Rekindling past fires with Egypt's Zaii Zaman instrumental ensemble

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 4 Oct 2018

Zaii Zaman just returned from their performance in Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan, where they participated in the first Maqom Art International Forum (6-10 September)

Zaii Zaman
Zaii Zaman perform at Manasterly Palace (Photo: courtesy of Zaii Zaman)

Just back from their performance in Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan, where they participated in the first Maqom Art International Forum (6-10 September), the instrumental ensemble Zaii Zaman was inspired and hopeful that their understanding of music could reach a wide audience in Egypt and beyond. Yet, before we delve into more details about the Uzbekistan trip, let us unveil the group’s yearning for the values that are lost in today’s commercially driven world and which they are eager to restore.

The name Zaii Zaman, which translates to “the way it was in the old days”, is self-explanatory. It evokes nostalgia and longing while the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, and Egypt’s artistic Golden Age (1940s-1960s) feels further away than ever. A yawning gap separates the present from the past, including in the cultural arena, since the intervening decades have brought about a lot of changes. And while we might feel some developments have been for the better, others are unequivocally for the worse.

In his mid-30s, Ahmed Hassan, the violinist who founded Zaii Zaman, is too young to have witnessed the days when thousands of Cairenes flocked to the Khedivial Opera House (the Old Opera House, which burned down in 1971) and other venues across Egypt to listen to music. It is the older generation and technology that can tell us about those distant days: how, once in the hall, people disconnected from their daily routines and closed their eyes the better to appreciate the values in the music.

And while names such as Um Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Laila Mourad, Farid Al-Atrash and even before them Asmahan, among others, could dazzle millions with their voices and interpretation — never mind the powerful lyrics — that audience was equally open to instrumental music.

“Not only did people admire the voices, they also had the ability to find beauty in the colours emerging from the orchestra, from the musicians and their instruments,” Hassan comments.

He refers to instrumental music as “pure music which spotlights the musician. It is not easy to transfer emotions without words but once this happens…” Hassan pauses, his eyes glowing as he searches for the right expression to complete his thought.

And though the end of the sentence never comes, it is clear how passionate he is about “pure music”, how much he believes in Zaii Zaman restoring those forgotten values.

The story of the ensemble goes back to 2009, when together with a group of musician friends Hassan wanted to introduce something new into the music field.

“In fact, I started by presenting songs, but songs that were not performed frequently or had been completely forgotten. We gave two concerts which brought to light handpicked songs from the repertoire of Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb and Mohamed Fawzi, among others, which had been buried in time. We even performed songs by Um Kolthoum, but again those that were not known to the large audience. The listeners are acquainted with maybe 20 Um Kolthoum songs as they are constantly performed, while her complete repertoire contains over 200 compositions. So we are only making use of 10 per cent of the treasure, over and over. During our first concerts, we had great success: the audience kept asking for a new programme, and the feedback only encouraged the singers wanting to explore new repertoires.”

But the cost of sustaining a 22-member ensemble was a great challenge. Despite the audience’s admiration and the musicians’ enthusiasm, Zaii Zaman could not continue in this format. Taking several months away from concerts, Hassan continued working on instrumental music, composing and recording his work. In 2011, he presented 12 complete pieces to well-known composers: Yehia Al-Mougi, Emad Al-Sharouni and Khaled Hammad.

“They all encouraged me to continue but it still took me a long time to revive Zaii Zaman’s vision, this time as an instrumental sextet.”

Hassan points out that, in the past, even concerts by celebrated names such as Um Kolthoum used to make room for instrumental music. “The compositions performed by Um Kolthoum have long introductory segments played by an orchestra. It is a whole musical process where the musicians and the music are not just accessories or a background for the singer. Nowadays, the instrumental segments, introductions or couplets, are either severely trimmed or removed from compositions. This is unfair to the audience, the musicians and even the singer, because it’s an important part of the whole musical painting.”

On 1 January 2014, the new Zaii Zaman was on course, starting with a concert at Al-Gomhouriya theatre followed by a few in other venues. The sextet’s line-up included Hassan on violin, Mahmoud Bedair on cello, Samer Barakat on qanoun (a plucked string instrument), Ahmed Ewais on contrabass, Hani Al-Badri on ney (the Arab flute) and Hany Bedair on riq (a kind of tambourine). Their success reassured them that their belief in reviving the past was worthwhile, this time Hassan’s health issues interrupted the artistic flow.

