Ramadan fills the stages of many Egyptian cities with music. The first week of the holy month is usually slower with its cultural offerings, with things picking up speed in the second week. This year the Tahrir Cultural Centre (TCC) has prepared an interesting assortment of cultural offerings especially tailored to the season, which benefit from the unique setting and the management’s eye for quality.
The TCC launched its Ramadan-related music activities on the eighth day of the holy month (30 March) with Zaii Zaman, a quartet founded and led by violinist Ahmed Hassan. As its name translates to “the way it was in the old days”, the idea is to revive Egypt’s artistic Golden Age (1940s-1960s). It is also important to mention that though Zaii Zaman is not a brand new formation, the ensemble has not performed since 2018. As such, their concert at the TCC marked their return in a fresh new format.
It was a rather special evening, one of two days that brought ice-cold winds to Cairo after the warm arrival of early spring. With the concert planned to take place in the TCC’s main garden, Zaii Zaman feared that the audience would be small as a result, but by 8:30 it was a full house. The strong winds were soon forgotten as the audience surrendered to the musicians on stage: Ahmed Hassan on violin, Mahmoud Mohamed Abdelfattah on oud, Salah Eldin Ragab on double bass and Amir Ismail Ezzat on percussions. The evening presented more than 10 compositions by Hassan, topped with a special request: an instrumental version of Enta Omri, a song by Um Kalthoum with music by Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
Hassan began composing many years ago, and today his original repertoire boasts 15 compositions. All are set within the classical Arabic music format or qawalib (moulds) intended to guide the performers. Through the use of Arabic maqamat — the traditional modal system, which often incorporates quarter tones — the compositions are marked by a unique scent presented in its most purified form. The result is a beautiful atmosphere bringing the audience closer to the roots of Arabic music, a particularly valuable component of a Ramadan evening.
In the course of the evening, the listeners were treated to Aswan, a composition which, as its name suggests, has the southern Egyptian city as its inspiration. Remal (which translates to “Sands”) is one of Hassan’s older compositions, originally created for a documentary film. Though the film never saw light, the music remained, walking the listener through the endless sands of the Egyptian desert. Samaei Zaii Zaman represents yet another musical format and a work that Hassan composed for a music competition organised by the Sports and Youth Ministry in 2000. Meanwhile Fares El Sharq (Knight of the Orient) uses the fixed maqam form which, in his view, represented the unchangeable character of that knight.
During the concert, Hassan provided short explanations to each work, allowing the audience to grasp its conceptual and musical meanings. The musician managed to create a close connection with the listeners - yet another characteristic of older Arabic music performances - resulting in an audience member making “a special request” for Enta Omri, which Zaii Zaman duly provided.
With music filling the TCC garden, the cold weather was easily forgotten by the listeners who by the end of the concert spread across the whole area and didn’t want the ensemble to leave the stage.
This was an undeniably triumphant comeback for an ensemble that has had its ups and downs. It was in 2009 that Hassan sought to introduce something new into a musical field dominated by contemporary musical expressions and a lot of commercial offerings. The ensemble began by presenting instrumental music topped with a few songs. The latter component involved a repertoire not frequently performed; indeed much of it had been completely forgotten. Among the instrumental compositions, those beginnings shed light on songs by Mohamed Abdel-Motteleb and Mohamed Fawzi, among others.
In my conversation with Ahmed Hassan published on those pages in 2018, he explained that “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 percent of the treasure, over and over.”
During their first concerts, Zaii Zaman met with great success: the audience kept asking for a new programme, and the feedback only encouraged the musicians to come up with new repertoires. In the 2010s, Zaii Zaman began growing in size, often featuring over 20 musicians on stage and ever growing instrumental programmes. Their concerts at historical spaces across Cairo drew the attention of many music lovers. Yet the blessing that came with the ensemble’s sheer size was also its curse. The financial pressures that would allow Zaii Zaman to keep performing proved too much for Hassan. This was soon topped by the two years following the January 25 Revolution which proved particularly challenging for the ensemble. While taking a break from performing, Hassan thought of ways to reduce the number of musicians. Meanwhile he spent a lot of time on his original compositions.
On 1 January 2014, the new Zaii Zaman was on course, starting with a concert at Al-Gomhouriya theatre followed by a few at other venues. This time performing as a sextet, Zaii Zaman’s line-up included Hassan on violin, Mahmoud Bedair on cello, Samer Barakat on qanoun (a plucked string instrument), Ahmed Ewais on double bass, Hany El-Badry on ney (the Arab flute) and Hany Bedair on riq (a kind of tambourine). In 2016, the ensemble gave a number of remarkable performances at historical interiors, including the 17th-century Beit Al-Suhaymi, the 14th-century Beshtak Palace and the Manasterly Palace. The repertoire of those concerts presented mainly compositions by Ahmed Hassan and some well-known composers, such as Mohamed Al-Qasabgi, Fouad Abdel-Meguid, featured on special occasions.
As the concerts inside Egypt continued, Zaii Zaman made their first international appearance in 2018, when they participated in the first Maqom Art International Forum held in Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan. Zaii Zaman travelled to Uzbekistan as a quartet: Ahmed Hassan (violin), Hany El-Badry (ney), Amir Ezzat (riq), and Medhat Mamdouh (tabla, or Oriental drum).
Before the year ended, Zaii Zaman had also worked on a video created for the grand celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary organised by the Indian Embassy in Egypt. Their participation was in response to the Indian government asking 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. Zaii Zaman was chosen to represent Egypt in the song’s rendition that included violin, qanoun, ney and percussions, joined by singer Reem Ezzeddin.
Almost at the peak of their new journey, new financial struggles and Covid-19 forced yet another retreat…
Now Zaii Zaman returns with a successful concert at the TCC, and Hassan has a new vision for the ensemble. “This time I’m introducing a new sound,” he comments, pointing to the coupling of violin and oud, essential to the fabric of Arabic music. In fact, this combination was particularly well received by the listeners, who showered the musicians with praise after their duets or solos.
“I am very happy that the concert was well received. Instrumental music is no longer a priority for the Egyptian audience, nor do the cultural institutions emphasise its importance. In earlier times, instrumental music was at the heart of our culture. People would differentiate between different melodies and maqamat; they would hum the melodies easily. Today, public interest focuses on songs, and film music,” Hassan clarifies. He underlines however that “music doesn’t have to be linked to drama or accompany lyrics. Music is strong enough to express emotions by itself.”
Even if Zaii Zaman does not change the general preferences of today’s music scene, which is dominated by songs and jingles, its return is an important addition to our neverending cultural meanderings. At the TCC concert, they proved that there is a thirst for this kind of music, a need that will hopefully grow, spreading the strong values of Arabic culture.
Zaii Zaman is already preparing for its upcoming appearance at the Goethe Institut in Cairo, in June.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly