fiddle) reveals great musical inventiveness. Between each solo by the members of the group, he highlights the melodic theme of the title.

ZAHRAFAT AL SA’ÍD (REJOICING IN UPPER EGYPT)
The ‘tablah’ (sometimes called the ‘derbuka’) is a percussion instrument found throughout the Arab World, although best-known in Egypt. The drum has a fishskin stretched tightly over a tube-like-sound-box of baked clay. Hanafi Mohamed ‘Ali brilliantly marries the powerful hand-striking technique of upper Egypt with the stylistic finesse of classical percussionists. He handles the ‘tak’ (soft drumming) and ‘dum’ (heavy drumming) with great precision, backed by the larger ‘doholah’ which lays down the bass rhythm called ‘argiyah’ (from the word ‘ard’ meaning ‘soil’).

YÁ TIR ‘ALA SHADJARAH (OH BIRD UPON THE TREE)
The four ‘zumarin’ players of the oboe from the village of Djaradjos situated to the north of Al-Aqsur (Luxor) make their way on stage accompanied by a large drum, the ‘tablah baladi’.
The ‘rais’ or leader, Mohamed Abu Haradji- an undeniable living legend in Upper Egypt with his instrument the ‘mizmar sa’idi’ (the oboe of upper Egypt) - plays an explosive style with nuances of the music if India and even modern-day Coltrane.

The unity of the three mizmar, the power of breath during circular (continuous) breathing, the constant development of melodic phrases vibrate the eardrums. Ten years ago there were more than 200 instrumentalists at Djaradjos: now, with the emigration of workers to the Gulf States, there are no more than twenty.

HORSE STEPS
The hooves of a horse pulling a carriage continue to punctuate the streets of Luxor evoking past and present.

AL NAHLA AL’ALI (THE TALL PALM TREE)
Metqál Qenáwi Metqál, the most famous singer of traditional music in upper Egypt and a star in the Egyptian capital, has developed a powerful and original playing of the ‘rababah’. In Egypt the ‘rababah’ is a two-stringed violin held vertically. The strings are of horse hair and the sound-box of coconut (‘djoza al hind’). This large, hard seed determines the sound of the instrument. The open extremity is tightly covered with goatskin or fish skin. The instrument’s neck (‘amud’: column or ‘qalb’: heart) is spherical and made of ebony (‘zan’) with an ornamental design called ‘midanah’ :minaret.

KOL ELE QALBOH ANKAWA (EVERYONE HAS HAD A BROKEN HEART)
The ‘arghul’ a double-reed clarinet - is the most quintessentially Egyptian instrument-its original form appeared in the reed tubes of the ancient fifth and sixth dynasties. It is unique amongst clarinets because extension pieces can be added to the tube to alter the key. By an extraordinary technique the musician produces a constant flow of breath into the instrument using his cheeks as pockets for the air. The melancholy drone of the arghul and the incisive rhythms of the tablah, caught at Real World, is a rare opportunity to hear an ancient and sadly dying style.

YUNES WA ‘AZIZAH (YUNES AND AZIZAH)
The epic poet of upper Egypt conjures up memories of the nomad Arad tribes, Banu Hilal (sons of the Creascent Moon) who, around the middle of the tenth century, emigrated from the Nedj Plateau (part of present-day Saudi Arabia) to Tunisia. The dark, craggy face of Shamandi Tewfiq, a charcoal gypsy, like the ruggedness of an old stone, evokes the main hero of the Hilalian epic: Abu Zeid al Hilãli, the knight who was born black. He was a product of his mother’s wish who, being infertile, asks God to grant her a child even if he has to be as black as a crow.

Ãl-Ãqsur-ISNÃ (FROM LUXOR TO ISNA)
The cacophony of a street procession is amplified with gritty effect through an old microphone. The noise of every day life bursts onto the streets, from religious chanting to commercial advertising.

Reviews

  • This album captures powerful and eerie melodies which can be traced back to the time of the Pharaohs. The Observer (1989) (UK)
  • Not so much a record, more like an adventure in sound. Q Magazine (1990) (UK)
  • Intoxicating... ...uniquely Egyptian blend of string and reeded instruments, percussion and occasionally street scenes, superbly recorded at the effective Real World Studios. 17 November 1989 The Guardian (1989) (UK)
  • ...a wonderfully strange record... Dirty Linen (1993) (USA)