Words by Natalie Garland
How Egyptian music and dance represent the nation’s true nature amid political revolution
On a Wednesday summer night in Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park, hundreds of Egyptians crowd the entrance to a Wust El-Balad concert to claim the best seats. Wust El-Balad’s lyrics are creative and playful. The seven-member group formed in 1999, and its many instruments come together to create energetic, dance-inspiring rhythms. Everyone is eager to dance and sing with Egypt’s most famous rock band.
The concert has brought together Egyptians of all ages. And though the crowd feels a little conservative — most of the women are veiled and dressed modestly — it holds nothing back once the music begins. Everyone moves and claps to the vibrant beats. The music’s spirit transcends into the crowd in an unexplainable way.
I was in Al-Azhar Park that night, this past summer. The music compelled even me, a foreigner, to take up the energy of those around me.
Despite my family’s wishes, I was eager to spend my summer in Egypt. The travel warnings from the State Department did not scare me. In fact, they only motivated me more, because I wanted to see for myself what was really going on.
I can tell you now that the media fail us. I am not arguing that violence in Egypt has been minimal or insignificant. Instead, I wish to portray a side of Egyptian life and culture that rarely, if ever, surfaces in the news. The media love the drama, and photographs of rebels with guns sell papers. That isn’t reality and shouldn’t define Egypt.
Music and dance should.
Cairo has kept its music and dance soul alive even through revolution. Many Egyptians prefer dancing and singing in chic venues or alluring outdoor spaces to protesting. And though the crowds are unique, one thing is always the same: the passion, the unity, and the happiness dance and music inspire.
Sufi dancing, first used in religious performances more than 700 years ago, also captures Egyptians’ love of music and dance. The modern form of the dance is often used to entertain in venues such as nightclubs, restaurants, and Nile cruises.
The captivating dance requires concentration and agility. The performer, wearing layers of colorful woven skirts, spins in endless circles, moving the cloth in exciting ways. A group of musicians plays ancient Sufi songs on various instruments.
When I watched one group, Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe, I couldn’t decide whether to take pictures or to sit in awe. The audience members around me had a similar dilemma, but everyone beamed with joy — it was impossible to reject the fun.
Another evening, I saw a group called Mazaher, which performs traditional Zar music. The show was set in a small, dark, and antique-filled room. It had no stage, but an option to sit on cushions near the performers’ feet. Zar is rarely practiced in Egypt. Like Sufi dancing, Zar is traditionally religious but now provides a way to celebrate and share Egypt’s rich culture. The music that evening came from percussion instruments accompanied by six singers’ raw, spiritual voices.
The star of the show was a woman with a raspy yet soothing voice. Her hands trembled with the beat. Her eyes connected with everyone she sang to. The atmosphere in the room was electric, and everyone felt free.
Cairo also has plenty of dance clubs. They provide a modern alternative to Sufi dancing and Zar, still bringing people together in similar ways.
The role of music and dance in everyday life in Egypt is powerful. Music unifies people in a certain way and creates a liberating and happy atmosphere. This summer, the country held its first-ever democratic election. People danced to music in the streets, celebrating newly elected President Mohamed Morsi. But as the rhythms and beats flowed, politics and the country’s future were on no one’s mind.