x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Womad workshop uses music to teach Arab culture

Children in Abu Dhabi take turns at traditional Middle Eastern instruments while learning about Egyptian music and culture.

Tasnim Medani reacts to her own playing a tabla as she participates in a workshop at the Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
Tasnim Medani reacts to her own playing a tabla as she participates in a workshop at the Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National

ABU DHABI // When Tasnim Medani found out about a musical workshop at her school in Abu Dhabi yesterday, she was over the moon.

The 17-year-old Sudanese girl was already at ease with traditional Arabic instruments and, as a child, she mimicked playing the tabla - an ancient Middle Eastern goblet drum - on tables.

"It's a hobby of mine," she said. "I started practising when I was young, and it just stuck with me."

The Womad Beyond workshop came to the Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi to educate pupils about multicultural music, using the folk group Al Tanbura to demonstrate. The Egyptian troupe are just one of 35 acts playing this weekend's Womad Festival.

When Ibrahim Zakaria, a member of Al Tanbura, asked for a volunteer to come on stage to try out the tabla, around 15 girls pointed at Tasnim.

Chanting "she knows how to play," the girls cheered on Tasnim as she made her way towards the stage.

Once she laid her hands on the tabla, Tasnim was greeted with rhythmic cheers and claps from her classmates, encouraging her to play on.

Soon after, Basma Bajallan, a 16-year-old Iraqi, had her turn on the drum.

"I really enjoyed playing it," she said. "It was so interesting to learn about the different instruments the group showed us."

Nine of 11 members of Al Tanbura briefed the girls at the school on the history of their band, which is from Port Said, and their traditional instruments, including the simsimiyya, a pharaonic lyre. The instrument dates back 4,000 years and was used for healing.

The group's namesake, tanbura, is another instrument they play. Originating in Egypt and Sudan, it is a type of bowl lyre that emits deeper sounds than the steel-string simsimiyya because of its nylon strings.

Mr Zakaria established Al Tanbura 22 years ago "to keep the memory of Port Said's people alive" through patriotic songs describing Egypt's resistance in the 1956 Suez crisis during the nationalisation of the canal.

"We enjoy performing but we want to teach the children what's beyond our music and make them feel the spirit of Al Tanbura," he said.

The band members danced, sang and played instruments for the girls, then performed two of their own songs.

Karen Hautala, a Grade 11 teacher, joined the group on stage to play the castanets while attempting to perform the traditional African Bambuti dance, which triggered fits of laughter from the girls.

Alia al Zaabi, a 16 year-old Emirati, was next to try the tabla and said she found playing the instrument "exhilarating".

"It was a new experience for me and I loved it," she said.

School principal Lamia Najjar sat behind the students, applauding their performances. She said the workshop was "fun and unique".

"They're getting to learn about Arab culture, which is amazing, and this is the first workshop we welcomed in the school for this kind of activity," she said.

As more girls gathered the courage to go on stage, a teacher got caught up in the moment and started playing the simsimiyya.

The workshops are a part of the Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festival in Abu Dhabi this weekend, and are conducted to introduce students to new cultures through music.

"They are very important educational programmes and our aim is to invest in children here because they are the future of our nation," said Abdullah al Ameri, the director of the arts and culture department at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

"What we are trying to do in Abu Dhabi is to develop the children's skills by bringing them international knowledge and sharing the music and performances with them," he added.