Last week, I attended a concert by Rango, a local group of Sudanese, Nubian, and Egyptian musicians. “This music,” announced a young man as we settled into backless, low stools in the small black theater, “brings together the zar of Egypt and the zar of Sudan.”
Zar, which is now considered a style of music, was originally a kind of ritualized healing ceremony. It originated in Sudan, which used to be part of Egypt, and drifted north with Sudanese, Ethiopian, and other slaves brought up to work the cotton fields in the 1800’s. Many of the Sudanese were also drafted into the Egyptian army.
Some of the men who took the stage might actually remember when Sudan was still a part of Egypt (it broke off in 1956). They ranged from casual clappers who just remembered the songs and sang along to virtuosic, nimble drummers. One young man wore a white robe, and from underneath I could see the large numbers of a football jersey showing through the fabric.
The music eased in, rather than ‘began,’ as niceties of “Thank you, thank you,” and “prayers of the Prophet,” seamlessly became lyrics in the opening, improvisatory melodies. The single woman singer took the stage with gravitas, giving a sense of the music’s ceremonial roots as she draped her head in a small white sheet, stretched out her splayed hands, and shook wildly. The audience shouted a positive heckle, and she emoted with the words of a spurned lover.
Band and audience traded lines in call and response. After a few songs, the members of the band grinned and started shouting , “Rango! Rango? Rango!” hyping up the audience to respond. “Rango! Rango!”
The ‘rango’ that everyone was shouting about is a Sudanese marimba, with wooden keys and gourds underneath that resonate in a sharp, clunky thump, like I would imagine bones to sound if played by a demon. Sudanese slaves brought the instrument to Egypt in the 1820s, and it is now extremely hard to find. There are only three known today. According to one Guardian article, Zakaria Ibrahim “believes it marks the first step in music between pure percussion and the development of melody.” In 1996, Hasan Bargamoon, one of the last living rango musicians, remembered how to play but lacked an instrument and Ibrahim helped him collect several.
A drum roll and more shouts of “Rango! Rango!” preceded a swift unveiling, giving the instrument a ritualistic sense of authority and taboo in the small, black box theater. Then, one of the singers announced, “This song is about the Sudanese and Egyptian army.” They entered into a lazy, entrancing beat. A young man in a peach robe rose and saluted us. He turned to the side and sprung into lockstep, tightening his knees and waddling to the drums like a soldier.
An older man, perhaps in his 50’s, rose to imitate him. The young man inspected the older man as he donned a mock-serious expression and kicked his heels. Then, the young man gave the older man a swift whap on the back and the older man leaped around, fists in the air, ready for a fight. They locked eyes for a brief moment, their faces deadpan. Then, suddenly, they broke into big toothy smiles and waved their arms and legs, jumping up and down and bringing the audience onto the stage to join them in dance.