Port Said’s Political House Band

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Zakaria Ibrahim and El Tanbura are turning folk songs into activism and picking up Port Said after tragedy

By Maurice Chammah
May 20, 2012

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.”

Two weeks later, I’m in a downtown Cairo theater to watch El Tanbura perform. Americans, Egyptians, and Europeans have filled the low backless seats. Backstage, El Tanbura – 10 men in old sweaters and tennis shoes – sit sipping beer and smoking cigarettes. Ibrahim silences the audience simply by entering the theater. He is short and hides his small, agile frame under a loose collared shirt. “In 1956,” he proclaims, “we had to defend our city, Port Said, from three armies. What were they?” The audience is silent. A young student in the front recounts the national mythology of tripartite aggression following President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956: “France…” he begins. Ibrahim waves his hands to coax out the rest like a teacher. “…England, and Israel.”

Ibrahim continues the lesson. “The simsimiyya,” he says, pointing to the large harp-like instrument resting on his friend’s lap, “sang to the resistance. Now, we are reviving this repertoire of resistance. Now, we perform in Tahrir!” During the 18 days of the revolution last year, El Tanbura had carried their instruments into the square. While young singer-songwriters like Ramy Essam had been penning politically charged lyrics to memorialize the moment, El Tanbura arrived with a ready-made repertoire of older folk songs, with lyrics that originally targeted the leaders of Britain, France, and Israel, and were now reoriented to Mubarak’s regime.

“In patriotic Port Said/Youth of the popular resistance defended with virtue and virility/And fought the army of occupation/Congratulations, Oh Gamal!” they sang, along with hundreds of protestors. The last line is a reference to Nasser, but in Tahrir it sounded like they were congratulating the revolutionaries of 2011.

In the theater, two men begin to play the traditional lutes of Port Said – the simsimiyya and the tanbura – as the others clap and beat drums. One man, impeccably dressed in his sharp suit and fez, taps a triangle. Another stands at the front to sing “Moorhouse,” which recounts the story of a young British officer kidnapped by Port Saidis during the fight over the canal. “Why did you come Moorhouse/All the way from London to make aggression?” he bellows, his voice raspy and his arms waving, “I am an Egyptian, free and an Arab/Who told you to enter my country?”

Each member of the band has a song that is his to lead, and each has developed a persona. Some are flirty, others pleading. Some persuade bashful Europeans to shake their hips. “There was no education!” one sings, on the subject of pre-Nasser Egypt, tossing up his hands as if making a speech. El Tanbura’s concerts are finely honed performances. They should be. They’ve been doing this for 23 years.

THREE MONTHS LATER, Egypt’s violent political transition would bring horror to Ibrahim’s native city. In February, more than 70 football fans were killed as violence erupted at a match in Port Said. Many Egyptians blamed Port Saidis for the fighting. Port Saidis blamed remnants of the Mubarak regime (who they claim had held a grudge against the city ever since an assassination attempt there on the then-president in 1999).

Following the football stadium tragedy in February, the people of Port Said became pariahs. Graffiti throughout the country read, “What is the capital of Israel? Port Said!” The city’s inhabitants used license plates from other parts of Egypt when traveling to Cairo so they wouldn’t be hassled or attacked. Micro-buses stopped running. Neighboring cities refused to trade with Port Said and fewer Egyptians came to buy the luxury goods for which the city is renowned.  The situation got so bad that the army sent a convoy of emergency food. Local politicians accused the army of using the incident to make themselves look like saviors, the Muslim Brotherhood (currently Egypt’s major political power) acted as if nothing was wrong, and local merchants were caught in the middle.

Port Saidis feel they have been made scapegoats in a ploy to divide the country. “There is a very angry feeling in Port Said about this violence,” Colonel Ahmed Amr, who runs the local military museum, tells Rolling Stone. He believes that outsiders must have instigated the violence, and the real perpetrators are still at large. “There’s no way our people could have done this.”

Port Said’s awkward relationship with the rest of the country is a relatively recent development. The city was once a cosmopolitan hub of international trade, full of Greeks, Jews, Italians, Scots, and French, the gateway between Europe and Asia. That all changed when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Israeli troops invaded, followed by the English and the French. The local population resorted to guerilla warfare, pouring boiling water on British troops and running guns to fishermen turned fighters. When the British pulled out, Port Said was celebrated around the Middle East as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. “It was a battle that resulted in opening a new road for us to walk on,” Nasser told a packed rally a few years later. “It was a battle that let the nation discover itself and its potential, find its confidence, and see its existence in a new light.”

