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Egyptian drummers beat bad rap tabla tunes

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Cairo (AFP) – Many Egyptians associate the tabla drum with belly dancers and seedy nightclubs, but despite its image problem, percussionists breathe new life into the ancient instrument.

And it is often women who now play the traditional goblet-shaped drum, an early version of which was found in the ancient temple of the goddess Hathor at Qena in southern Egypt.

The rhythm of the tabla is ubiquitous, enlivening every Egyptian wedding, concert and impromptu dance party.

And yet, professional tabla players have been associated with nightclubs, where they accompany the undulations of belly dancers, despised as infamous figures by many Egyptians.

“The public image of tabla is very negative,” said music scholar Ahmed al-Maghraby. “People associate it with a lack of morality.”

This is something newcomers want to change.

“There’s a new trend now: solo tabla concerts,” said musician Mostafa Bakkar, who battled his own family’s disapproval of his decision to become a tabla player and teacher.

“People find the environment shameful,” he told AFP. “They laugh at me and say, ‘So where’s the dancer?'”

‘Music therapy’

The quip has its roots in Egyptian popular culture.

The 1984 hit film “Al Raqessa wal Tabal” (The Dancer and the Tabla Player) tells the story of a percussionist whose career comes to a halt after he leaves his belly dancer partner to strike out on her own.

Bakkar, 30, who ties his dreadlocks with a white bandana, said he also organizes impromptu drumming circles for enthusiasts.

Mostafa Bakkar (L) struggled with his own family’s disapproval of his decision to become a tabla player and teacher Khaled DESOUKIAFP

“I distribute tablas to people around me and we play music in unison,” he told AFP.

“It’s a kind of group therapy,” adds neuropsychologist Christine Yaacoub, a regular at Bakkar’s drum sessions.

“I saw how tabla can make people happy, so now I use it as music therapy with my patients,” she said.

By practicing percussion together, “we increase our attention span”, she explains, because the tabla allows people “to express themselves without speaking”.

‘Break the rules’

Most professional tabla players were men, but more and more Egyptian women are embracing the ancient instrument, either professionally or as a hobby.

In 2016, tabla players Rania Omar and Donia Sami, one of whom is veiled, went viral on social media with a video that drew a fair amount of online rowdy but also an outpouring of support.

Encouraged, the duo became the first all-female tabla group in Egypt.

In 2019, 33-year-old Soha Mohammed joined them in creating “Tablet al-Sitt” (The Woman’s Tabla), “to give all women a chance to freely sing and play the tabla”.

Five hundred people gathered to watch Tablet al-Sitt perform at a recent concert in Cairo
Five hundred people gathered to watch Tablet al-Sitt perform at a recent concert in Cairo Mohamed HOSSAMAFP

Mohammed has since traveled with eight other percussionists across Egypt, bringing audiences new interpretations of traditional classics.

At a recent show in Cairo under a bridge on the banks of the Nile, 500 people gathered at the “Wheel of Sawy Culture”, singing and clapping as Tablet al-Sitt played folk favorites.

For band member Rougina Nader, who at 21 has spent 12 years playing the instrument, it’s been a long and difficult road to becoming a full-time percussionist.

“We disturb the men, because we are in competition, and the public loves us,” she told AFP. “There are obstacles, but that won’t stop us from continuing to break the rules.”