El Tanbura are a collective of veteran master musicians, singers, fishermen and Sufi philosophers. For the past years they have been keepers to some of Egypt’s oldest folk traditions at their home in Port Said, at the gate to the Suez Canal. Their music is driven by the seductive call of the Simsimiyya – an ancient lyre dating back to the times of the Pharaohs.
The origins of the Simsimiyyia are lost in the mist of time and legend. Its modern history comes to life in the 1930s, when Cafe owners in Port Said often employed a player to entertain their customers in the old-time smoking dens. Adopting influences from other styles of local folk music and local Sufi beliefs, the instrument quickly gained in popularity, eventually drawing large audiences and a new repertoire known simply as Simsimiyya was created. This popular success was followed by a downturn after the war: economic difficulties and widespread commercialization led to a decline of the tradition in the late 1970s, and many of the old masters simply withdrew from performing, disillusioned and tired.
El Tanbura?s founder, Zakaria Ibrahim first heard the Simsimiyyia in Port Said as a young boy in the 1950s. The sound of the instrument stayed in his memory ever since, and in 1980, he decided to dedicate himself to seeking out the old masters and convince them to perform once again. In 1989 a small nucleus of veteran performers came together to form the El Tanbura group. They were ignored initially, but the infectious atmosphere of the performances soon convinced others to join, and the band grew to include not only folk musicians and percussionists but dancers and singers drawn from local fishermen, market traders and builders, alongside with some older master instrumentalists.
Performances today feature seductive simsimiyya melodies, Sufi inspired vocal chants, increasingly intense drumming and bouts of frenzied dancing. Band members dress in an eclectic mix of jellabas, jeans, fez and baseball caps, and enjoy involving their audiences as their rhythms and chants gains in heat and passion.
With a musical legacy nearly spanning two decades, and concerts at home and abroad consistently winning them new fans, wider success had been elusive for El Tanbura. The group showcased at World Music Expo (WOMEX) in the fall of 2007 and won the Roskilde Festival World Music Award for Zakaria’s El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Popular Music at WOMEX 2011 in Copenhagen.