El Tanbura, LSO St Luke's, London
Tuesday 31 October 2006
The simsimiyya lyre, which dates from Phoenician times, sounds a bit like the kanun zither, only more ethereal; as the "star" of El Tanbura, and played with agile grace, it's the first thing we hear when this Port Said group takes the stage. A ney flute breathily joins it in a duet with a gently insistent pulse; then a man adds his voice, melismatically interweaving his melody with that of the flute, while the lyre provides a warm bed of sound. Then other men join in, singing a grave poem in unison while two begin to sway hypnotically; when the percussion finally booms in, it's as though a huge machine is on the move. The momentum is peaceful, not somnolent but superalert: thus do the Sufis on Egypt's northern seaboard communicate with God.
Whether it's by politicians taking gratuitous swipes in the name of "togetherness", or by gangs of youths roughing up attenders at mosques, British Muslims are increasingly embattled, which means the Barbican's annual Ramadan Nights festival is ever more necessary. Moreover, it was appropriate that this year's should end with a celebration of Islam's most pacific form, purveyed by an ensemble whose history is linked to what should have been the end of Western imperialism in the Middle East, had Washington and London not had other ideas.
For these musicians from Port Said's waterfront are keeping alive a song tradition that arose among Suez Canal workers: it became a national rallying point after the 1967 war with Israel, declined under the onslaught of DJ sound systems, and is now being lovingly revived. With ney flute, castanets, harps and percussion, they have a cheerfully stomping rhythm; their refrains answer soloists who set out not to dazzle but to infect others with their enthusiasm. The first half of this concert was devoted to Sufi music, and the second to canal songs, including a new one written by their leader Zakaria Ibrahim to commemorate the canal's nationalisation 50 years ago.
But the pièce de résistance was the whirler, who came on in what looked like a single multicoloured skirt, but who proceeded to throw off a series of skirts like a butterfly emerging from one variegated chrysalis after another. Juggler, conjuror, illusionist - he was all of these things: with such innocent fairground entertainment do the Egyptian Sufis project their life-enhancing message.
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