Archaeologists have shed light on all aspects of the ancient Egyptian life, namely: agriculture, economics, politics, religion, medicine, daily life, arts and culture, but have left music behind. Ahram Online, curiously, investigates the origin of Egyptian folk music through expert Dr Khairy El-Malt, and - no surprise - it all derives from ancient Egyptian days.
“We are temporarily calling it ‘Pharaonic music’ among the working team of experts and researchers in the national Project for the Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music to differentiate it from ‘Ancient Egyptian Music,’ which refers to Arabic music that used to be called the ‘Ancient Music,’” clarified Dr El-Malt, professor of musicology and violin in Helwan University and the founder of the National Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music Project.
Images depicted on the walls of temples and tombs speak of the Egyptian daily activities: drawings of musicians and singers accompanying kings in temples, in the field or while fishing demonstrates how essential music was in ancient Egypt.
It wasn’t just in daily life that it was important, however: “It was sacred when greeting the gods and at funerals, as well,” El-Malt states.
Music played a spiritual role to elevate emotions inside the temples, accompanying the rituals and prayers, according to El-Malt. This showed it was considered holy and highly regarded, having garnered the attention of the kings, priests and holy men.
He also argues that the role of music and singing “was not limited just to religious life, but it had an important cultural and social role in life, which enriched the cultural heritage of folk art in tradition, custom and behaviour of ancient Egyptian society.”
According to what we know about ancient Egyptian religion, the god Thoth was accredited for inventing music.
Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture by Scott L. Marcus, claims that “[the] god Osiris, in turn, used [music] as part of his efforts to civilise the world.”
The earliest representational evidence of Egyptian musical instruments date back to the pre-dynastic period. Harps, flutes and double clarinets were played. Percussive instruments, kinnor lyres, and lutes were later introduced during the Middle Kingdom.
Throughout his fourteen-year study of ancient Egyptian music, El-Malt has found the chronological order of instrument invention as follows: the spike lute, kinnor lute, circular tambourines, separate harp, and harp (boat harp) date back to the 18th Dynasty, the pear lute to the 25th Dynasty, the rectangle tambourine belongs to the 30th Dynasty, whereas the frits lute date back to the first century.
“Types of musical instruments were associated with each social class of ancient Egypt,” he says.
According to Ann Arbor from the Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan, “Professional musicians existed on a number of social levels in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the highest status belonged to temple musicians or the shemayet (office of musician; often aristocrats’ daughters). Musicians connected with the royal household were held in high esteem, as were certain gifted singers and harp players.”
In her paper, Arbor also argues that among lower social levels were musicians who acted as entertainers for parties and festivals, frequently accompanied by dancers.
“Labour scenes suggest informal singing; captions to many of these pictures have been interpreted as lyrics to songs. Otherwise, there is little evidence for the amateur musician in pharaonic Egypt, and it is unlikely that musical achievement was seen as a desirable goal for individuals who were not professionals.”
Although music integrated into the daily life of the average ancient Egyptian, its compositions and notes remain a mystery. “Music of ancient Egypt was not documented, which made me seek to investigate its nature to revive it,” states El-Malt.
In 2006, El-Malt founded the National Project for the Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music, aiming at reviving, protecting and spreading the heritage of ancient Egyptian music, dance, song and performance. To preserve as much of the characteristics and features as possible from its 5000-year history, they relied on various disciplines, including music, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, Egyptology, archaeology, pharaonic dance, hieroglyphs and the Coptic language.
This came after fourteen years of Khairy El-Malt’s research, along with a group of researchers and scientists of different fields “who devoted their efforts to disclose the characteristics of ancient Egyptian music, reviving it, in order to spread it all over the world,” he says.
“We had to study all ancient instruments found today in various museums all over the globe. We visited museums in Vienna, Germany, France and Spain to study what the instruments were made of,” El-Malt states. But they didn’t stop at information-gathering.
“We reproduced the ancient instruments from metal, leaves, straws, animal intestines, wood and leather,” he explains.
Then, of course, the exciting part: to play these instruments. El-Malt claims it came easy to reproduce the music that came from some 5000 years ago. “As a musicologist, I was able to tell the scales, maqamat (modes), and tones that each instrument produced, according to its material,” he illustrates.
