El Tanbura’s unique sound is created by a combination of two ancient lyres: The Simsimiyya and the Tanbura.
The Simsimiyya is a small 5-stringed lyre, and can be found depicted in numerous Egyptian Tomb paintings illustrating musicians from antiquity entertaining the Pharaohs and other dignitaries.
Although vintage Simsimiyya have been preserved in the Egyptian museum in Cairo, the instrument is still very much alive in contemporary Egyptian society, despite a period of marginalisation in the 1980s. Aside from El Tanbura, many folk music ensembles use the Simismiyya, including Bedouin Jerry Can Band from the Sinai desert and Sudanese trance-masters Rango.
While the instrument has been modernised through the adoption of the electric pick-up and multi-string variations (making it possible for modern folk musicians to perform a variety of scales and modes without the need for retuning) the basic 5-string folk instrument is still normally fashioned from the legs of a discarded chair from a local coffee house with an enamel bowl covered with goat skin acting as a resonator, and wire strings made from telephone cables.
El Tanbura’s music blends the wire strumming of the Simsimiyya with the softer strings of the Tanbura, a large 6-string lyre traditionally used in the occult Zar healing ceremonies which are thought to have travelled to Egypt during the 19th century following the Egyptian conquest of Sudan.
The Tanbura has enjoyed a similar modernisation to the Simsimiyya with the addition of tuning pegs; an expanded melodic range and nylon replacing dried animal gut strings allowing for more refined tuning and intricate performances.
Several members of El Tanbura play this lyre including Aly Rahman and Mohmoud Ghandar however the majority of the performances featured on “Between the Desert and the Sea” are by Mohamed Shohib (Mimi).
The origins of both fascinating instruments are traced in Zakaria Ibrahim’s short documentary film called “The Siren”, which often shows at Egyptological events coinciding with El Tanbura tour dates.