“We continued working but did not perform and we were back with a few new musicians in early 2016,” Hassan explains, pointing to four concerts — with Hassan on violin, Mahmoud Bedair on cello, Sherif Kamel on qanoun, Salah Ragab on double bass, Hani Al-Badri on ney and Amr Mustafa on percussion — which took place between January and September 2016. Zaii Zaman’s mission and music took on the historical interiors of the 17th-century Beit Al-Suhaymi, the 14th-century Beshtak Palace (two concerts) and the Manasterly Palace.

“The repertoire included mainly my own compositions. We only added works by Mohamed Al-Qasabgi or Fouad Abdel-Meguid to honour them or shed light on their anniversaries.”

In the past few years, Zaii Zaman kept a low profile because “the whole music environment is not encouraging,” as Hassan puts it, pointing to Egypt’s art field being largely dominated by non-artistic priorities.

“We live at a time when everyone leans towards commercial gains ignoring the creative values. It’s a pity since those values have a long-term impact on society. The departure from instrumental music is the result of commercial mindsets. I can understand when a venue strives to earn money in order to maintain its activities, but such thinking cannot be applied at the Cairo Opera House.”

And so he mentions the Opera, a place where he works and which he expects to play a vital role in educating and shaping the audience’s tastes.

“Take a look at the Opera’s Arabic Music Festival programming, for instance. This well promoted event is packed with Arab singers, who perform their standard repertoires over and over again. It is a huge showcase of the singers and not the music and so calling it Arab music festival is not correct. Of course, the audience enjoys it, but the ability to really understand and assess music will not develop during such events. When the concert is all about the singer, the audience does not have the chance to develop perceptions of the music,” he sighs.

Despite the bitter side of the current situation, Hassan still believes that the past can be revived and its values restored. “To me, music is the base and our experience has proved that when you present it well, the audience appreciates and enjoys it, as long as you present it with professionalism and dedication. At the same time when musicians perform with passion and happiness, this immediately reflects on the listeners.”

According to Hassan, Zaii Zaman’s activities reflect a very unique generation and speak to people who look at music in “a different way.” Based on the ensemble’s success in the past, he believes this feeling can be rekindled. All that is needed is for institutions such as the Cairo Opera House — which, as Hassan points, does not have one ensemble dedicated entirely to instrumental Arab music — to share the belief in the multi-layered benefits of this creative format.

In this conviction, the first Maqom Art International Forum which took place last month in Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan, was a perfect opportunity to showcase Zaii Zaman’s work on a stage shared by similar minds from many countries. Zaii Zaman travelled to Uzbekistan as a quartet: Hassan (violin), Hani Al-Badri (ney), Amir Ezzat (riq), and Medhat Mamdouh (tabla, or Oriental drum).

“We applied to the forum in advance and were accepted. When our proceedings reached the Ministry of Culture, we were told that the Opera decided to send another group to the same event, one that was formed specifically for this journey and included six performers and one administrative person. One thing led to another and we managed to rescue our place with the help of Maqam Production, a company that operates across the Middle East and which was in charge of all Arab groups’ participation in the festival,” Hassan reveals, adding that out of 42 countries participating in the forum, eight were from the Arab world, each represented by one ensemble. Egypt was the only country which submitted two ensembles to the forum, both in the same segment of the event — the takht instrumental formations — a fact that puzzled the jury. Two other segments included ensembles with a singer and solo musicians.

“Though Egypt had a very unique presence in the whole forum, we were happy to represent our country on the event’s main stage. We received very positive feedback and the audience enjoyed the music.”

When Hassan talks about Zaii Zaman’s experience in Uzbekistan he fondly underlines the inspiring atmosphere created by all those countries as music became their common language.

“This experience has only reassured us that we do not need words to connect with people; they loved it and we loved performing it. When you play music you tell stories and in Zaii Zaman we tell our story which was well understood by the listeners regardless of nationality or background. We need to continue to represent our culture, look into our roots and not forget the values into which we were born.”

While trying to remain active, Zaii Zaman has recently worked on a video created for the grand celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary. India’s government requested that musicians from all over the world should record their take on a popular Indian song and send it to India to be screened this month.

“We are honoured that Zaii Zaman is the ensemble that has had the opportunity to represent Egypt. We submitted our rendition of the song performed on violin, qanoun, ney and percussion instruments, joined by singer Reem Ezzeddin.”

The same work was presented at the Hanager theatre on 2 October as part of the celebrations organized by the Embassy of India in Cairo.

The two recent events — the first Maqom Art International Forum and a song video prepared for the Indian celebration — can help Zaii Zaman find firmer ground on the local and international map. While they hope to start working on their first album, they continue to spread their belief in the power of instrumental music, which though “is not one kind of music”, as they write on their social media platforms, “[it represents] our homeland. Through this music we may travel inside and outside of its borders, yet our belonging to it will never be lost.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Rekindling past fires

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