Born out of the spirit of resistance, the popular Tanboura troupe keeps alive those old tunes once heard all over Port Said, Suez and Ismailia during the War of Attrition and the 1973 war. Although some of the new songs were written especially for the 25 January revolution, most of their repertoire is those Suez Canal songs from the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
One immensely popular song begins, “In Port Said, the patriotic city, the young and old have vowed to resist.”
There is also a song commemorating the resistance movement in Suez, which goes, “O houses of Suez, O houses of my city, I die so that you live.”
Tanboura also performs Sufi songs known as madih (praising the prophet), country folk songs, and a variety of satirical songs in the tradition of the 1950s “monologue” style of singing.
Even as I made my way to the event marking the troupe’s 22nd anniversary, the tunes of semsemia began ringing in my head. These are the same tunes once sung during the 1956 war I thought to myself. People danced to these songs when cities were under attack during the War of Attrition in the late 1960s. And when the Suez Canal inhabitants were evacuated, to return only after the 1973 war, these were the songs that helped keep their spirits high during the ordeal.
Songs such as “The Semsemia” by Mohammed Hamam have been part and parcel of the culture of the Suez Canal area for years.
Fatema al-Morsik, Egypt’s only female performer of semsemia, began the night with tunes with an enchanting classic:
Sing, O semsemia, to all Egyptians
Sing to justice and humanity
To peace and national unity
To those who struggle for peace
To those who wouldn’t bow down
The audience was encouraged to join in, dancing and singing along as the band began performing the doleful song of the pigeon:
To whom do you sing, pigeon?
People don’t listen
They don’t see
To whom do you sing, pigeon?
When there is fear in the eyes of the children
Then an old performer went on stage and began singing a popular song, about the bride he wished to have:
I want a bride who’s too perfect
She cannot be too white
Too dark or too brown
And she cannot tell the difference
Between oil and ghee
The butcher shop and the grocery
Then came the poetry of Ahmad Fouad Negm, as popular now as it was during the student movement of the 1970s.
After Fatema al-Morsi and her all-family band left the stage, the Tanboura troupe walked on, laden with harp-like tanbouras of various shapes, cymbals, flutes and drums. This was their big night, and they were going to celebrate their anniversary in style.
The story of the Tanboura troupe began in the 1980s, when Zakaria Ibrahim began his quest to collect the remainder of sohbagia (the word means “friends” and refers to folk singers-dancers in the Suez Canal zone). The sohbagia had stopped singing for a few years as they had got older and the young were no longer interested in the art. These were the times of infitah or open-door policy, when materialism pushed away the traditional art of local communities.
With a lot of determination, and a bit of help from foreign donors and local writers such as Naguib al-Guweili, the art of semsemia came back to life and a new troupe of old and new singers-dancers was formed.
The band used the all-too-familiar semsemia in their show, but also integrated other instruments, such as the tanboura, hitherto often used in zar (ritual music used in spiritual healing and exorcism). The kawala (countryside flute) and cymbals became regular instruments in the show.
Exactly 22 years ago, Tanboura took the show on the road with weekly concerts every Wednesday at the Negma Cafe in Port Fouad. Before long, it began touring folk music festivals around the world, collecting many awards and making a name for Egyptian folk music.
The troupe still travels frequently to international concerts, and it is credited for reviving the art of mawwal (folk ballad) and madih, preserving the spirit of semsemia and venturing into the Sufi art of hadra (concerts of religious singing and dancing).
A couple of years ago, Ibrahim created El-Mastaba Center For Egyptian Folk Music, located in Abdeen in Cairo and now the Tanboura troupe perform weekly at the venue among numerous other folk troupes.