Rango’s debut album, Bride Of Zar, took everyone by surprise when it was released last year, introducing trance-inducing music from Sudanese mystic healing ceremonies and hip-shaking Nubian wedding melodies to a fascinated world.
Giving the Cairo-based collective added cachet, the music is played on a two centuries-old rango xylophone with spirit-manifesting gourd resonators, antique lyres (simsimiyya and tanbura) fitted with electric pickups, and shakers fashioned from aerosol cans and filled with beans. The extraordinary sound that emanates from Rango is topped off by a battery of more conventional percussion instruments, chants and call & response vocals.
No one is better qualified to divulge the mysteries of both instrument and idiom than the man who is allegedly the last surviving player of the rango, the enigmatic Hassan Bergamon, who answered your correspondent’s questions via interpreters (many thanks Zakaria Ibrahim and Michael Whitewood).
Rango’s frontman explains that the eponymous music, which emanated from Sudan during migration waves in the 1820s and 1860s, had completely disappeared in Egypt by the 1970s. “I had a heavy heart as I thought I would never play the rango again,” he says. An uncle, who thought that to live the life of a musician was to walk the road to ruin and poverty, destroyed the rango instrument that belonged to his family. He told Bergamon to concentrate on his schoolwork. “Actually since the early 1960s I’ve never had my own rango. I studied under other rango masters when I left home, but generally I ended up playing percussion, as people were protective about their instruments.” When the old masters died, their families were even more reluctant to part with the rangos. “Mourning wives would understandably keep the old instruments as they felt it was the only way of retaining some connection with their loved ones,” says Bergamon. “Gradually there were less and less of these instruments in circulation.”
The core of the collective formed around 10 years ago, after The El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music in Cairo managed to track down some vintage instruments and convince the owners that they should be made available so that an important facet of Sudanese heritage could be resumed. So Hassan Bergamon was able to play the rango again, albeit with a borrowed instrument. The band played some initial concerts in Egypt and Paris and then in 2008, after hooking up with London label 30 IPS Records, they played what turned out to be a landmark concert with The Bedouin Jerry Can Band. Since then they’ve toured the UK a number of times and played big concerts in Dubai, Sweden and Australia. Bergamon reports: “Lots of people came to see us when we played at the Barbican Theatre in London in 2009 and we did many interviews. That concert was the moment it changed and we started on our path to be well known.” The Times newspaper described it as “one of the most joyous and exhilarating concerts of the year”.
Bergamon, who’s in his 60s, is among the ensemble’s senior members. The youngest is 26-year-old vocalist Hossam Mohamed (aka Veeka). “He sings the romantic wedding songs,” imparts the leader. “Normally the ladies like to talk to him after the show. Also with TuTu [aka vocalist Essam Farag]. Lots of people fall in love with him. I’m married, though. And old!” he adds. “Through our concerts, more and more people are hearing the rango and liking it. When you hear the music, you have to dance. There’s no escape. Even English people, who, to be frank, are generally not so good at dancing compared to the Sudanese, were dancing all through our concerts. I was amazed when we toured England for the first time to see how the audiences connected with our music, even though they didn’t understand Arabic. I’m sure some very powerful spirits enter this dimension when we play because there is always a good atmosphere at our concerts.”
The group’s founding father is feeling a little more optimistic about keeping the flame of rango alive. “I hope that the candle will continue to burn now we have this second chance to continue the tradition. In our culture, we believe the soul of the player inhabits the rango and playing the keys opens a gateway to the spirit world, so is a big responsibility to be a rango master and you have to treat the gift with respect. The rango originally came to Egypt during the period of the slave trade. People in Egypt didn’t know how to make them. Even amongst the Sudanese exiles, this knowledge was eventually lost. Of course, the songs were always in my head and I adapted the melodies to play the music on other instruments, but the magic of the rango was not there.”
Bergamon’s ancestors come from the Dinka tribe in the South of Sudan. “There have always been stories of the rango and magic,” he says. “When the slaves came to Egypt they had nothing from their homes. Only the rango and maybe some drums. It was a hard life and people don’t like to talk about those dark times. I don’t know the exact history of the rango because no one can say — it’s like a dusty piece of the past. Some say it happened one way and some tell another story.”
