In a small room off an alley in downtown Cairo, a group of men in the white robes and turbans of Upper Egypt, and a woman in a glittering gold-edged gown, sway to the intricate rhythm of four goatskin hand drums. Outside the building, the sounds of car horns, street vendors and amplified Quranic recitation mingle in Cairo’s usual urban cacophony. But the musicians’ voices rise in a haunting call-and-response song that remembers the Nile flowing through date groves and green fields 600 miles to the south.
This is Nuba Nour, a group of musicians from the ancient kingdom of Nubia, which is now divided between southern Egypt and northern Sudan. After the performance, the group tap out a series of cigarettes and drink strong black Egyptian tea as they explain the stories behind the music they are bringing to WOMAD on 28 and 29 July.
Nuba Nour—Nubian Light—is the latest incarnation of a band founded by Nubian emigrants to Cairo in 1962, explains singer Osama Mohamed, a kind-faced man in his fifties. “I was born in Nubia, though I now work in a bank in Cairo, and so were the older members of our group. But the younger generation, those in their twenties, were born here.” The musicians’ stories mirror those of their people—as their villages and land were increasingly threatened by the construction of the first Aswan Dam in 1902, and subsequent floods, Nubians began to seek refuge in Cairo and other major cities. In 1964 the remnants of the Nubian homeland were lost beneath the rising waters of Lake Nasser—a catastrophe Nubians call simply the higra, emigration.
Far from their ancestral villages, Nubians in Cairo embraced the heritage captured in their traditional music. The songs sung by Nuba Nour trace a round of social occasions—births (when a newborn baby’s face would be sprinkled with water from the Nile), marriages and funerals—that still exist, but they also record an agricultural calendar that most Nubians have forgotten: the seasons for planting, sowing and harvesting; a special ritual for collecting dates from the tall palms that grow beside the Nile. “The duf is like a story, I tell our tales and legends with this drum,” says tall, graceful percussionist Gamal Morgan. “The rhythms make me hear the sound of the Nile, the movement of the waterwheel and even the sound of date palms in the wind.”
Laying aside his drum, he demonstrates the two basic dance patterns that accompany these rhythms—arageed, a side-to-side step used for wedding celebrations, and the swaying feri, which mimics the darting movement of the bolti (tilapia) fish through the Nile’s waters. Another dance echoes the toil of breaking ground before the sowing season, the dancers swinging imaginary tools over their shoulders and down again in an ancient gesture that none of them have used in real life. “Come to break the ground,” the musicians sing as they dance. “Today we’ll do this, tomorrow we’ll water the ground, the next day we’ll see many plants grow.”
Osama brings out a painting by his grandfather. Under a flat blue Egyptian sky, farmers in the familiar white robes and turbans guide oxen dragging a plough, bend over crops planted in the black Nile soil and carry baskets of produce home. “We grew beans, hibiscus, wheat, okra, all kinds of vegetables, as well as raising animals,” he says. “But now most of our people have forgotten their agricultural skills. After the higra, the remaining Nubians were resettled in a desert area near Aswan that the government called New Nubia, but we called Wadi Gehennam, Hell Valley.”
Many of the musicians’ stories begin with “We don’t know”—the origins of many of their songs are lost, along with the names of the master musicians who played and sang them. “Before my father’s generation—and he’s now in his 70s—we know very little of our history,” says Osama. This is partly to do with the advent of modern technology—the Nubian musicians of the 60s were the first to have the opportunity to play in Cairo, have their music broadcast on the radio and recorded. “There are just a few names we know,” says Osama, “Khogary, Hassan Barsi, Alinto—they were singing in Nubia until the 1970s.”
Nuba Nour’s music is an attempt to turn this tide of forgetting. “The young people born in Cairo can’t speak Nubian,” says Diaa Ali, a singer and Nubian historian. Music and songs are an essential tool for keeping the language, which is unrelated to Arabic and has Ancient Egyptian roots, alive. “One of our young musicians is 26,” adds Diaa, “and he can’t speak Nubian but he can sing in Nubian.”
Like the Nubian language, the history captured in the songs stretches back into Egypt’s distant past. “Three quarters of the ancient monuments [of Nubia] are now submerged beneath Lake Nasser,” says Diaa, remembering the temples that Nubians had lived beside for centuries. Some of Nuba Nour’s songs draw on folk memories of Ancient Egyptian civilisation, commemorating the Nubian queen Nefertari, wife of Ramses II—“We’re proud to be the sons of the pharaohs,” adds drummer Hassan Mersaal. Others, mentioning Mary and Jesus, describe another lost heritage—remote Nubia remained a bastion of Christianity until around 1500, centuries after Egypt had converted by the arrival of Islam.
In the present, Nubians face new challenges. “Pushing Nubians away from their land was a big mistake in terms of national security,” explains Diaa. “Nubians are a big community and if they decide they want their own state, it’s going to create a problem for Egypt.” Recently, Nubians have joined other groups struggling for rights in the wake of Egypt’s revolution. Members of the approximately two million-strong community demonstrated in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Aswan in July over government plans to sell Nubian land on the edge of Lake Nasser, and over the absence of Nubians from the assembly tasked with writing the new Egyptian constitution.
Rather than taking to the streets, Nuba Nour are tackling these problems the best way they know: through bringing Nubia’s beautiful traditional music to new audiences. “By performing these songs, we’re keeping our identity alive,” says drummer Hassan Mersal. “To have an audience appreciate our art means we’re fighting against the marginalisation of Nubian people and bringing them back into the light.”
• Nuba Nour perform at the 30th anniversary WOMAD on 28 and 29 July 2012