Show combines ancient styles into a cacophonous brew of mystical chants and rhythms
If the ritualistic music of the zar could be compared to an animal, it would be the equivalent of a deep sea shark: mysterious, rare and endangered.
This ancient form of music, which features polyrhythmic drum patterns and mantra-like chants, is very near extinction.
According to the Egyptian Center for Culture and Art (ECCA), only 25 practitioners in the entire country continue to play and perform the zar, which dates back to pre-Islamic times and was used by the ancients as a cathartic purification ceremony.
Given the scarcity of the music, five years ago, the ECCA embarked on a “Making the Band type project to track down a handful of zar musicians, put them in a room together and hope for the best.
Rather than simply documenting and preserving the ancient music’s legacy, however, the project was a bid to present the zar as a vital form – one that could act as an alternative to the manufactured pop which dominates much of the local market.
The result of the endeavor was Mazaher, a zar super group made up of five core musicians – Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, Nour El Sabah, Ahmed Shenkowi and multi-instrumentalist Hassan – several part-time contributors and a whack of vintage equipment.
And while none of Mazaher’s extended, 10-minute percussive jams have broken onto Nile FM’s “Top Seven at Seven chart, the project can only be called a smashing success.
Last Wednesday, a standing-room only crowd of students, young professionals and Egyptian and foreign academics packed into the ECCA’s downtown digs to watch Mahazer rifle through their catalogue of floor-stomping numbers, which feature the kind of builds and mind-bending abstraction normally associated with psych rock or blissed-out rave anthems.
There was also a contingent of journalists and photographers in the audience, including a pair from a German magazine. (Along with holding a weekly residency at the ECCA, Mahazer is also regularly booked to play festivals in Europe.)
It’s little wonder why the project has become such a hit. Like an ancient Fleetwood Mac, the men and women of Mahazer shake, strum and groove through their almost two-hour magical mystery tour with an ease and confidence that is either the result of well-rehearsed professionalism or innate authenticity.
Judging by the look of the performers, their sound is the result of the latter. It’s not everyday you get to see a middle aged woman in a veil bang on a drum.
The show begins with a few Aboul Gheit zar numbers, which feature Shenkowi’s lead vocals accompanied by the kawala, a chromatic flute with a rich, resonant tone.
Setting the night’s musical template, the number was based on a call and response-type structure and was underpinned by gentle chanting which quickly bursts into a drum-filled cacophonous roar of polyrhythmic banging.
While the Aboul Gheit style is entrenched with sufi mysticism and is led by male vocals, the rest of Mahazer’s set was unique because it is female-led. During the second and third sections of the night, singer Umm Sameh took center stage and serenaded the audience with her rich voice: a throaty vibrato that is both undeniably beautiful and completely alien to western forms.
It’s little wonder, given the music’s unorthodox structure and disorientating elements, that many have incorrectly labeled the zar as exorcism music.
Still, the music is highly danceable and even over two hours, the show doesn’t sag.
The show also had a Sudanese zar section, which was driven by the percussive, rubber-toned tamboura, a massive stringed instrument which archeologists have found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Catch Mahazer at the Egyptian Center for Culture and ArtWednesday, 9 p.m.1 Saad Zaghloul Street, near the Turkish EmbassyDowntown, CairoEntrance: LE 20