As the African proverb says, when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. When an old woman dies, however, she takes the social history of the entire village to the grave. Thus emerged the idea behind Kenz Al-Settat (Treasure of Women), a project dedicated to documenting the folk songs of the women of Al-Gaafra tribe, one of Aswan's oldest.
On Saturday 17 May at the Falaki Theatre in downtown Cairo, Kenz Al-Settat will be celebrating the conclusion of the project's first phase with a documentary and a live performance by Al-Gaafra tribeswomen. Funded by the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF), the undertaking that launched some six months ago has managed to document 160 folk songs from 12 villages in Aswan, as project manager Maha Moneib explained to Ahram Online.
Folk songs document the daily rituals, as well as the wisdom, passed on from one generation to the next. Women always bore this torch, with grace and excellence, until the advent of modernity increasingly replaced their folk songs with the latest electronic musical trends. With the marginalisation of folk songs, the death of every old woman began to signify the permanent loss of most such gems. Sadly, one of the Al-Gaafra tribeswomen documented in the project passed away only last week.
"You see, in Aswan there is a song for every occasion," Moneib revealed, "We have documented all the wedding songs, starting from the moment of the groom's proposing and down to the three-day marriage ceremony. The rituals involve singing and marches throughout the whole village," she went on.
Among the documented villages was Ban Ban, where "we listened to an old woman reciting the sira (epic song) of the Hawara War." The lyrics record the battle between Al-Gaafra --original inhabitants of the village -- and the Hawara invaders. "The legend explains that the village is named after the victory cheers that resounded when the Al-Gaafra won the war: Al-Nasr Ban! Ban! (Victory is Here! Here!)," Moneib elucidated.
Documenting the folk songs proved no mean feat. Moneib and her team first transcribed then translated some of the lyrics because of the villages' various dialects. They also needed a guide."I was their guide in Aswan," said Gamal Haddad, a born and raised Gaafra tribesman. "It was not easy -- the villagers are quite reserved -- but the importance of such a project convinced them and I even documented the women of my family,” Haddad said.
Conveying the gems of Al-Gaafra tribeswomen was first undertaken by renowned folk singer Mohamed Beshir. Born and raised in Aswan, Beshir added to his repertoire the songs that had enchanted him as he grew up. Aiming to preserve the folk essence through a modern representation, "I use some old lyrics with new music arrangements," he explained.
One of Moneib's partners, Beshir was the first to highlight the significance of this oral tradition. As an artist, he witnessed first-hand how the audience instantly related to the lyrics and music whenever he performed folk songs, because of how deeply rooted they are in the collective psyche.
“Many people who use folk music, but we are here to revive and preserve its unique personality. By doing so, we can render Egyptian folk music an internationally accredited genre, just like rai," Beshir noted.
The Kenz Al-Settat project goes that extra mile. "Our digital audio and video archive will be open for the public and available online for all. We provide written lyrics so the users may really get to know them. We also encourage non-profit institutions to use our archive with an aim to spread the folk songs nationwide," Moneib assured.
As for the second phase of the project, it shall focus on older folk songs as well as affiliated folk stories.
"There are folk songs that have not been sung for the past 100 years," Beshir exclaimed, "and the real effort lies in reviving and reintroducing them to future generations,” he concluded.
The performance will be held on Saturday 17 May, at Al-Falaki Theatre in Downtown Cairo, 7:30pm