The simsimiyya is a five-string lyre, dating back to Pharaonic times, and to the Sumerian civilisation. It is traditionally imbued with magical properties, used for healing and exorcism as much as for dancing and trance. It is a female instrument, its players are its lovers, and, in some folk tales, it is a siren who seduces both her lover, the player, and her audience. In its sound, it is something of a cross between the Arabian oud, the West African kora, the Moroccan ghimbri and the Sudanese tanbura.
"You will find it in the museum of Pharaonic times," says the singer and percussionist Zakaria Ibrahim, founder and musical director of the 20-strong Egyptian group El Tanbura, one of the headline acts appearing at the Barbican's Ramadan Nights season. Their second album, Between the Desert and the Sea, features 11 songs from their repertoire of Egyptian folk and sacred music. "Some of the traditional songs go back 800 years, others are so, so old you can't even date them," he says, in a north London café. "They are performed in a language that we no longer hear in daily life."
El Tanbura were formed by Ibrahim in Port Said in 1989, where as a boy in the Fifties he witnessed the revival of the simsimiyya, which would give its name to a revitalising Egyptian folk movement that found its fullest expression in the 1956 Suez crisis, when the nationalisation of the canal triggered Britain's last imperial crisis and served as a rallying cry to Egyptian and pan-Arab nationalism.
The revival continued through the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the occupation of the Sinai, but by the Eighties, Egypt's folk culture had been pushed aside by cheaper instruments and sound systems; what remained had been co-opted by government sponsorship. Zakaria and El Tanbura determined to let the music live on its own terms, and on its own streets.
"Since I began El Tanbura at the beginning of 1989, our main target has been to keep this traditional music in its environment," says Ibrahim. "At the beginning we met resistance," he adds, "forces intent on destroying the traditional way of playing. People in most of the Third World look to the West and imitate what they are doing. But we have set out to keep our traditional music, and to encourage [others] to do the same."
For the first five years of the group's existence, they went about collecting a huge repertoire of original folk songs, along with an ever-expanding list of members. "We now have a repertoire of more than 20 hours of traditional songs," says Ibrahim proudly.
But it is a contemporary repertoire as well, with several tunes on the new album penned by Ibrahim, including "The Canal Song" (Zayy el Nhardah), written for the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis. "It's about the emotion of the people, their pain and hopes, and also the migration after the 1967 war, how people miss their cities and want to go home again. I wrote the text and the melody that relates the history of the digging of the canal, how our grandfathers did it, and how we didn't have any profit from it."
To coincide with that anniversary, the BBC is broadcasting a three-part series about the crisis with a soundtrack by El Tanbura. "But we also have to create new songs for what is happening now," Ibrahim says. "We have created songs for the Iraq war, songs to encourage people not to relent."
Nevertheless, at the heart of the group's music is the spirit of celebration, of magic, of dance, and reverie - and the simsimiyya. A short film by Ibrahim has its UK premiere at the Ramadan Nights festival, two days before their stage show. Siren tells the story of the simsimiyya, with footage of their master player, Mohssin, who began learning it when he was seven.
Earlier, Mohssin, with Ibrahim on hand percussion, vocals, and some exuberant dancing, had played a scintillating set on an instrument much expanded from the five-string original. The sound runs and flashes underneath the band's percussion and vocals, while, solo, it is utterly entrancing, almost otherworldly.
"We sometimes use the simsimiyya for ceremonies," says Ibrahim. "There is the feast of the spring, which goes back to Pharaonic times. We celebrate it in April, and play from nine in the evening until three in the morning." Not only Pharaonic feasts, but ritual healing ceremonies, too. "One particular ceremony is a ritual to help people who suffer from psychological problems. If there is a genie or other spirit inside them, and they are suffering, this music will help them to be a friend to the spirits they have, not to get rid of them." After rave reviews for their appearance at the Nile Festival in April, this particular Ramadan Night, a prelude to a national tour in the new year, promises to be an explosive and transporting one.
El Tanbura play at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) on 24 October; 'Siren' is screened at the Barbican Cinema on 22 October; 'Between the Desert and the Sea' is out now on World Village/Harmonia MundiReuse content