Artwork from Hamza El Din's album, “Escalay”

Carrying on Nubian Culture Through Music

Adventure Center: Travelers-in-Residence
by Karen Dion May 26, 2012
This story was produced by the MatadorU Traveler-in-Residence program in partnership with Adventure Center.
    “Virtually everything that sparkled in the golden age of Greece was borrowed from the Egyptians, and the Egyptians adopted their routines from the royal blacks of Nubia. We moderns overlook Nubia, we forgot how proud and fancy it was. Nubia played Professor Longhair and Big Mama Thornton to Egypt’s Elvis.” ~ Tom Robbins

NUBIAN CIVILIZATION predates Egypt’s by thousands of years, archeological evidence suggests. Nubia even ruled over Egypt during the 25th Dynasty, yet it is largely overlooked in the well-told narrative of ancient Egypt.

The few documentaries and podcasts I found on the subject describe the story of today’s Nubia, which covers southern Egypt and northern Sudan, as one of displacement and loss. Nubian people saw their villages along the Nile drowned as the result of the constructions of, first, the Aswan Dam in 1902, and then the High Dam in the 1960s. The resultant rising waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser flooded much of Nubia, submerging villages and ancient monuments. The monuments were saved, but the homeland of the Nubian people was quietly left to drown and around 100,000 people forced to resettle.

Nubians were made to begin a new life, in a new place, from nothing. People who had lived along, and relied upon, the Nile for their whole lives were resettled in desert areas around Kom Ombo, or cities like Aswan. They were promised compensation, but it never arrived; instead, they faced political and cultural marginalization and the erasure of their cultural heritage and language.

The reports I listened to were often accompanied by a haunting track called “The Water Wheel” by Hamza El Din. The sparseness of this music conveyed to me the emptiness of the pain of loss. I was interested to learn more of how Nubian musicians express their feelings of displacement through music.

Music and civil resistance have long been tied: from Chile’s Nueva Cancion, through Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” and Palestinian hip-hop. My home country, Scotland, too, long ago expressed the misery of the forced Highland Clearances in “Canadian Boat Song”, which we learned at school, and, more recently, the Proclaimers’ “Letter From America.” And in Egypt, the songs of Nubian artist Mohammad Mounir are politically charged and heavy with social commentary.

Visitors to Aswan may be able to catch performances by Nubian musicians at the Nubian House, just off Sharia al-Tahrir, or at the Nubian Restaurant on Issa Island.

The more I listened to Nubian music and read about the artists, the more I came to interpret the music implicitly as a way of resisting the erasure of Nubian identity alongside their geographical home. “The Water Wheel,” for example, describes the experience of a boy turning a waterwheel, technology that was cooperatively built and shared by Nubian communities. Hamza El Din was one of the thousands of people whose villages had been lost underneath Lake Nasser. “The Water Wheel” is his lament over the loss of a traditional way of life.

In Egypt, I’d read that the best place to hear Nubian music was at a Nubian wedding, but attendance was not realistic in my one free afternoon in Aswan. Visitors to the city may be able to catch performances by Nubian musicians at the Nubian House, just off Sharia al-Tahrir, or at the Nubian Restaurant on Issa Island — both places feature occasional live music.

Instead, I satisfied myself with catching the drifts of music coming from the souk — from recordings played in cafes, and from a lone street musician in the Ferial Gardens on my way to the Nubian Museum. What really caught my attention was the variation of instrumentation and styles — styles that my ear could not distinguish as traditional or contemporary.

Nubian music, I learned, originally drew inspiration from the Nubian landscape. However, since their displacement, Nubian musicians have been pulling from other influences, such as Western and Arabic pop rhythms and instruments.

In its fusion of traditional and modern elements, the music that Nubian musicians have produced over the last 60 years reflects the way that displaced Nubian people have adapted to their new lives in new homes. This music is a record of the conciliation between traditional ways of life and those of adopted homes; between rural music and the sounds of big cities.

The following three albums offer a good introduction to contemporary Nubian music.

Hamza El Din — “Escalay”

Hamza El Din was born in the now-drowned village of Toshka. While studying in Cairo, he became aware of the plans to build the High Dam and was drawn to the preservation of the threatened culture and traditions of Nubia. He traveled by donkey through Nubian villages with his tar drum, gathering songs. His music drew upon the moods of traditional Nubian sounds mixed with instruments such as the classical Arabic oud, which was not indigenous to Nubian music.

“The Water Wheel,” on his 1971 album Escalay, describes the experience of a boy tasked with keeping the fields of his rural Nile village irrigated by the turning of the community’s waterwheel — cooperative ownership of resources such as waterwheels, palm trees, and cattle is an important part of Nubian culture.

Ali Hussan Kuban — “From Nubia to Cairo”

Kuban found some international fame in the ’80s and ’90s with the release of his albums From Nubia to Cairo and Walk Like a Nubian, and by performing at events such as WOMAD and the Montreal Jazz Festival, which earned him the title “Godfather of Nubian Music.”

Born in the Nubian village of Gotha, Kuban began his musical career playing weddings for displaced Nubians in the Cairo neighborhood of Abdin. Seeing a jazz band from Harlem perform at Cairo’s Gezira Sporting Club inspired him to experiment with instrumentation, and he soon added electric guitars and a horn section to his music in a mix that fused traditional songs with up-tempo Western influences.

My favorite Kuban song is Habibi, a mish-mash of hypnotic chanting, a frantic brass section, and off-kilter drumming.

Various Artists — Egypt Noir

This collection features tracks from Ali Hussan Kuban and master drummer Mahmoud Fadl, as well as younger artists like Salwa Abou Greisha.

The album explores the rhythms of North Africa, veering through musical styles that range from soul to blues to Afrobeat to funk, and complemented by just about every possible instrument. My favorite is the dreamy, reggae-infused track “Samra Oya” by Sayed Khalifa.

[Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]

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