El Tanbura is a collective of veteran Egyptian master musicians, singers, fishermen and philosophers. For nearly twenty-five years they’ve been custodians to some of Egypt’s oldest folk melodies at their home in Port Said, the Mediterranean gateway to the Suez Canal. Band members dress in an eclectic mix of Gallibiyas and Levis with Gucci sunglasses, Fez and Nike caps. Their music is driven by the seductive call of the Simsimiyya - an ancient lyre dating back to the times of the Pharaohs.
No one can recall the precise origins of the Simsimiyya. One Egyptian legend tells how the original instrument was fashioned from the shell of an unfortunate turtle that had swum too far along the Nile and ended up as dinner for a hungry musician. Other stories say the Simsimiyya has been found for centuries in the Arabian Gulf, and her music (the lyre is always referred to as feminine and her players as lovers) has the ability to calm the waters of the Red Sea.
We do know that the instrument only arrived in Port Said during the 1930s; much to the frustration of the local Suhbagiyya (musicians) who had previously enjoyed the undivided attention of local audiences with Dama songs – a fusion of Sufi inspired vocal chants and frenzied drumming.
Café owners in Port Said were early champions of the Simsimiyya, often employing a player to entertain clients in the old-time smoking dens. The instrument drew large audiences and a new folk music style was created, known simply as Simsimiyya – comprising a cappella folk songs drawn from workers on the Suez Canal, set to music from the scales and modes of the 5-stringed Simsimiyya.
It was only after the Suez Crisis of 1956 that Dama and Simsimiyya musicians embraced both repertoires. The War drew the former rivalling musicians together as the Simsimiyya provided a voice for the resistance movement through protest songs - a tradition that continued in the subsequent War of 1967 and exile of the people of Port Said during the Israeli occupation of Sinai. In exile, the Diaspora communities would gather and sing the old songs reminding them of home.
After the 1973 Arab–Israeli War however, Port Said’s Simsimiyya movement was to suffer a rapid decline through the 1970s. To encourage the economic redevelopment of the city, Port Said had been designated a free trade zone by the Egyptian government, and as such enjoyed substantially lower taxes than the rest of country. In this heightened atmosphere of commerce the Simsimiyya fell victim to band-in-a-box keyboard players and DJ sound systems, which market forces dictated were cheaper to book than twenty traditional musicians.
The old master Suhbagiyya and Simsimiyya players became disillusioned with the modern musical world and, feeling they belonged to an era that had now ended, many simply withdrew from performing. While some retired, other important veterans and guardians of the old Dama songs including Bassam, Abu Khalaf and Kamal Adma took a final journey along the Milky Way with Anubis.
It seemed as if the magic of the Siren had been exhausted and her legacy was soon to became as forgotten as Egypt’s ancient monuments prior to the arrival of Napoleon.
Fortunately, the Simsimiyya other plans. True legends are seldom easily forgotten and an instrument with a history that spans at least five thousand years could not be silenced easily.
In Egypt, some people believe that enchanting spirits only manifest at fortuitous times and often lay dormant, like seeds in the desert awaiting the annual inundation of the Nile.
It could be that such a seed was planted in the 1950s when as a young boy, El Tanbura’s founder, Zakaria Ibrahim, first heard the Suhbagiyya in Port Said. The music he heard as a child had haunted him all of his adult life and on returning to Port Said in 1980, and seeing the desperate musical conditions, he spent nine years seeking out the old masters and building friendships; trying to convince the musicians to perform once again, hoping to remind the people of Port Said of the original spiritual feeling at the core of the music - before it was lost forever.
In 1989, a small nucleus of veteran performers recruited by Zakaria came together to form the fledgling El Tanbura group, augmented by younger singers who had been similarly captivated by Zakaria’s plan.
In these formulative years it was the late El Rayis Imbabi who was responsible for passing key repertoire from Port Said’s past to the younger members, fulfilling a centuries old tradition of the transmission of melodies from one generation to the next, and thus ensuring their survival through the Chinese whispers of history.
At first, news of the group’s rehearsals drew scorn and ridicule from Port Said’s musical elite, however the infectious atmosphere of the initial performances soon convinced others with an interest in Sufi philosophy and the pre-War traditions of the city to join the floating collective of El Tanbura’s members.
Over time the band grew to include not only folk musicians and percussionists but dancers and singers drawn from local fishermen, market traders and builders, alongside the unlikely addition of master instrumentalists from some of the State-approved music troupes who secretly were desperate to perform with others who had a vibrancy of spirit and play long-forgotten songs from antiquity - praising something other than the government sanitised subjects.
When El Tanbura began to perform in Cairo, Zakaria was able to secure the support of the Ford Foundation, a philanthropic organisation working on cultural projects in Middle East, who assisted El Tanbura’s activities in reclaiming and reviving folk music and instruments from antiquity.
By 1996 the group’s reputation had spread to Paris and a series of performances resulted in El Tanbura’s first international CD, La Simsimiyya de Port Said, recorded live at Institute Du Monde Arabe. A second critically acclaimed disc “Between the Desert and the Sea” (named by Songlines Magazine as one of the all-time Top 50 world music albums) followed a decade later as the group began a long association producer Michael Whitewood and the UK record label 30 IPS. The band performed to both public and critical success at the Barbican’s Ramadan Nights festival in 2006 and across mainland Europe in 2007, also finding time to collaborate with the film-makers 1 Giant Leap on 2008’s “What About Me?”
2009 saw further international success with the album Friends of Bamboute celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary with tales of the 19th Century Bambutiyya merchants who helped shaped life in Port Said with their activities both on the Suez Canal and exploits after hours in the city’'s old time smoking dens. Collaborations with French/Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra followed in 2010, culminating in an epic performance at the Eurockeennes festival in France.
Early in 2011 the band participated in the Egyptian revolution, campaigning for social, political and cultural reform in Egypt and performing for the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Following the Revolution El Tanbura performed at WOMAD Abu Dhabi and returned to London a triumphant show curated for the Barbican featuring the band alongside fellow musical Revolutionaries Azza Balba, Mustafa Said and Ramy Essam. There was also recognition from their peers in the form of the Roskilde World Music Award for Zakaria’s El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian folk music at WOMEX 2011 in Copenhagen.
As Egypt transitions to civilian rule El Tanbura continue to support the goals of the Revolution and remain optimistic as a new chapter of Egyptian history begins.