The rango music that Bergamon and his band perform is for weddings and celebrations. There are also spirit songs for healing known as zar, and popular Nubian songs. “In Egypt and Sudan, we believe the music has the power to heal,” he relates. “It helps people to escape from their depressions and the bad things in life. But you don’t have to be spiritual or believe in God to enjoy the music. People can take from the music what they like. Rango music is different because it was the first example of man trying to make music with melody. Before the rango, it was just drums and percussion. Rango was the first xylophone. All our instruments are old and unique. Even the western harp came from the tanbura lyre in North Africa. Many other styles of music originate from the rango music. Maybe zar and rango music is an Egyptian or Sudanese version of something like the blues and work songs from America, although I think our music is unique.”
Bergamon started playing rango when he was very young — “maybe six years old,” he says. “My family have a very old and proud history of music and an ability to make connections with the spirits. I always heard the music when I was growing up. Instead of sleeping I would go to the street parties at night to hear the music, although this caused some arguments with my uncle.”
The rango that Bergamon has been using hitherto is now over 190 years old and very delicate and fragile, making it difficult to transport. “We can’t carry it on taxi roofs any more in case it breaks. Some of the resonators are cracked and I’ve been trying to repair this beautiful instrument the best I can, but I’m not an instrument-maker, and as I said the knowledge was lost in Egypt.” Bergamon has played Malian balafons but they failed to capture his interest. “For me I can only love the rango — the instrument is in my blood,” he declares.
An English instrument maker, Jamie Linwood, whom Bergamon met at the UK WOMAD this year, has revived hope for the future of the instrument, and consequently the style of music. “He has made many studies and researches about xylophones from Central Africa, but he could not believe that people still played the rango. He told us there is a big museum in Belgium where they have 150 vintage xylophones from many African tribes, but in Africa he only ever found old broken instruments as the missionaries forbid people play the music.” Linwood has made Bergamon two new rangos, based on the style and design of the vintage instrument he has been using. He handed over the rango copies in Cairo earlier this year. A special ceremony was held to mark the occasion, with lots of offerings and prayers. “In the past, we might have made some chicken or goat sacrifices but we know lots of our fans are vegetarians and like animals so we just broke some eggs instead of making sacrifices,” reveals Bergamon. “It’s OK to break eggs for the spirits. The old musicians used to do this at weddings for luck. Some of the Sudani spirits will ask us for offerings such as toffees, chocolate and peanuts. Our songs are for Muslim spirits, Christian spirits and our old tribal Gods, but only the Christian spirits ask for alcohol — whisky or sometimes Stella beer. They are always thirsty for some reason!”
The antique rango always had to be transported in a large container, which sometimes posed problems at airports, but the new instrument has a special case so it should be able to be carried readily enough. “It will be good if it’s easier for us to travel with the instrument,” says Bergamon. “I’m always anxious when I see the luggage belt at the airport — each time we thank the Gods everything arrived safely.” The new rangos still take some playing, Bergamon insists. “You have to play in a very particular and exact way. It’s not like a keyboard. There are no buttons on the new instruments. It is not automatic; it doesn’t have electricity.”
The collective’s repertoire comprises three musical styles: Zar, Simsimiyya and Rango. Zar music is played on percussion and tanbura lyre. “Tanbura is a traditional lyre that the ancient Egyptians used when opening the mouths of Mummies to help their journey to the afterlife,” Bergamon explains. “Simsimiyya is a little five-string lyre, which is a cousin if you like of the tanbura lyre. We play the simsimiyya with pentatonic scales used in much Nubian music. You don’t play rango and simsimiyya at the same time. One instrument played very strongly is best for the music. Some songs are rango and nothing else. On our album [Bride of Zar] we took a very old zar song from Ethiopia and made a simsimiyya song. Originally the song was vocals and percussion but many people say they liked this version (‘Assuybian Lady’).”
While he’s an Egyptian national, Hassan Bergamon, whose family has lived in Egypt for many generations, clearly relishes his Sudanese heritage and is proud to play what is virtually a lone ranger role for rango. “Because I was born into a musical family, I saw all the instruments in my home from an early age and fell in love with them. I have a daily relationship with the instruments. It’s not just a job. They secure my spiritual needs. Something in my blood pushes me to play them. Even if I’m alone at home I have to play. It is a big honour to tour the world and play rango music. You know there are always so many bad stories on the television about the Middle East and Muslim people, so I’m proud. Very proud to bring our music and show our culture in a good way.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.