Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Activist and the Ethnomusicologist: Zakaria Ibrahim and El Tanbura

Zakaria Ibrahim, the director of musical group El Tanbura and the El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, has been interviewed and written about numerous times and can always be counted on for a tightly wound, yet broadly reflective quote. “Egypt is like a big sister to other Arab countries. It’s easy to see from our history why Egypt has become so important,” he told one journalist. 

Writing for Al-Jazeera, Zakaria told his own story in broad, nostalgic strokes. “I came back to Port Said in 1980. I discovered our musical heritage, which had carried our dreams, had changed,” he wrote. “It was now something completely different, more commercial.”

Zakaria resisted that commercialism by finding the musicians who played the songs he remembered from his childhood in Port Said and founding El Tanbura in 1989. Over the next 23 years, he founded nearly ten other groups, creating a grassroots ethnomusicology tradition to preserve Egyptian folk music and bringing Bedouin, Nubian, Sudanese, and other traditional groups to theaters in Cairo and international touring circuits.

Part of the charm of El Tanbura, Zakaria’s flagship group, is that they don’t fall into the trap of tacky heritage tourism. On Thursday night, they drank Stella beers and smoked cigarettes while mingling with the Egyptian, European, and American audience members. Everyone sat on short stools in an unpretentious black box theater. The men in the band wore sweaters and simple button-up shirts, as if they had just come from work. The oldest member wore a tarboosh (or fez), and it didn't seem like a costume.

I met Zakaria several weeks ago, and have written about him a few times here, but I had not known what a local celebrity he is. He glided through the room full of fans and admirers, shaking hands and humbly grinning at the fawning compliments, talking about his pride in the recent revolution and how El Tanbura represents “a way of combating globalization.”

When everyone settled into their seats, he made a short speech. “In 1956,” he began, “we had to defend our city from three armies. What were they?” The audience sat in silence, as a young, American student in the front recounted the aggressors who had attacked Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. “France,” he said, and Zakaria waved his hands to coax out the rest, “England, and Israel.”

“The simsimiya,” Zakaria continued, pointing to the large lyre which came to Port Said in the 1930's, “sang to the resistance” against the British. “Now, we are reviving this repertoire of resistance…We were in Tahrir!” Indeed, El Tanbura's acoustic performances among the crowds in February were covered by CNN and Afropop Worldwide

The four singers and five musicians then blazed through nearly two hours of Suhbagiyya, the resistance songs native to Port Said and other traditional melodies. They had written a few new songs about the 2011 protests as well, which were received with spirited chants of "Ya Musr! Ya Musr! (Oh Egypt!).

At their concerts in Port Said, the dancing, singing, and beating on café tables can last five hours. In the midst of it, Zakaria hangs back and only takes a vocal solo occasionally. At moments of rapturous intensity, he breaks without warning into a zombie-like dance: his arms hang limp in front of his chest and bounce up and down as his feet take turns kicking forwards and backwards, his head wiggling as if possessed.

The other singers each have their own performance style when they take the lead. Some are flirty, some pleading, and some simply overcome with joy. They pick embarrassed members of the crowd to join them in dancing up front. Each has developed a repertoire of hand gestures that mimic the lyrics. “There was no education!” one sings on the subject of pre-Nasser Egypt, tossing up his hands as if making a political speech.

For Zakaria, this kind of cultural work is political activism, and his bands are a continuation of his days as a student leftist under Sadat’s rule in the 1970’s. After Mubarak fell, The El Mastaba Center released a statement saying that they aim to "raise the status of the traditional musician whose music and creativity have been marginalized and compromised by state and tourism agendas." They called upon "all civil organization working in art and culture" to "work together for a new future for our country, one that we create ourselves and that is not imposed on us."

A few weeks ago, I walked through the Tahrir protests with Zakaria and Rachel Aspden, a journalist who wrote about Zakaria two years ago. Zakaria surveyed the scene and showed a boyish excitement about the demonstrations, a wide smile under his bushy mustache. Many were calling this the second revolution, and he had raced to the square to take part. A trace of tear gas hung in the air, and the smell of blood wafted over from a field hospital as we wandered around.

We ran into a small group of middle-aged activists, and I met a woman whose voice was slightly hoarse from shouting. She gave Zakaria a big hug, and then took me aside and told me that when she was a student activist, she looked up to Zakaria as the older generation of anti-Mubarak leftists. “I got the courage one day to go up to him and say ‘I really like you!’ and he didn’t dismiss me. He helped me out.”

I asked her if she had seen El Tanbura and she gave me a look of wistful pride. “I think what he is doing is really heroic,” she said. “To keep art going, even when it’s in the background, is really heroic.”

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