Divine voices in the heart of Islamic Cairo

Sara El-Kamel, Saturday 25 Dec 2010

The Samaa’ troupe performs, Sunday, Sufi music and religious chants at the Ghouri Dome in the heart of Cairo

Samaa troupe chanting Sufi Songs at El-Ghouri Dome photo: Sara El-Kamel


An unassuming crowd was left mesmerised in the heart of Islamic Cairo, their souls replenished by Samaa’ troupe’s Sufi music and divine chants at the charming Ghouri Dome.

Overflowing with emotion, the Samaa’ ensemble, dressed in pearl-white abayas (gowns), assembled neatly to emanate a forceful aura of spiritual ecstasy, combining vocals and instruments in an utterly compelling performance.

Samaa’ demonstrated the practice of reaching a euphoric spirituality through chanting and whirling to music. Stemming from Islam’s mystical dimension, Sufi music blends music with spirituality, inducing a subliminal trance.

Leaving the grand Ghouri Dome courtyard, where fabric draping from charming windows spelled out "Samaa," amid oriental patterns and lamp posts that illuminate the Palace's grandeur, the audience frantically flocked up the stairs.

Spilling into chairs assembled in a horseshoe around the troupe, the diverse crowd stared in awe at the striking room. The walls are lofty, the arch elegant, and the ceiling flush with golden calligraphy--the scene flaunts an epic history.

Centuries earlier, the Mamaluks belted out heart-felt Sufi chants in this room. And on this 21st century night, Samaa’ troupe would revive echoes of a revitalised musical heritage.

“Embedded in Islamic culture and stretching back to Belal muezzin al Rasoul (Islam's first caller to prayer), the practice of inshad (religious chants) has long prevailed,” explains Ibrahim Abdel Hafiz, director of the folk arts college, who chronicles the gripping history of Sufi music in Egypt.

In Egypt, Sufi chants were first taught in Islamic schools or kuttabs. Sheikhs chose a group of designated chanters to recite verses from the Quran as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings. Later, Sufi music switched venues, filling moulids (religious festivals) with an extra cause for celebration--blissful song. The divine genre continued to gain popularity through various Sufi sects.

“Today, religious chants in Egypt exist in two forms, the official, formal style, and the more folkloric type,” says Abdel Hafiz.

Prominent folkloric munshidin (performers of religious chants) include Sheikh Yassin El Tohamy and Sheikh Ahmed El Touny.

“The folkloric chanters grow up around the moulids, where Sufi music lingers at all times,” says Abdel Hafiz. “They draw their chants from memory, which become imprinted with music.” Meanwhile, official chanters learn formalised songs from scripted books.

Sufi music is extremely prevalent in Upper Egypt, taught in varying forms in many dedicated music schools. Some teach old poetry by cultural icons, such as Ibn El-Araby and Ibn El-Fared, while others specialise in chants and azgal (poetry).

Samaa’ follows the official school of Sufi music, rejuvenating Cairo’s cultural heritage with a fresh, innovative twist,” says Intesar Abdel Fattah, director of the Ghouri Dome and founder of the Samaa’ troupe.

Standing on the wooden staircase overlooking the Palace courtyard, surrounded by high walls, Abdel Fattah tells Ahram Online of his endeavour to revitalise Cairo's folklore scene.

“We created Samaa’ to revive the city’s musical heritage,” says Abdel Fattah.

Intessar Abdel Fattah plays an incredible role during performances, supplying the Samaa’ troupe with a constant stream of dramatic hand gestures, expressions, and sometimes verbal feedback.

Hoping to thread together divine voices, innovative compositions, and an authentic folkloric sound, Abdel Fattah created a workshop called the ‘Ghouri munshed’ (performer of religious chants ) in 2007.

As a result of the pilot’s success and promise, Abdel Fattah decided to keep the music flowing. Moving from one governorate to the other, the buoyant composer decided to sift through the finest Egyptian voices and munshidin for his Samaa’ troupe.

“I travelled all around Egypt and listened carefully to hundreds of voices, until my group was ready,” he explains.

After countless auditions, renditions, and compositions, the Samaa’ troupe began dazzling its audience time and time again.Inspired by the success, Abdel Fattah continued to cultivate the ensemble.

Samaa’ has ventured out into many spin-offs, including the annual Samaa’ International Festival, which blends cultures by delivering musical infusions by singers and musicians from all over the globe.

‘Peace Message with Samaa’’ is yet another thriving Samaa ‘ undertaking, striving to diffuse a worldwide message of peace emanating from the heart of Cairo.

“By exploring our own cultural heritage, we aim to communicate a sense of harmony,” says Abdel Fattah.

The Samaa’ ensemble crafts an evening of poignant entertainment. A combination of heartrending words, soulful vocals and melodic instruments are artfully choreographed.

The Samaa' troupe perform every second and fourth Sunday of each month at the Ghouri Dome at 8 pm.

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