Rango, the ancient Sudanese music of healing, is under threat from religious orthodoxy. But the musicians are fighting back
In an upstairs apartment in the old Cairo district of Sayyida Zeinab, the last rango player in Egypt is invoking a murderous spirit. Hassan Bergamon, a gravely-voiced 60-year-old, wearing an embroidered prayer cap, is singing in a mixture of Arabic and a lost Sudanese tribal language called Rotana: “Yawra Bey, oh master, oh play with your sword my prince.”
Around him whirl percussionists playing goatskin drums, a metal block that looks like a stray piece of steel girder, and shakers made from recycled aerosol cans. One wears a mangor—a shaker-belt covered in hundreds of sundried goats’ hooves. The group’s official dancer, Toutou, in trousers and a shirt rather than his usual performance outfit of tribal plumes and beads, spins around them all in the traditional dances that accompany the spirit music. Hassan switches from the tanboura—a huge wooden lyre draped in tassels and strings of bright prayer beads—to the magical rango itself.
The rango is an old Sudanese xylophone, its wooden blocks attached to curving gourds that, the musicians believe, contain the souls of the instrument’s previous masters. The instrument and its music are a bridge between the visible world and the spirit world—inhabited by beings such as Yawra Bey, the sword-wielding, dandyish king of the spirits and Lady Racosha, a beautiful and mischievous child spirit. The wild call-and-response music Hassan’s group are playing, especially the eerie hollow tones of the rango, is intended to heal its listeners and placate and delight the spirits. “When I play, it’s like something is controlling me. I go into a trance,” explains Hassan afterwards.
Rango music—along with its close cousin zar music, used in the zar ceremony of healing and exorcism—was brought to Egypt nearly 200 years ago by Sudanese slaves forced into the Egyptian army and labourers brought in to work the country’s new cotton plantations. Hassan, like the other rango musicians, is descended from them. He was born in the Suez canal city of Ismailia, to a Sudanese-Egyptian family famous for producing rango and zar masters and mistresses. His grandmother taught him to play the family’s precious rango, but after her death, when Hassan was 12, his uncle smashed the instrument. “My uncle destroyed it because he knew I wanted to leave school to play rango. I would have preferred it if he’d killed me,” he says.
At the time the rango itself was struggling to survive. In the 1960s, there were still 30 rango players in Cairo, playing at weddings, celebrations and ritual mourning nights, but they slowly succumbed to changing fashions and competition from cheap recorded pop music. By the 1990s, they had disappeared, but the Egyptian musicologist Zakaria Ibrahim found Hassan in Cairo and they went in search of surviving instruments and musicians together. The group Rango—which includes Hassan’s accompanists as well as tanboura players and female zar musicians—is the result.
While rango music is traditionally played in public to mixed groups, zar music is the hidden face of spirit music. Like rango, it draws on a mixture of Muslim, Christian and animist beliefs. But in Egypt, it is usually performed only for women, who gather in the zar ceremony to sing, dance and pacify the spirits causing problems in their lives. In a tiny smoke-filled living room in Port Said, I watch as eight local women in housegowns and headscarves gather for a zar under the direction of Sheikha Zeinab, a kind-faced 65-year-old holy woman. Any woman who suffers from a problem—often depression, given the harsh conditions and confinement endured by many of Egypt’s poorest women—may consult the sheikha and become arous al-zar, the bride of the zar.
Down one side of the room squat three male musicians, one, Araby Jacomo, holding a tanboura. Opposite them is the korsi—a candlelit altar bearing dry beans, peanuts and toffees to attract the spirits. Sheikha Zeinab circles the room with a bowl of smouldering incense, dousing everyone in its smoke. She is able, the zar followers believe, to communicate with the spirits and fulfil their demands—this time, for beer, bananas or sweets, but more often for the blood of sacrificed animals. As the rhythmic music begins, the bride of the zar is brought into the centre of the room with a white cloth draped over her head. Encouraged by the singing and shouts of the other women, she throws herself into wilder and wilder dances before collapsing, exhausted, on the floor. The spirit has stopped tormenting her, for now. “We are just trying to get rid of people’s suffering,” says Sheikha Zeinab. “This is the best way to do it.”
But Rango and zar are under threat from changing fashions, primarily from Egypt’s increasing religious orthodoxy. Islamic programmes broadcast from the Gulf warn Egyptian women not to seek help for their problems at the zar—but instead to contact the satellite stations’ own sheikhs. “I spent a year serving the zar community,” says Ibrahim, who is one of the few outsiders to have an insight into its secret world. “My aim was to come away with an instrument. But I fell in love with the music, and I realised that my duty is to prevent it from disappearing.” Since then, with Sheikha Zeinab and Hassan Bergamon, he has fought to preserve it.