For a band that’s been around for more than three decades, the Nile Band for Traditional Instruments isn’t as well known as you might expect it to be. Hardly any of the audience members at Thursday’s inaugural ArtBeat festival had heard of them before, but by the time the 30-plus members of Nile Band shuffled off the stage it seemed like few, if any, would forget them.
“They were amazing,” gushed Shereen Zaki, 25. Like most of the ArtBeat audience, Zaki had come to the Darb 1718 Art Gallery where the festival had its opening night, to witness the event itself, not any one of the many performing bands in particular. For her, the Nile Band was an extremely pleasant surprise. “It’s not often that you can enjoy true, authentic Egyptian music. Everyone’s busy following trends, and it’s comforting to know there are still people [preserving] our folkloric sounds and musical tradition.”
Formed in 1975 by the late folklore-enthusiast Zakaria el-Heggawi, and managed today by his successor Abdel Rahman Shafie, the Nile Band has since undergone numerous lineup changes–original members, having reached the status of living legends within the circles of folkloric music, retire or pass away; their positions filled by younger artists sharing the same passion for the rich sounds and epic stories found in traditional Egyptian music.
“Everyone learns from the older generations,” smiles Ismail Abdel Samad el-Ayoubi, one of the Nile Band’s many members. Despite being in his late 50’s, el-Ayoubi only joined the Nile Band in 2000 and as such, knows what it is like to be a newcomer while also being regarded as a member of “the older generation.” He explains that just as the younger members of the band learn from their elders, the elders themselves find their inspiration in the past generations–the artists who ages ago created the songs and poems that have since become a quintessential part of Egyptian culture and heritage.
“Our songs have not changed since we began,” says el-Ayoubi. “They are old songs, historic songs. They are about us.”
El-Ayoubi’s band mate, Rawda Sheha, who bowled the audience over with her absurdly powerful voice, passionate performance, and commanding presence, claims that the band does more than just recycle the sounds of the past. “We write songs too,” says Sheha, speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm. “For every district or governorate that we perform in, we develop some new material–songs about the place itself.” Without the slightest pause at the end of her sentence, Sheha launches into song, belting out a charming ode to Mansoura and its residents.
“We also have songs for Aswan, Sharqeya, and lots of other places we’ve gone,” says Sheha.
And the members of the Nile Band have certainly gone to many places together, expertly and enthusiastically performing traditional Egyptian music all over the world. “We’ve performed in America, Switzerland, France, India, China, Spain, Morocco,” says el-Ayoubi, pausing for breath.
“The reactions we get when we perform abroad are always great,” says Sheha, her perpetual smile widening further. “And why wouldn’t they be? Our words are great, the music is great.”
“Folkloric art, traditional art,” she says, “is the essence of everything.”