Two years ago Rolling Stone Magazine launched a Middle East edition, based in Dubai. I wrote this piece for them on Zakaria Ibrahim and his band El Tanbura, who I've been following for months and written about several times, here and here.
Many thanks to Zakaria, of course, as well as ethnomusicologist Kristina Nelson, one of Cairo's most informed and passionate cultural mentors, and Rachel Aspden, a journalist who introduced me to Zakaria's music in November. She has a piece of her own about the band.
I MET ZAKARIA IBRAHIM on the outskirts of Cairo’s Tahrir Square last November, at a time when foreign correspondents were proudly donning gas masks and telling newly minted war stories at the downtown cafes. Tear gas clung to the air and mixed with shisha smoke and sentences were punctuated with rubber bullets. Protesters and security forces traded stones, shouts, and high white arcs of gas that sent hundreds scurrying into side streets. Ibrahim bobbed out from a scattering of revolutionaries, his bushy Ottoman mustache framing a boyish smile.
Our mutual friend had described a bandleader and ethnomusicologist responsible for reviving a tradition of folk songs in the city of Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean Sea. But tonight, Ibrahim had momentarily resumed his former life as a student activist. “I’ve been shouting all day,” he told me, lighting a cigarette. “It’s very exciting to be back in the square again.”
A group of older activists approached and greeted him. One woman explained how, in the 1970’s, she had been intimidated by the seasoned student leftists and Ibrahim had been the one among them who reached out to give her advice. Forty years later, her schoolgirl crush was still clear. I asked her about Ibrahim’s band, El Tanbura. “I think what he is doing is heroic,” she said. “To keep art going—even when it’s in the background—is heroic.”