Egypt’s Rural Joys and Sorrows in Song

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'Musicians of the Nile' perform live on stage at DRM in Beirut, 22 March 2012. (Photo: Forward Music)

By: Muhammad Hamdar

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

Musicians of the Nile, the Egyptian group known for their traditional Upper Nile rhythms, made a stop in Beirut this week.

About four decades ago, the members of Firqat al-Neel (Nile Band) first met Alain Weber, a researcher of ethnic music, in Luxor in Upper Egypt. In 1975, they signed a production and promotion contract with him. Weber decided to rename them Musicians of the Nile for marketing purposes.

They were the first Arab band to achieve global popularity, before rai and oriental rhythms began flooding the international music market.

Musicians of the Nile have their roots in the Mataqil school – named after the singer and rababa player Motqal Qanawi Motqal (1929-2004), known as al-Rayyes Motqal. He, along with Youssef Bakch Motqal and Shamadi Tawfik Motqal, founded the Luxor-based National Popular Arts Ensemble.

Since launching their career in Europe, Musicians of the Nile have not disappointed producers. They avoided the trap of staging touristic performances for Western audiences, and remained true to their culture and heritage. The galabiyya, turban, and scarf became their passport to the world. Thus, MOJO magazine described the band’s album Charcoal Gypsies as “100 years of Egypt’s spirituality in one neat package.”

Their participation at Womad Festival (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in 1983 gave them their first opportunity to play alongside internationally renowned musicians. They later performed music for the film The Last Temptation of Christ by English director Peter Gabriel in 1989, and later for A Safe Journey by Romanian director Tony Gatlif in 1993. They have also played several times at the International Gypsy Festival since their first appearance there in Florence in 1991. The band have produced four albums: Charcoal Gypsies (1989), Luxor to Isna (1997), Ensemble Mizmar Baladi (2001), and Along the River (2006).

Musicians of the Nile perform songs from weddings and celebrations, the events that make villagers or local communities sing, play music, and dance. Sudanese and Nubian tunes and lyrics are strongly present. Their shows includes traditional dancing, such as the Upper Egyptian “duel with sticks” dance. Otherwise they rely on their voices and traditional popular instruments, tambourine, drums, aragol, and rababa.

A variety of the band’s popular songs are still sung today in Egypt on joyous or sorrowful occasions, or even at religious events. They are also used in spiritual rites, often accompanied by dancing. They vary in origin and by region, but can be intensely moving – “more delicious than honey and softer than halal magic,” as the vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm called Egyptian folksongs.

The choice of accompanying instrument is of great importance to the band, depending on the role of the song or the type of occasion. It is usually selected for the power of its emotional presence, and its ability to either attract attention or encourage meditation.

The instruments are often made of natural materials that Egyptian peasants encounter in their daily lives, such as goatskins, tree trunks, coconuts, and horsehair for making the strings of the rababa, which is used to accompany popular poems and long tales. Beech wood is used for making the aragol mizmar, a wind instrument known for its resonant sound.

A number of groups became dedicated to the preservation of the aragol have gained fame. They include The Nile Popular Instruments Ensemble, The Mazaher Group – which plays zar music – The Tanboura Group from Port Said, and most recently Donia Massoud, whose work shows that the young generation values this heritage too.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Egyptian musicians are lot more different than ones found in other parts of the world. This uniqueness makes them special and more liked.

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Traditional Egyptian music is an interesting mix of african rhythms and upper-middle eastern melodies. Quite interesting.

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