Vol 2 No 1 Fall/Winter 2004
Visiting with the Dom Musicians of Egypt
by Kevin Holmes
The tradition of the Gypsy singer/musician has flourished for the last several hundred years. Throughout history, the many ancient visitors to the Middle East have documented their witness to the Gypsy involvement in the musical arts of these distant lands. /1/ Even today the lands of the Middle East and North Africa still witness the music, song and poems of the Gypsy musician.
A Visit with the family of a Dom Musician
The Egyptian taxi driver skillfully negotiated the winding, sand covered path as we traveled to the home of a local Dom musician. He carefully avoided the many children, domesticated animals, sand piles and potholes as he delivered us to the ground floor apartment of a non-descript, unfinished brick building. I have visited this family many times and always receive a warm welcome into their modest home with its sparse furnishings and dirt floor. I recall the first visit to this home when the eldest son, upon learning of my interest in Egyptian music, eagerly retrieved his rababah, changed into a new jalabaya (men’s long outer clothing) and scarf, and entertained me with the sounds of this unique instrument. With his father absent, the son endeavoured to play his rababah while his younger brother accompanied the melody on the tabla (Arab drum). As they played, the older son’s face revealed his frustration with the younger brother’s erratic drum tempo. Quickly, another brother was chosen to play the drum. The music improved somewhat but it was apparent that the eldest son was still learning to play the instrument. The return of the taxi driver brought to a close our rudimentary rababah concert. As I was leaving, the patriarch of the family unexpectedly returned and immediately welcomed me back into his home.
Truly a professional, his exceptional talent quickly exposed the potential hidden within his rababah. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he placed the rababah on one leg and slowly began sliding the bow across the horsehair strings. A deep melodic sound sprang forth from the rich, dark wood of his rababah. His deeply tanned face smiled, flashing a set of golden teeth beneath his heavy moustache. His flowing green jalabaya and white head covering perfectly cast him in the character of the epic poet, a timeless family tradition.
The father explained how he and his brothers had learned the rababah from their father. His father had learned from his grandfather who in turn had learned from his great grandfather. He was not aware of an ancestor who had not played the rababah. He had married into a family of musicians in which his father-in-law and his brothers-in-law were also rababah players. Surprisingly, only one of his sons is following in his footsteps, yet perhaps given the diminishing state of the live music industry, this is for the better.
The patriarch fondly reminisced about the days when his talent was in demand at weddings and coffee shops throughout all of Egypt. Today, business is poor. Yet he remains proud of his musical and ethnic heritage. “All rababah players in Egypt are Halab!” he boldly states. On this visit he has gathered several of his musical family members for a concert to substantiate his claim. His brother and nephew arrived earlier with their instruments, the rababah and a drum. Now colorfully dressed in the traditional jalabaya and head covering of the Egyptian musician, they tune their instruments and begin to harmonize. The talent is immediately obvious. The rich melodies of the rababahs fill the small room. The drumbeat is compelling and the nephew confidently leads the tempo. Their voices blend in unison as the song begins. I am unfamiliar with many of the words they are singing. Aware of this, the father, in the creative tradition of the epic poet, composes a new verse as he sings to me, in broken English and Arabic, about the country from which I come.
After several photographs and glasses of tea, I bid farewell to our hosts and look forward to the next visit with this musical family.
Another Musical Dom Family
Our horse drawn carriage turned off the main street into a narrow back street that came to an abrupt end only 50 meters ahead. We stopped in front of a door and dismounted, leaving the driver to reverse the horse and carriage in the confined alleyway. My guide, a local man, had located the home of the Dom musician through his contacts within the rural Egyptian town. As we approached the brick building, the Gypsy family welcomed us into their ground floor home but informed us that the rababah player, and father of the family, was out. We were offered soft drinks and assured that he would return soon.
In superior condition to many other Gypsy homes I’d visited, the interior of this room was plastered and painted but required maintenance. A large curtain divided the sitting room. The curtain was opened but still shielded a significant portion of the room where several Dom women and children sat. One elderly woman sat cross-legged on the floor and cleaned a bowl of grain during the entire time of our visit. Small, semi-clad children ran and played throughout the rooms and on the dilapidated couch. Teenage and middle-aged women frequently moved through the room but rarely stayed long. The family was very hospitable as we awaited the return of the father.
Curious stares and giggles from the children provided entertainment during the first hour of our wait and just minutes before the father of the family arrived we were treated to further entertainment. An older man, a relative of the family we were later told, dressed in an inexpensive black suit arrived at the house and presented his magic act for us. He began by deftly moving ping-pong balls between his hands only to have them magically appear from his coat pockets. To close his act he pretended to swallow a ping-pong ball only to have multiple balls magically come forth from his mouth. Shortly after the performance, the father finally arrived home.
He was an impressive looking man wearing a light blue jalabaya and matching head covering and scarf. Unlike other Dom men, he also wore designer sunglasses and a large gold colored watch. He was pleased to demonstrate his ability with the rababah and then perhaps, sell us some of his audiotapes. To assure us of his stature as an elite Egyptian rababah player, he described to us his many musical experiences overseas in Europe, USA and Canada. He quickly pulled out his papers and passport to display, as proof, the stamps of many European countries. He laughed as he conveyed his capability to care for his four wives and twenty-two children! In this atmosphere of joking and frivolity he began to tune his rababah.
The entire family began to gather in the large front room to watch or participate in the concert. One son pulled out the drum, another son warmed the strings of a second rababah as the father cajoled a melody from his rababah. After a short time of tuning and discussion to determine which song to play, the performance began. The room erupted in a festive mood and began drawing neighbors in from the street. Encouraged by the spirited environment, the father began to twirl the neck of his rababah and increase the tempo of the music. His years of experience and the love for the rababah were apparent. After several songs, he and his sons rested as we drank tea and discussed his career. He proudly displayed his worn rababah and explained to us that the horsehair strings were superior to the metal strings of many other rababahs. His wife brought out a picture album and showed us the many pictures of his music career playing throughout Egypt and in many other countries. He explained that he had learned to play the rababah from his father, and his father had acquired the skill from the grandfather. Theirs was a musical tradition that had been passed down through each generation.
After our tea and conversation we said our goodbyes. And, oh yes, I purchased a cassette audiotape.
/1/ Sampson, John. “The Ghagar of Egypt: A Chapter in the History of Gypsy Migration,” Journal of Gypsy Lore Society, (third series) Vol. VII, 1928: 78 - 90 (Back to Text)
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