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El Tanboura’s revolutionary sounds represent band’s history

Five minutes after El Tanboura band started performing on Sunday night at the Commercial Professions Syndicate, the audience rose to its feet, joining its members dancing on the stage.

This is a recurring scene in El Tanboura’s concerts at their weekly performances at the Sea Star Café in the coastal city of Port Said – and even during their performances abroad.

"The musical instruments we use – the simsimiyya (lyre) and tanboura (drums) – engage people even without lyrics," explains Ali Ouf, one of the band members.

The Sunday concert was the closing ceremony of a three-day forum organized in solidarity with the Arab revolutions held at the syndicate. Activists from around the world participated in the forum, including the editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, Alain Gresh; British activist John Rees from "Stop the War" Coalition; and Ghaiath Noaisa from the Committee for Supporting the Syrian Revolution.

Revolutionary vibes are not far from El Tanboura’s long history. Founded in 1989, the band focuses on preserving the musical heritage of Port Said. Many of the songs it plays originally date back to the resistance movement during the 1956 Israeli, British and French attacks on Suez.

"One of our goals was to spur national feelings among young people over the years," says Ouf.

So it was normal to hear their music around Tahrir Square during the 18 days of protest. Every night, the band would sing old songs recounting the events of 1956 and the 1967 defeat to raise the protesters’ morale. But they also composed a number of new songs inspired by the protesters’ chants.

“We also modified older songs to suit the revolutionary spirit at Tahrir Square and across the Arab world," Ouf told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The lyrics of an older song, "Sing simsimiyya for the gun bullets/Sing for those strong hands," were originally written for Egyptian soldiers fighting in the '50s and '60s. In Tahrir, they were adapted to say: "Sing simsimiyya for every citizen at Tahrir Square/ Sing for everyone bringing about change."

Asked why they rewrote older songs, Ouf explains that El Tanboura wanted to remind Egyptians of their revolutionary history.

"This helped us remain intact against the Mubarak regime," Ouf said.

El Tanboura uses a number of local musical instruments, including oriental percussion instruments and mizmar. Some believe that the simsimiyya and tanboura date back to Pharaonic times.

Starting in the 1930s, these instruments became part of Port Said’s musical heritage. They were initially played with Sufi chants and frenzied drumming, a ritual known as al-Damma, and were later used to mobilize people during the war period when the musicians and locals would gather in tanbura and simsimiyya nights.

A few years back, El Tanboura performances only included the first generation of performers who recounted the history of Port Said. But Sunday was the first time the band presented its second generation of performers.

Ouf, who belongs to the band's second generation, says, "We are composing new songs about our recent experiences of resistance, yet we maintain El Tanboura heritage in our hearts."

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