Pipers & Music Ethnologists, can you help me please
I’m looking for any help that can help me penetrate the seemingly impenetrable world of Egyptian Trad Arab bagpipe/piping.
I’m not talking about the massed and screamingly out tune kiech thats rolled out for the tourists below the pyramids etc, I’m after the trad Arab stuff.
In late 2008 I’d just arrived in Cairo about to embark on what would become a 3 year work assignment. Sat in the lobby of the Meridian (Heliopolis) hotel, sampling Egyptian beer and smarting at the wonder that is Cairo, a local wedding party descended the stairs from the function room above, proceeded by a bunch of assorted minstrels clad in what I later discovered was traditional Egyptian wedding minstrel garb.
These guys were mainly drummers and tambourinists, four or five of them who accompanied a couple of trumpeteers, with frenzied bashing and dancing, they playing and dancing in the lower lobby as the wedding party followed the bride and groom as they glided down the stairs towards this lobby reception party. I watched on in wonder, a beer swilling western voyeur if you like.
Once the assembled party were all massing in the lower lobby, their descent from the function room complete, the main body of the minstrels stopped playing and all eyes looked back to the balcony from where they’d come. There on the upper landing was another minstrel, sporting a small set of bagpipes, the bag of which was clad with the most garishly coloured tartan of the type that would give the worst example of the faux Chinese made tartan travel rug a run for it’s money.
The piper struck up and played solo for around 3 or 4 minuets and despite my rather presumptuous first impressions, this piper had his pipes perfectly tuned in preparation, as any professional GHB player performing for wedding or funeral would, the tunes themselves were beautifully played, in short a fantastic professional recital.
After the piping the entire party, guests and minstrels, left and I ordered another beer. But I was so taken with the quality of the playing that it got me thinking that there must be some sort of arab piping tradition that up and to that point, I was completely unaware of. I was going to have to ask someone to put me wise to this stuff when I got the chance.
Despite 3 years living cheek by jowl with local muslim and coptic egyptians, learning a little conversational egyptian arabic, including a masterful grasp of egyptian curses and expletives, learning to count to infinity and being able to read the arabic numerical system, it seems that this type of piping is as much a mystery to the locals as it was to me.
Hardly surprising really as piping out there is rather more fringe than it is in most of the west. You’ll see and hear several types of egyptian pipes playing among the rather eclectic mix of traditional western orchestral and regional instruments, that are a feature in traditional and modern arabic ensemble playing and very popular with the general population. But isolating piping and pipers seemed like an impossible task for a non arabic foreigner (ha’waga) like me.
I once even managed to grab a piper at an event I attended in Alexandria, but he spoke no englazie, my arabic fell too short of the mark for me to even begin to hold a meaningful conversation with him, and my local pals on that occasion were unable to grasp the nuance of my inquiry and convey it for me. Which was, where can I go to hear trad arab piping, where do pipers hang out, can I hire one to give me a recital of a few traditional arabic tunes, etc.
My pals for their part were happy to provide their own interpretations, on CD and mp3, of what they though I was after, great as this music is, it’s not what I was looking for, I was after bare bones renditions sans the western orchestral influence and preferably, in a similar solo piping format in the style I’d heard. I knew it was out there, somewhere, but wherever it was it remained elusive.
I did manage to establish that the type of piping I heard on my first day in Cairo back in 2008 is a sometimes feature of "traditional" weddings in the more secular north, lower egypt. Although like it is with us in the west "traditional" weddings are giving way to the less traditional format and almost everybody I spoke to in my time could elaborate no more than this. Unfortunately due to spending the vast majority of my time in country busy and out in both the eastern and western deserts, I didn’t have much time to look, or arrange a wedding.
Then, just as I felt I was beginning to make inroads on this quest, a pal of a pal actually knew a piper, along came the uprising. I’ve been back since but only for very short visits and I’ve lost touch with most of the wider group of people I worked with or knew, and the up shot is the guy who had a piping contact, is now lost to me.
The plan now is for me to make an enquiry of the hotel management at the Heliopolis Meridian (where I stayed only on my first day in the country), next time I find myself in Cairo, whenever that maybe. I think I should be able to track these mysterious pipers down through the hotel function manager. Although there’ll be an issue of not having a local connection that can get me in under the tourist radar.
In the mean time if any of you guys know anything about this style of arabic piping I’d be very grateful to hear about it.
Many thanks for reading.