Egyptian band gives folkloric music a modern beat

The band is finalising its first album, which is to be released this year.
Sunday 27/01/2019
With an  authentic touch.  Members of Taksir Sharqi perform at at the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Arts — Makan.        (Taksir Sharqi)
With an authentic touch. Members of Taksir Sharqi perform at at the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Arts — Makan. (Taksir Sharqi)

CAIRO - It was a cold evening in Cairo when the band Taksir Sharqi played songs imbuing an enthusiastic audience with warmth and melodies. Seeking to revive folkloric music, Taksir Sharqi, whose name refers to broken rhythms, reflects a unique chain of melodies contemporising folklore.

Mawwal is an Eastern genre of vocal music usually presented before the actual song begins and is performed in Egyptian dialect in the case of Taksir Sharqi.

Abdel-Rahman Belalah, a well-established mawwal singer who has a powerful, distinguished voice, hits the stage with the rest of Taksir Sharqi, in a traditional Upper Egyptian jalabiya, which adds an authentic touch to the performance. He has been singing in Egypt and abroad since 1982.

Improvisation and interaction with the audience are key features of mawwal, which usually entails words of wisdom and life experiences, Belalah said.

“The surrounding atmosphere and the engagement of the audiences help me improvise some of the words. My long experience with singing this genre enables me to do that quite easily,” he said. “When I repeat a mawwal 5 minutes later, it will be totally different because of improvisation.”

Belalah produced his own albums in the 1980s and has travelled the world performing with his strong and melodious vocal tones to Arab communities and festivals in Austria, Italy and other places.

“The melody of the mawwal is itself a kind of improvisation, while some other mawwal songs are derived of Egyptian folklore,” said Taksir Sharqi founder and oud player Ahmed Omran. “We are always keen on creating an organised space for improvisation, which makes each concert different from another.”

Mawwal is fused with Zar music and songs that represent a community healing ritual of drumming and dancing. Many of the polyrhythmic songs and chants of Zar are very distinct from other Egyptian music traditions.

Originally a Zar enchanter, the band’s main female singer, Om Sameh, has a deep, strong voice and tabs powerfully on the duff (a large oriental frame drum) while swaying to the rhythm.

Sameh, who joined the band recently, said she has been singing since she was 11 years old. “My mother was also a Zar singer and I started singing with her when I was a little girl in Upper Egypt,” Sameh said.

Taksir Sharqi first performed at the end of 2017 at the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Arts — Makan. The band’s instruments include electric oud, saxophone, bass guitar, electric guitar, arghoul, accordion, various Western and Eastern percussion instruments and tamboura.

The band has regular performances at Makan and has a devoted fan base. The vibes and warm lights of the place, despite a rather confined space, give a sense of heritage and originality that enhances the band’s spirit.

Each concert is a special experience, an aura for audiences belonging to diverse backgrounds and nationalities.

“I usually attend most of the concerts of Taksir Sharqi at Makan since I live nearby. I have always enjoyed the unique combination of authentic Egyptian folklore with their special music. It is a real treat,” said Amr al-Alfy, a 33-year-old Egyptian translator.

“Listening to Om Sameh and Abdel-Rahman Belalah helps me with my Arabic learning skills in an enjoyable manner, even though some of the words they sing are a bit hard for me to understand at first,” said British national Edward Hall.

The band has also won critical praise.

“It is the band with the fastest-growing popularity. In almost one year, its members have become regular performers on most stages in Cairo and Alexandria, creating a wide-based audience in a relatively short period of time,” said music critic Mostafa Farouk. “It performs an exceptional blend of Western and oriental music that, mostly, appeals to the ears of listeners above the age of 30 rather than younger ones.”

Omran refuses to categorise Taksir Sharqi’s music.

“People can label us as they wish but we just play music of our own. For us it is about reviving Egyptian musical heritage and adding to it our own modern touch,” he said.

“I believe in what we present to people. This is probably one of the few times in my life that I believed in something so deeply,” he added.

The band is finalising its first album, which is to be released this year.