Family group preserves musical heritage of Upper Egypt

The lyrics of Mazameer El Nil’s songs tackle subjects ranging from love to the beauty of nature, including the Nile River, the palms and the land.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Mazameer El Nil musicians play Upper Egyptian music. (Marwa al-A’sar)
Old tunes. Mazameer El Nil musicians play Upper Egyptian music. (Marwa al-A’sar)

CAIRO - It was a weekend evening when audiences gathered at El Dammah Theatre in Cairo for a performance by Mazameer El Nil, a folkloric music and dance group from Upper Egypt.

The extremely high temperatures did not dissuade the group’s fans from attending the concert, which started with an authentic scene of that part of Egypt performed by artists in traditional jellabiyas, scarves and turbans.

The group mainly performs folkloric songs to the sounds of nakrazan, a small kettledrum hung around the neck that is struck with two sticks, and mizmar, an oriental flute, while dancing accompanied by the enthusiastic clapping of the audience.

Singing in Saidi, the dialect of Upper Egypt, the group’s songs are not easily grasped by an audience of different backgrounds and nationalities.

“Some Egyptians do not understand the meaning of our songs fully but with time and effort they manage to get it,” Mazameer El Nil co-founder Mahmoud Abdel-Hadi said.

“Upper Egypt singing and dancing never included women,” Abdel-Hadi said. “We have nothing against women but this has always been the tradition.”

The idea of forming the band came up in 2002 when Abdel-Hadi met Zakaria Ibrahim, the founder of El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music, in Montpellier, France. Ibrahim suggested they form a band based on mizmar music.

“Mazameer El Nil” translates into the “Oriental Flutes of the Nile.” It took four years to form the band, which became one of the major groups performing at El Dammah in a network of other traditional bands sponsored by El Mastaba.

El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music is a civil society organisation founded in 2000 to revive Egypt’s rich and unique performing arts heritage. The centre preserves, documents and develops traditional music in Egypt while reintroducing folk music in its original communities and revitalise its role in the daily life and imagination of Egyptians.

“We work hard on preserving the Upper Egyptian musical heritage,” Abdel-Hadi said. “We mostly interpret our own songs written by Hanafi El-Bengawi, my father’s late cousin.”

Folk music in Upper Egypt is characterised by a diversity of instruments, such as the tabla, rababa (a spike fiddle), kawala (an end-blown flute) and arghul (a double pipe, single-reed woodwind), an instrument depicted on the walls of pharaonic tombs.

Abdel-Hadi said he started playing the mizmar and arghul at the age of 13. He said traditional singing and music is a profession that has deep roots in the families in Upper Egypt and is passed on from father to son.

“We inherit the talent. It’s in our genes. Even my brother, who is a high school teacher, works with us,” he said.

The lyrics of Mazameer El Nil’s songs tackle subjects ranging from love to the beauty of nature, including the Nile River, the palms and the land. The songs celebrate marriages and birthdays and promote compassion and companionship reflecting Upper Egypt’s cultural identity.

The group’s songs include words of wisdom in the form of a mawwal — an Eastern genre of vocal music usually presented before the actual song begins and is performed, in Mazameer El Nil’s case, in Upper Egyptian accent.

A mawwal depends, in many

cases, on improvisation of the singer, said lead singer, Mohamed Abdel-Hadi, Mahmoud Abdel-Hadi’s nephew.

“Most of the time when I sing an old mawwal, I improvise some of the words based on how the audience interacts with me,” he said.

The group is attracting large audiences of all ages who are keen on reconnecting with musical heritage.

“I understand most of the songs, though they are performed in the local dialect of Upper Egypt and I especially enjoy the music and dance,” said Cairo native Ahmed Hussein. “I occasionally don’t grasp some of the words, which the band members explain to me after the show with a welcoming smile.”

Foreigners who don’t understand Arabic enjoy the group’s shows as well.

“I know a little Arabic but the Upper Egyptian accent is quite hard for me to understand. Yet I do enjoy the dancing tempo and the rhythm,” said Adam Hall, a British national.

The musical heritage of Upper Egypt is surviving thanks to people’s attachment to their customs and traditions, Abdel-Hadi said.

“No written scripts or music notes are available. We transfer knowledge from one generation to another orally in order to sustain our heritage,” he said.