Chanting troupe bring message of national, religious unity

Sara Elkamel, Monday 29 Jul 2013

The Samaa ensemble for Sufi and Coptic chanting performed Sunday night at Al-Ghouri, offering a message of peace amid nationwide tension

Samaa ensemble performs at Wekalat Al-Ghouri, Sunday 18 July. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)

On Sunday, the courtyard of a 500-year-old building in Old Cairo hosted a concert of harmonious spiritual and religious chanting, with an infusion of Sufi, Coptic, and Indonesian songs.

Seeking to mirror the diversity of Egypt’s cultural heritage, the Samaa ensemble took to the stage to perform chants and songs that praise God, the prophets, and Egypt.

More familiar with “chants” than they would probably like to be due to more than two years of protests, the audience happily (and loudly) chanted along with the Samaa troupe.

Outside Wekalat Al-Ghouri, a marketplace that dates back to the early 16th century, a diverse audience lined up before the concert, with looks of apprehension on their faces. The building looked dim and lifeless, almost deserted; the electricity had been cut off. Experiencing a taste of Egypt's recurring power problems over the past year, the crowd rejoiced once the lights switched back on, and rushed into the open courtyard of Al-Ghouri, abandoning, for the next hour, the rest of the troubles this past year has brought.

Project director Intesar Abdel-Fattah stated jubilantly at the start of the concert that the night's performance was dedicated to celebrating the end of this past year- under Mohamed Morsi.

The stage was as visually and as musically eclectic as the Samaa's performances usually are. There were the Sufi chanters in their ivory white coats, the Coptic chanters dressed in elaborate white and maroon gowns, female a cappella singers in black shirts and bright red scarves, and an Indonesian troupe dressed in khaki tunics and black hats.

"In my view, Egypt is very rich, and we cannot present it in a one-dimensional fashion; we must create this blend of voices to accentuate its great richness," Intesar Abdel-Fattah told Ahram Online.

This Indonesian sprinkle of multiculturalism is a reminder of the previous five editions of the Samaa International Festival for Sufi Music and Chanting, typically held in the holy month of Ramadan.

In past years, chanting troupes from across the globe would occupy the stage in multicoloured costumes and unusual instruments, infusing the old Cairo air with global folkloric sounds.

However, this year, due to the turbulent state of the country, the organisers decided to postpone the sixth Samaa festival to September 2013, with a line-up of troupes from 20 countries.

The night's spiritual chants praised God and the prophets, but the repertoire also featured nationalistic songs dedicated to Egypt. As usual, the audience was as much a part of the performance as the ensemble on stage. A diverse audience enthusiastically applauded and sang along to religious and patriotic chants, which were inspired by an assorted range of influences, from the traditional Islamic call to prayer to songs by iconic singer Oum Kolthoum.

Among the songs performed on Sunday night was Qumy Ya Masr (Rise Up, Egypt), which was performed in the 70s by musical icon Abdel Halim Hafez with lyrics by Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahim Mansour, Laky Ya Masr El Salama (Be Safe, Egypt) which was the country's national anthem from 1923 to 1936, and songs by Oum Kolthoum such as Masr Elaty Fe-Khatery (Egypt Which Is In My Heart).

Abdel-Fattah established the Samaa international troupe for religious and spiritual chanting six years ago. He launched a school called the "Ghouri Munshed" or (Ghouri chanter) in 2007, and travelled across the country to audition and recruit chanters for the ensemble.

The practice of inshad (religious chanting) is embedded in Islamic culture. In Egyptian culture, Sufi chants were first taught in Islamic schools dubbed kuttabs, where sheikhs would choose a group of chanters to recite verses from the Quran and selected sayings by Prophet Mohammed. Sufi music then spread to moulids (religious festivals) and gained popularity among various Sufi sects.

The troupe is now made up of the Samaa troupe for Sufi chanting, a Coptic hymns ensemble, the Indonesia chanting group, and a Coptic a cappella hymns choir. It includes musicians from a number of Egypt's governorates, such as Aswan and Upper Egypt, where Sufi music is popular.

The performance on Sunday night also expressed the frustration of many Egyptians with the onset of religious extremism that has surfaced, particularly in the past two years. "Religion is for God, and in Egypt, we are all a family," the performers repeated, to a resounding ululation from the crowd - a sound associated with weddings or celebrations.

"The purpose of Samaa is to place emphasis on the essence of religion, while sending a message of peace to the world,” he continued.  

Abdel-Fattah also argues that the diversity of Egypt’s culture should be embraced, rather than rejected. “If you try to stratify the complexity of the Egyptian character's fabric, then there will no society, no culture, no revolution."

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