“Not only did we learn about the instruments and melodies; but we also had to imitate their living conditions and grasp their daily activities,” says El-Malt as he discusses his experience travelling to Luxor and Qena of Upper Egypt during his research.
“Musicians can tell that the significant feature of the ancient Egyptian music was that they stuck to the fifth and seventh scales,” he says.
A line is drawn connecting Coptic and ancient Egyptian music: “There isn’t much difference between ancient Egyptian music and that of the Copts; both follow the same scales; but one can say that the Coptic music was the transition from ancient Egyptian style to that of our modern world today,” El-Malt comments.
Coptic music features taraneem (chants), which limit the tones of the musical instruments played. “Studying Coptic music also helped us determine the style of music produced by the pharaohs,” El-Malt concludes.
Using both studies of Coptic music and that of the ancient instruments, Al-Malt was able to compose music that he claims would be similar to that heard in ancient Egypt.
Featured on the National Project for the Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music official website, El-Malt provides some of the melodies resembling the ancient Egyptian life, which he composed and calls Pharaonic Melodies. Pharaonic Melody 2 is a divine tune. The low keys and harp instantly conjure the image of the Giza pyramids under the moon and the "Sound and Light" show. One can feel the pharaoh talking to the gods, waiting for them to grant his wishes. Bit by bit the beat grows higher and louder, yet very soothing and harmonious.
Highlighting the influence of ancient Egyptian music on Arabic music that arose during the Umayyad Dynasty of the Islamic Empire, El-Malt says, “The Arabic songs that we all grew up with and the melodies that were passed on from one generation to another carry certain habits and style of the ancient Egyptians, as well,” he declares. An Arabic song from that period for example, carries a repetitive chorus and verse, which is considered a feature of the ancient Egyptian song.
The ancient Egyptian music is composed from the Phrygian dominant scale, Phrygian scale and Arabic double harmonic scale, known as awzan. The rhythm of Arabic music is governed by the awzan (combinations of accented and unaccented beats and rests).
Moreover, El-Malt reveals that the ancient Egyptian musician played mostly spontaneously rather than composing, claiming that to be “a feature often found in many of Egypt’s legendary musicians of the first half of the 20th Century, like Ryyad El Sombatty,” he offers as an example.
Another characteristic of the Arabic song that was inherited by our ancestors, as pointed out by the musicology professor, is the importance of melodic harmonies, the instrumental segment of most Arabic songs, especially those of Umm Kalthoum; “Remember her song Fakarouni (Remind Me)?… This song had a long instrumental segment in the middle; this composition is inherited from the ancient Egyptian generation to us,” he recalls. “Of course, such features and characteristics faded away bit by bit by the end of the 1960s.
Not certain if it was by pure coincidence, El-Malt believes that playing an instrument as a profession was also inherited in the Egyptian culture. “The string instrument players of the ancient world were often blind, as the temple and tomb walls tell us, and this is just as it is in our world today: blind musicians, today, play the oud and violin, for example,” he admits. “This characteristic I never found among Western civilisations, especially Europe,” El-Malt states.
Being the first major institution accredited worldwide to teach ancient Egyptian music, a group from the graduate classes founded an ancient Egyptian music band and have gained recognition within the past couple of years. Ahfad El Farana (Grandchildren of the Pharaohs) has worked with composers (El-Malt and Mohamed Nouh), recorded many songs and managed to bring ancient Egyptian music back to life.
Furthermore, El-Malt expressed he is honoured to be able to tell Ahram Online that, in cooperation with Helwan University, the National Project for the Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music will open as of next year a Master’s degree programme in ancient Egyptian music.
“We have received interest from Egyptians and foreigners to join our institution,” El-Malt announced.
The ancient Egyptian music by Professor Khairy El-Malt and the Ahfad El Farana band has managed to reveal some of the mysteries lying beneath the tombs and temples of one of the world’s earliest civilisations and its culture.
Ahfad El Farana have been featured on several occasions on national and international TV shows, including Dubai TV and ON TV, and have played often at El-Sawy Culturewheel. Stay tuned for their upcoming shows later this year.