Leaving the busy streets of Cairo behind, turn into the now-pedestrianised al-Moezz Street in Al-Azhar. Start walking north, past the incense and jewellery shops, till you reach the copper makers’ section of the street. There, the locals can direct you to the House of al-Soheimi in al-Darb al-Asfar, the venue for many events.
The Nile Band for Folk Instruments is now performing at Beit al-Soheimi on a weekly basis. The band owes its creation to Zakaria al-Heggawi, who toured the countryside extensively looking at the local talent and sampling the rich heritage of folk art. His efforts culminated in the formation of the band in 1955 and Abdel Rahman al-Shafei, who has been in charge of the band since 1975, has drafted in lots of new talent in music, singing, dancing, and folk games.
On the night I went to see the show, the concert began with singing from the chorus called the sayyita (popular), a term that used to refer to any popular singer, but is now reserved for folk singers. The first song started with praise for the prophet.
Then the young singer Mohammad Gamal performed a long song or mawwal, in praise of the prophet, “O Master, O messenger of God, O beloved by God, O best of the creatures of God,” began the lyrics, before other themes of love and life were addressed.
Haja Wafaa al-Morsi followed with another mawwal, “Before I praised the prophet, my heart was empty. When I praised the prophet, I was relieved of my past turmoil. Pray with me, so that he may be pleased.”
The audience was urban, but the singing was mostly that of the mouled, (festivities celebrating annual saint days). Some of the singers came from Kafr al-Sheikh while others were from al-Qalyubia and al-Garbiya, bringing with them a variety of styles and traditions of singing.
Sheikh Ramadan Shalabi delivered a mawwal in a style that incorporated some of the Sufi, or mulawiya style, while Sheikh Firki al-Sharnoubi sang religious lyrics to the tune of the famous Om Kalthoum song: “Al-Qalb Yaashaq Koll Gamil” (The Heart Loves Everything Beautiful), with lyrics by the legendary Beyram El Tounsi. Om Kalthoum started her career as a religious singer before changing to a more mainstream style.
Haja Rashida al-Sayyed then performed religious songs in the style of the diva of folk songs, the late Khadra Mohammad Khedr.
Hasan Saleh, who is part of the band’s production team, noted that religious singing which has held sway in the countryside for decades, still appeals to large sections of the population, especially in working-class areas.
The Nile Band for Folk Instruments performs in Beit al-Soheimi every Sunday at 7 pm.