x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Al qahirah: A hole in the wall reveals a universe of music

While western media and pop culture bombards us with images of negative Islam and being an Arab, venues such as Makan remind us that art and music are big parts of Arab life.

The woman standing in the middle of the room moves her shoulders back and forth, as a man next to her draws melancholy tunes out of a wooden flute. Another, heavy-set woman jumps from foot to foot in a haphazard dance, clanging small metal cymbals tied to her fingers. Behind them, two women and a man drum loudly on skins pulled tightly on wide wooden frames. Their voices are raw and they sing the praises of the Prophet and ask for God's forgiveness in song.

The band, Mazaher, is led by a solid, illiterate woman called Om Samih. She's a broad-shouldered, thick-armed woman, with high cheekbones and white teeth. Large gold hoops weigh down her earlobes and her head is tightly wrapped in a black scarf. By day, Om Samih is actually a healer, not a concert performer. She and the members of her band are Zar practitioners. The Zar is a healing ritual performed by circles of women who claim to communicate with spirits. In traditional settings, it is also a place to vent, where women work out some of the social frustrations and limitations placed on them by society.

The communication with the spirits is done with the rhythm of the drums and the movements of the participants. The result is a spiritual purification, leaving the participants calm. Because the practice of the Zar is frowned upon by the state and religious establishments in Egypt, it has been pushed underground and only about 25 people in the country continue to practise the rituals. Om Samih and her band perform a version of their day job at the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art twice a week. Also known as Makan - Arabic for "place" - the centre aims to preserve and document Zar music and instruments through the performances, as opposed to presenting it as a healing ritual.

The day I go to see Mazaher, a high-school class is also in the audience. Dressed in western clothing, they are obviously upper-class Egyptian kids. They speak very good English and their Egyptian teacher instructs them in the language. The children take over the audience space, which is made up of rows of rickety wooden chairs, in a dim, high-ceilinged room. On the floor up front are cushions for people to sit on. Tea and hibiscus juice - two traditional Egyptian drinks - are on tap in the corner.

As Om Samih and her group begin to bang their drums hypnotically, I reflect that neither I nor any of the other audience members would normally have the chance to experience this music. We all know it exists - the music is featured in numerous Egyptian movies which show scenes of voodoo worship with women performing the ritual. But the musical and artistic aspects of it are lost in that interpretation. So, I had Makan to thank for bringing it closer to people like me, and other Egyptians who belonged to this culture.

Literally a hole in the wall in downtown Cairo, Makan has given a space for local and traditional musicians to bring their music to people who don't normally visit their venues. Besides Mazaher, Makan also features religious Coptic and Islamic performers, Nubian artists and music from the rural parts of Egypt. Besides performances, Makan records and documents traditional Egyptian music as it is performed in its environment. The people behind the project say they were worried Egyptian music might be sidelined as something only exotic and touristic. The local arts are not a priority for the Egyptian government and so it falls on the shoulders of grassroots organisations and private citizens to fund and encourage local and traditional culture. Makan tries to fill this vacuum with its small venue, cosy atmosphere and proud list of local artists.

Children in Egypt, and indeed across much of the Arab world, are not really taught traditional songs or music in classrooms. Instead, western instruments and equipment are favoured. And so, Makan tries to fill that vacuum too. While cultural centres vary in Cairo, institutions that push for the traditional arts are few. They play an important role here because they bring traditional arts to people who have little contact with the traditional way of Egyptian life. With the influx of technology, as well as the westernisation of culture over the past few years, it is much harder for locals to appreciate their own culture. These venues bring arts from different Arab countries. Makan features Sudanese musicians, while at other venues artists from Syria and Lebanon perform regularly.

In my mind and, I think, more importantly, they give Arab youth a venue in which to be proud to be Arab again, to think that Arab culture is something special and not something to be ashamed of. While western media and pop culture bombards us with images of negative Islam and being an Arab, venues such as Makan remind us that art and music are big parts of Arab life. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.