Cairo's Nubians embrace their heritage through traditional music.by Rachel Aspden / July 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
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,”…