Charcoal Gypsies

Musicians of the Nile, 1996

Metqâl Qenâwi Metqâl

Metqâl Qenâwi Metqâl is a musician who no longer needs to be introduced in Egypt. Since the 1960s he has brought respect upon S’aîdî music. A member of the Mataqîl family (the plural of Metqâl) whose musicians go back seven generations, he, like many of them, plays the rababâh - the two-stringed instrument chosen by the shâ’ir (the epic poets) and the mughanni sh’abiyyah (the folk singers).

A family of Sudanese origin which emigrated to the south of Egypt seven generations ago, the Mataqîl have long cultivated alliances with Gypsy families specialised in the art of singing. It is in this manner that they have become masters of the profession.

Very early on and at quite a young age, Metqâl distinguished himself from other professional musicians through his own innovative approach. Born in the village of Karnak just a few steps from the famous temple of the same name, Metqâl grew up in the heart of the Gypsy neighbourhood of Abu Djûd. Paradoxically, it was in this environment that Metqâl decided to become a folk singer instead of an epic poet as his elders had. A formidable virtuoso master on the rabâbah, with its strings of horsehair and sound-box made out of coconut shells and fish skin, Metqâl Qenâwi Metqâl drowns our senses in waves of trills.

As early as the 1960s, the Roumanian musicologist Tibériu Alexandru had already brought his talent to the fore and journalists were fond of calling him the Hendrix of the East. After being named the “rais” (leader of the group), Metqâl was soon famous for his compositions and songs. They were of such an unusual modernity that he quickly became quite well-known within the Egyptian capital and throughout the Arab World.

Songs such as “Ya farawle”, “El balass”, “Dayart ya mali”, and many others have become classics which are sung by children or consistently used for choreographies inspired by the traditional dance called “baladi” by dancers of Arab or Western origin.

Shamandi Tewfîq Metqâl

With his remarkable presence Shamandi Tewfîq incarnates traditional singing in its moralist, epic poetic form. He sings the exploits of Abu Zeid al Hilali, the nomadic hero from the Hilalian tribes of Hedjaz who invaded North African and Tunisian land in the middle of the 10th century.

With his dark and chiselled face, he sings about Abu Zeid, an ancient hero whom he resembles. It is said that Abu Zeid was as black as the raven that crossed the sky signifying a bad omen the moment he was born. Abu Zeid is but one of many Bedouin heros who animate the tales of trickery, seduction, love and war which have been passed down for centuries.

Because of the traditional limits placed on music, it has been the Gypsies who have transmitted these historic legends. Their storytelling has spread the universal cult of the fierce and generous individualist throughout the rural Arab world of the Nile. Lost in his nomadic universe, the world that Shamandi Tewfîq describes could be drawn from the pages of A Thousand And One Nights.

Yussef ’ali Bakâsh

Yussef Bakâsh, one of the newest members of the Musicians of the Nile, is a young singer who is both crooner and acrobat. His capacity to charm the public with the ease of a seasoned professional could be seen at the Opera Garnier in 1993 (Paris, Quartier d’Eté Festival) during the Gypsies of the World programme. He incarnates a new generation of singers for whom seduction has become primordial. His approach is different from that of the older generation and the poetic comparisons are no longer the same - times have changed. The young girl no longer evokes comparison with strawberries or pomegranate nectar; nowadays the sparkle of carbonated soda is a more likely metaphor!


  • Live At The Queen Elizabeth Hall Opening this year's South Bank Rhythm Sticks festival, they came on in robes and turbans to demonstrate that their traditional acoustic instruments could provide both exhilarating dance music and intriguing, hypnotic trance effects... The effect was remarkable. The songs slowly built up and changed tempo, with a slinky rhythmic vocal line echoed back by other singers, and the audience joining in with furious hand-claps. This was an intriguing band for musicologists, but also a great desert dance outfit. The Guardian (UK)
  • ...utter spontaneity and strong, earthy physicality... This is music of unashamed display, utter spontaneity and strong, earthy physicality which develops less subtly, but no less fascinatingly, at the twirl of a rabab, into dance, song and repartee. The Times (UK)
  • Powerful melismatic singing and instrumental virtuosity come alive in a reflection of a millenium-old culture... Dirty Linen (1997) (USA)
  • ...deeply hypnotic spell. The vocals soar over the intoxicating drones of the rababah and the sudden flourishes of percussion strive to break its deeply hypnotic spell. Q Magazine (1996) (UK)