Egypt’s Music Heritage
Standing the Test of Time
Published in Community Times’ November 2016 Issue
There are many traits that one can easily attribute to the majority of Egyptians; among the common features that are beyond controversy or doubt is their love for music. Roaming near and far from one corner of the country to the other, Egypt offers a wide and rich array of music that is as varied and original as its numerous indigenous cultures. Not only is each Egyptian culture famous for its own distinguishable music, it is fair to say that Egypt today — as it has been for several decades — remains an epicenter for the Middle Eastern music industry and a hub for budding underground musicians.
However, it wasn’t overnight that Egyptians grew an interest and a fine taste for music. As a matter of fact, dating as far as the earliest recordings of human history, music was integral to the everyday lives of Ancient Egyptians, which shows from the uncovered collection of instruments they used as well as the drawings found in tombs and on ancient artifacts.
Music in Ancient Egypt
Long before music was merely a form of entertainment, Ancient Egyptians paid it great respect to the extent of including it in their religious lives. Known as the goddess of joy, feminine love, fertility and motherhood, Hathor was also considered the embodiment of music, joy and dance. Although Hathor appears on the inscriptions of the earliest dynasties of around 3100 BC, it is believed that her cult dates even farther to pre-dynastic times. Similarly, the deity Bes who was known to fight off evil was also symbolic to all that is good and pleasurable — naturally including music. Nonetheless, the deity that was considered to be the personification of music was the goddess Merit.
Like all matters of religion, music did not reside solely within houses of worship, it resonated throughout the ancient kingdom’s lands bringing worshipers and deities closer within temples, as well as bringing families and friends together after long days of work. However, musicians also followed a hierarchy which specified who performed for the royal families, the gods or the public masses.
Although several instruments were recorded to have been used in Ancient Egypt, the harp is considered to be one of the most celebrated instruments for its confirmed Egyptian origin. Other instruments that were used but without clear traces to their place of origin include the sistrum, flute, clarinet, drums, lute, tambourine, oboe, cymbals, castanets, lyres and the arghul.
Thousands of years later, many of Ancient Egypt’s musical instruments still live on taking slightly different forms and names such the ney, mizmar and cymbals. However, it wasn’t solely the use of instruments that stood the test of time, but Egyptians’ fondness for merging music and spirituality as well.
Music in Modern Egypt
Even though Ancient Egyptian temples are no longer used to give thanks to the gods, worship houses and spiritual gatherings across the country still resonate with music that specifically seeks out God; you may now know them as gospel music and hymns or dhikr (remembrance of God).
It remains a common practice for Egyptian Christians (or Coptic Christians) not only to sing to and about God, but also to use the cymbals the same way their ancestors used them for rhythmic purposes in temples.
Similar to Coptic hymns in their scarce reliance on musical instruments and melody, it is believed that Sufi (Islamic mysticism) dhikr and chanting bear great similarity to the rhythms and instruments used during ancient times which include the ‘ney’ and ‘duff’.
However, music today does not solely stop at spirituality and chanting. As a matter of fact, many indigenous Egyptian cultures continue to face the dangers of losing their iconic identities against the many features of mainstream cultures and globalization.
After centuries of passing down an authentic taste of music, each group of Egyptians has managed to articulate its own recognizable approach to the art which continues to resurrect Egypt’s heritage of musical instruments. Today, music remains one of their primary frontiers for saving their cultures from fading away.
Spreading across the southernmost lands of Egypt, the Nubian culture remains one of Egypt’s oldest and richest cultures. Dating back to as far as Ancient Egypt, the Nubian culture, including its dance and music culture, is known to be greatly inspired by the Nubians’ proximity to all that nature preaches.
Vibrant as it is, today’s Nubian artists rely on a diversity of instruments to portray their cultural heritage including ancient instruments such as the duff and lute. Among the most famous Nubian artists are Hamza el-Din, Ali Hassan Kuban and Mohamed Mounir. Although their music bears various influences, such as jazz or reggae, the artists continue to revive their heritage through their music which they perform not only in Egypt, but around the world as well.
-Upper Egyptian ‘Saidi’-
On a different note of vibrant music, Upper Egypt –which covers almost the entire southern half of the country from Assiut to Aswan- is home to some of the liveliest and accentuated Egyptian music that combines poetry, history, storytelling and reflections.
Mostly based on the sharp, resonant sounds of the rababa, mizmar, arghul and darbuka among others, Musicians of the Nile is fairly Upper Egypt’s most internationally acclaimed troupe. Since they were discovered by Alain Weber in 1975, the troupe has toured some of the world’s biggest music festivals, spreading the Saidi vibes across Europe and the world.
-Coastal and Bedouin-
Believed to have been one of the early variations of the Ancient Egyptian harp, the semsemia is one of the most iconic Egyptian sounds. While semsemia is commonly associated to the cities of Ismailia and Port Said, it is often paired with the mizmar and played by the Bedouins of Egypt’s western desert and Sinai.
Among the most famous sawahili (coastal) musicians are Aid el-Ghannirni and Abdo el-Iskandarani.
Despite the vast differences between the music genres performed across Egypt, each narrates one part of Egypt’s identity that is only enriched and emblazoned with its cultural diversity.