The Zaar is a community healing ritual of drumming and dancing, primarily involving women and led by women. It was said to have originated in East Africa and has been practised in Egypt since pre-Islamic times.
While the oldest academic references to the Egyptian Zaar date back to 1862, archaeological remains show that this type of ritual played in part in the lives of Ancient Egyptians.
Whereas the Tanoura dance is done as a means of connecting with God or a higher being, the aim of the Zaar is to pacify everyday spirits. It also serves to harmonize the inner lives of the participants and provide a space in which women can 'work out the tensions and frustrations of social constraints which limit their movements, their dress, their voices and even their dreams.' Little wonder that it is viewed with suspicion and even hostility in many quarters.
Because it has a marginal status in Egypt and is part of the underground culture, Zaar music and songs have survived with little interference from outside influences. The downside is that many of the songs have been lost and at present there are only 25 people in the whole of Egypt who carry its musical legacy.
One of the highlights of our trip to Cairo was a performance of Mazaher, a Zaar ensemble, at the Makan Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art (ECCA). Crammed into a small, dark room, in close proximity to the singers and musicians, it was a truly unforgettable experience.
is an ensemble in which women play a leading role and Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan and Nour el Sabah are among the last remaining Zaar practitioners in Egypt. Their music is inspired by three different styles of Zaar music practised in Egypt: the Upper Egyptian Zaar, Abu Gheit Zaar and the Sudanese, or African, Zaar.
We arrived early, took our place and were offered a glass of tea. I was relieved to be out of the taxi and well away from the driving and inane banter of the driver, who must have asked at least 10 people for directions to a place he swore he knew. I don't like being unpleasant but in Middle Eastern countries find that when dealing with men - especially taxi drivers and vendors - I've yet to achieve the right balance and veer between extreme politeness and downright hostility.
For a while there were only a handful of people present but by the time the performance started the place was packed. The intimacy of the setting gave the performance a particular potency.
The mawaal (improvised singing) and insistent and varied drum rhythms are an essential part of the zar ritual. The first half focused on the Upper Egyptian zaar. The singer possessed an extraordinary voice and the combination of her singing and the pounding rthythms of the many drums including the duff, darbuka and sagat reached an exhilarating crescendo. While this was a performance rather than a ritual, it was easy to see how liberating the music could be, a powerful release from the constraints of everyday life.
After a fag break (for the singer at least), the musicians returned, with one playing an instrument pictured on tombs and temples in Ancient Egypt and featured in the Egyptian zaar ritual, the tamboura, or six-string lyre. Two men wearing mangour, leather belts sewn with goat hooves, made vigorous forward and back movements with their hips, creating yet another form of percussion.
The ECCA has gathered together these performers to document and promote the legacy of the Zaar. Performances take place every Wednesday evening and cost 20 Egyptian pounds.
I really urge anyone going to Cairo to take time out to visit the centre. It provides a unique insight into the 'real' Egypt lurking behind the five-star hotels and tourist traps, and one that without the support of visitors, is unlikely to survive.