Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Zar music in Egypt: al-Mazaher and Rango

The zar cult is widely practiced in Egypt, the Sudan, and coastal East Africa. Anthropologists of the Middle East are familiar with it through the work of IM Lewis' classic Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (originally published in 1971) and Janice Boddy's Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan (1989). The practices associated with the cult involve possession by spirits who then must be propitiated in ceremonies that involve the playing of music. The zar cult bears a family resemblance to the Gnawa cult of Morocco.

Although the cult is quite common in Egypt among the lower classes, and especially in Southern Egypt and among descendants of immigrants from the Sudan, at the time I lived in Egypt its rituals were pretty much in the shadows, as far as I can tell. I knew a student at AUC, Hager El Hadidi, who was doing research on the amulets associated with the ritual. Here's an example of a zar amulet, depicting one of the zar spirits, Yawri Bey, as an army officer.

Photo: Sigrid van Roode, from Bedouin Silver, with permission

Hager never got me to a zar ritual, and I don't know anyone who went during the time I spent in Cairo. In this regard, the zar was very different than the Gnawa cult in Morocco, where it is not hard to get into a lila, an all-night Gnawa ceremony, if you have the right contacts. Moreover, the music associated with the Gnawa is very well known in Morocco. In the 1970s the Gnawa ritual, music, and practitioners were quite marginalized; today Gnawa is at the center of Moroccan popular culture. The annual Gnawa festival in Essaouira is the country's biggest festival.

It appears, however, that things are changing for the zar in Egypt, and it is becoming more publicly visibile, as a musical, and ritual, practice.

First, through the appearance of a group from Cairo, al-Mazaher, that performs zar music in public. It appears that the main space where it performs is Makan, a performance space established by the Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts (ECCA) in Sayyida Zaynab, a popular quarter close to downtown Cairo. In addition to zar music from al-Mazaher, Makan has featured Nubian music (from famed Nubian musician Sayed al-Gayer) and baladi music from Mawawil. Here's a video of al-Mazaher at Makan:

And here's another, of al-Mazer performing with Oficina Zoè, from Salento, Italy.

And here's a brief clip featuring dancing to the accompaniment of the tanbura (or simsimiyya), a six-stringed lyre, which, in the zar ritual, is supposed to bring down the spirits, much as the ginbri does in the Gnawa ritual. The dancer is wearing a a percussive instrument called the mangour, a leather belt sewn with numerous goat hooves.

Rango is a related genre of music, played at ceremonies that closely resemble the zar. The chief difference seems to be that rango is specific to descendants of Sudanese immigrants to Egypt and that the chief instrument is the rango, a xylophone made of wood. The wooden blocks of the xylophone are attached to gourds, the vehicles through which the spirits manifest themselves and enter the devotees of the cult, when the music is performed at rituals.

The last (apparently) surviving rango musician, Hassan Bergamon, was "rediscovered," after the screening of a documentary on rango on Nile TV in the '90s. He has formed an ensemble, called Rango, and the group has been performing in Egypt and abroad, and the group recently released an album, called Bride of the Zar.

Here's a photo of Bergamon and his rango.

You can read more about the group, and listen to samples of the songs, at the group's website, here. The samples are quite interesting, and two of them resemble Gnawa music: track one, "Sawakin," and track four, "Ahlan be etlat asyad" (welcome to the three lords). The playing on the tanbura sounds like the ginbri, and the singing resembles that of the Gnawa. And track four, a song that, I guess, welcomes the coming of three of the spirits or djinns, would appear to be like the Gnawa songs that welcome the mluk, and in particular, the song "Merhaba."

And check out the videos of the group on youtube, accessible through the group's website. I particularly like this one, "Major."

Go here for another article about Rango, from the magazine Prospect. The author is incorrect about the "lost Sudanese tribal language called Rotana." Rotana is the colloquial name that Egyptians gave to the two Nubian languages, Feddika and Kenuzi. These languages are by no means lost, but are spoken by thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Nubians.

I find it of note that zar music as well as zar ritual has become much more visible in Egypt at the same time that orthodox Islamic views, which look with great disfavor upon such rituals that involve spirit possession and in which both men and women participate, are on the upswing. Stay tuned.

Added July 8:

Check out this account of Rango's concerts in Bradford and Selby, courtesy of the invaluable blog, Tales from Bradistan.

It states that all the members are of Nubian background. Given rango's origins in Sudan, this of course makes sense, and also makes sense of the fact that Prospect (see above) refers to lyrics in Rotana, the name Egyptians in the past used to describe the two Nubian languages. It means "gibberish," and is derived from the verb ratana (رطن).

It means, "to speak an unintelligible language, to talk gibberish, jabber" (Hans Wehr). The name reflects the fact that, back in the day, Egyptians considered Nubians to be "primitives." The term is still in use, and I once heard Nubian musician Ali Hassan Kuban use the term to describe speaking Nubian.