Ibrahim was four years old at the time. He grew up in a popular neighborhood bordering the large area of residence for European canal workers. “From my earliest memories,” he says, “I was aware of the different cultures and I received my education equally from the school and the street.”

In 1969, when Ibrahim was in high school, many families left the city to escape the intermittent fighting between Israel and Egypt’s armies. His family ended up in Simbilawen, a small village in the Delta where, a year later, Ibrahim’s father died. Ibrahim’s grades began to suffer (he had been an exemplary student in Port Said) and he grew listless. Music offered some solace. Refugees often gathered in his family’s home to sing traditional songs. “The simsimiyya became the voice of the people,” he says, “bringing them together, breaking sense of isolation with common songs and shared experiences.” Some of the exiles put together a small troupe to perform simsimiyya music and Ibrahim joined.

The refugees eventually returned to Port Said as Nasser’s successor, Anwar El Sadat, took Egypt towards free market liberalization, and the city began to boom with international trade. Ibrahim went to university in Cairo and became heavily involved in student activism, founding a journalists’ group which called for Egypt to take the Sinai back from Israel.

After spending a year in the army, Ibrahim returned to Port Said for the first time in eight years, just as Mubarak came to power. He sought out simsimiyya music and was shocked to find the tradition in shambles. Most of the old musicians had simply given up their craft. Those who hadn’t were mainly employed by tourism companies. The ageing, illiterate musicians were paid meager sums to play on cruise ships, and seldom, if ever, performed for fellow Egyptians. “I found that the spirit was gone,” Ibrahim says. “The troupes had become very commercial; musicians had lost the spirit of the art.

“I decided to search out the older musicians who had stopped playing because there was no longer a market for them,” he continues. “I had a difficult time because I couldn’t find any support for my idea. Everybody thought [the music] was irrelevant.” He wrote an article calling for musicians to return to performing and nobody responded. It took eight years, but Ibrahim eventually found an old simsimiyya player who agreed to regularly meet with him and sing at a café. Gradually, word spread and younger Port Saidis showed up out of curiosity. The jam sessions became a daily event, as other musicians began to attend. Ibrahim bought tea and coffee for the musicians as an incentive. “He still buys us drinks at the shows,” says one band member.

Ibrahim was working as a government employee and living with his family. When the local government issued houses to their employees, Ibrahim accepted the house, sold it, moved back in with his parents, and used the money to open a small shoe-repair shop. A few years later, he used the income from the shop to found El Tanbura. He picked musicians from those who showed up regularly to the jam sessions and who seemed the most committed to – and excited by – the idea. They decided to shun traditional dress (the mark of the tourist troupes) and chose instead to perform in the button-up shirts and sweaters they wore for their day-jobs as fishermen, plumbers, and dockworkers. After years of feeling like their music had no value, they began to perform it with pride, attracting others to join the singing sessions at cafés around the city. “Now I don’t even have to be there,” Ibrahim says. I ask him how he feels about this. He says, “It warms my heart.”

In 1994, Ibrahim got a grant from the Ford Foundation. With the funds, he organized performances in Cairo and collected an archive of traditional music. Theater owners who had once treated the band members as illiterate peasants suddenly began to take an interest. “One of the things I am most proud of is that this conscious strategy of networking and promotion has significantly enhanced the status of its illiterate and economically marginal members,” Ibrahim says. “When one of the instrumentalists introduced himself to the family of his prospective bride, he told them that he worked as a ‘musician, rather than hiding behind ‘plumber.’” According to Ibrahim – who tells the anecdote often and with obvious delight – this man would never have admitted to being a musician a few years earlier.

Working with an assistant, Ibrahim collected around 1,100 hours of audio and video footage and founded the El Mastaba Center for Traditional Music to house the archive and to promote a growing roster of bands from different parts of Egypt, each playing a different traditional genre, whether Nubian, Sufi, Bedouin, or Sudanese. He traveled all around the country “mentoring and managing” new groups, producing albums and organizing shows, all the while continuing to perform with El Tanbura. Now, the center has an agent arranging tours throughout Europe, New Zealand and Australia. And Cairo’s El Tanbura Hall, founded in 2010, holds weekly concerts featuring bands from around the country.

