The musicians of Mazaher are among the very last few remaining zar practitioners in Egypt. Their art is rooted in an ancient local exorcism ritual cleansing the soul through music and dancing away evil spirits and negative energy. But while the tradition itself is slowly dying out, it hasn’t ceased piquing people’s curiosity and interest, and Mazaher are intent on keeping the performance element of the zar alive.
By Farah El Akkad Photos by Omar Mohsen
Giving Mazaher a little help is Makan, a cultural music center dedicated to the revival of Egyptian folk art. Located in the heart of Downtown Cairo, it hosts a variety of folk artists who sing long forgotten Egyptian tunes, aiming to document and promote these unique musical legacies.
Unlike most Egyptian folk art, women play the leading role in the zar performance, and men act more as backup. Mazaher is fronted by three lead women: Om Sameh, Om Hassan and Nour Al Sabah. The show begins with Om Sameh taking center stage, the rest of the band seated behind her with their drums. With sharp eyes and a magnetic look on her face, Om Sameh starts chanting and the sound of drums gradually become higher and more frantic.
The other two women swing and sway in circles, shaking their heads and dancing barefoot, mesmerizing the audience. Shortly after the men start dancing sideways, clapping sagat (finger cymbals) and shaking the mangour (leather belt made of goat hooves and studded with seashells) around their waist. The clack of the shells against the beat of the drums makes for an enthralling scene. The instruments used in the performance are differently shaped drums, flutes, the phalanx and the most distinctive is the mangour.
Om Sameh explains that each movement made during the performance has a deep meaning. “The shaking for instance is a form of self expression. The red color we are wearing signifies strength and pain endurance. Each movement equals excitement, strength and getting rid of stress,” she clarifies. In his book Zar and Ritual Theatre (1993), Adel El Elemi talks about the symbols of the zar ceremony. “Each color embodies a social language and a specific meaning. It is a meaningful expression and a communication tool that symbolizes human feelings,” he writes.
Noha Samir, a huge fan of Mazaher and folk music in general, says, “When my friend first invited me to Mazaher’s show three years ago, I was a bit skeptical of it as the image I had in my mind about zar came from old Egyptian movies only. I quickly found out that in reality zar is actually a very rich Egyptian folk performance that must be greatly valued. Since then I’ve been attending Mazaher’s show every week.” Samir goes in to say, “Most Egyptian films portray zar as a ritual to get rid of bad energy or for women who have trouble getting pregnant. We should really look at the artistic part of it and recognize it as part of our cultural heritage.”
Nubian music is considered one of the most popular types of traditional folk music in Egypt, originally depending only on drums and handclapping. Some Nubian artists, however, were greatly influenced by jazz music. Among these are Mohamed Mounir and the late Ali Hassan Kuban, who created an interesting change in Egyptian folk music by blending traditional Nubian music with western instruments. Other folk music, such as original Sufi folk music sung at major religious gatherings (mulid) using the flute and drums, have also become westernized and are today performed using instruments like the guitar and the violin such as in artist Zigzag’s Sufi songs.
Soha Emad ElDin, a folk art researcher at the Cairo Music Center, explains that though many western instruments have popped up on the Egyptian folk music scene in recent years, the original Saedi (Upper Egyptian) music instruments such as the mizmar (trumpet), the nahrasan (a two-sided drum) and the traditional Mediterranean simsimya (guitar-like instrument), still play a key role in the local music scene. There are folk artists, however, who have introduced new modern tunes into their music, creating a neo-folk trend because, as El Din puts it, “It makes folk music more appealing to younger generations who are always looking for what is new and, most importantly, they are the majority of folk music audiences today.”
Mazaher, whose popular hits include songs like “The Deer Hunter,” “The Moon,” “My Child” and “School Girls,” have been performing the traditional zar music on stage for the past 14 years. When asked about introducing new instruments into their performance, following the same trend as some folk music artists of today, 60-year-old Om Hassan says, “We have been together for more than 10 years now, singing the same tunes and using the same instruments, the music we learned from our grandparents and their parents before them. We want to preserve our tradition, not change one bit.”