ALTHOUGH EL TANBURA have toured internationally (including England and France, the very countries they condemn in their lyrics) they still play every Wednesday in Port Fouad, a ferry ride across the canal from Port Said. The hometown crowd assembles in a large café looking out over the Mediterranean. There are roughly 15 Port Saidi men in the band and – at the performance I attended in April – another 10 who sit in the front row, know every song, and often jump onstage, bringing the total number to 25. This might be folk music, but there’s an energy reminiscent of a punk gig in a dingy record store. One short, middle-aged man in a denim jacket gets so excited that he nearly knocks over a table trying to join in as the song double-times into a frenetic haze, singers jostling around a single microphone.

Ibrahim patrols the room, projecting the quiet confidence of a mafia boss. 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. This is the traditional dance of the bamboutia, the men who sell trinkets to cruise-ship tourists. Another dance pantomimes casting out a net and pulling it back in.

“Hey foreigners!” shouts one singer, as he pulls pretty French girls from the crowd to join him onstage. The song’s lyrics tell foreigners to leave Egypt, but here it is repurposed as an invitation to dance.

“[Playing in] Cairo is great,” musician Aly Abd El Rahman tells me after the show. “But we feel like guests there, with the tickets and everything. Here it’s free and we’re with our friends and our people.” He pauses. “The people in Cairo are our people too. We’re all Egyptians. But it’s different here.”

Aly works as a truck driver, hauling clothes, food, and merchandise between Libya and Saudi Arabia, sometimes for a week at a time, sleeping on the floor of gas stations and camping on the side of the road if the weather is cool. He takes the simsimiyya with him. He has performed Port Saidi songs for Libyans, Saudis, Jordanians, and – alone in the desert – just for himself. But when he’s back in Port Said, he’s the center of attention, strumming his lute and nodding cues to the singers.

“My six year-old son plays the simsimiyya,” he tells me proudly after the show. “After all, we have to keep this going, every Wednesday, for many years to come.”

On Aly’s invitation, I go to see Young El Tanbura, whose members range in age from seven to twelve. There’s a distinct elementary-school-recital vibe. The kids look both nervous and proud, with gel in their hair and collars popping out of striped sweaters. In one song, they start chanting, “Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!” One boy mistakenly chants an extra “Egypt!” He exchanges a guilty grin with the seven-year-old girl next to him.

Across the room, Mohssin El Ashry, the simsimiyya master who teaches them, smiles proudly. Ibrahim, too, is beaming. “For me,” he says, “keeping this tradition going is a form of activism.”

A FEW WEEKS LATER, I head to the café where members of El Tanbura perform, unofficially, nearly every night. About a 20-minute drive from the center of Port Said, we turn onto an unpaved road and get out of the cab. It’s nearly pitch black. Aly appears and leads us, hopping over the puddles, into the heart of an industrial park – rows and rows of auto repair shops, all of which are shuttered except one. We draw back the curtain and enter.

Wood shavings cover the floor. Roughly 20 men, mostly without teeth, line the walls in tattered sweaters, bathed in smoke. In the corner, Aly takes his seat next to Mimi, a short simsimiyya player whose neck veins bulge like Bruce Springsteen’s when he sings. They tune up. Yehia, mid-60’s, wearing a wool cap, holds a tabla drum between his thighs. Mimi and Aly don’t start a song so much as enter it slowly, tentatively, waiting for the men to remember the words and lead the tune. Their eyelids are heavy and their voices are drowsy from the smoke. “In patriotic Port Said” they sing.

It’s one of the songs that their children sang weeks before. The children inched through the melodies because they had just learned them. These men sing slowly so they can savor each word. Just as Ibrahim had hoped, they have forgotten about economic liberalization and tourist markets.

Nobody discusses the massacre in the soccer stadium two months before, or Mubarak’s lingering influence and Port Said’s slow recovery from tragedy. We are back, momentarily, in the 1950s, when Port Said had become a rallying point for all of Egypt, or back in Tahrir just last year, where the songs were repurposed for an ongoing revolution. “They fought the army of occupation/Congratulations, Oh Gamal!”


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