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Sing, o simsimiyya

By Tuija Rinne

Simisimiyya is an instrument belonging to the folk music of the Suez canal, Said, Ismailiyya and Suez towns and ports. The same word is also used to describe the genre of Canal district folk music, in which the simsimiyya instrument is the main instrument.

The instrument itself is a kind of lyre, a stringed instrument that was carried to the Canal district towns from Sudan along the coast. According to Dwight Reynolds, an ethnomusicologist who has studied the simsimiyya music, the instrument arrived in Port Said in 1938, and it looked somewhat different than the present-day instrument. According to theory the instrument was carried from Africa to Yemen by ship, and nowadays features in Yemeni folk music.

The older form of simsimiyya, the tanboura, is said to have its roots in Ancient Egypt and is currently played in Upper Egypt. It has five strings and is tuned in pentatonic scale. It is smaller than the simsimiyya, and its strings are made of organic material. The tanboura was not used to accompany singing, it was rather a zar instrument. Over the course of time and with the development of the tradition the instrument changed. The actual simsimiyya, which is used to accompany singing, usually has from 12 to 14 metallic strings, sometimes even 25, and it is tuned to fit the maqams of Arab music.

The development of an urban folklore

Throughout time the Suez Canal district has been a gateway of crucial importance between Africa and Asia, and from the beginning of Islam pilgrim, Muslims have travelled through Suez on their way to and from Mecca. That is why it is natural that the district has been affected by different cultural influences. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 was an important event for Egypt, strategically, politically as well as economically, and it also affected the development of the districts folk music. During its building, the workers came from all parts of Egypt and brought with them their own musical traditions, and so did the Western engineers and the administrative staff with their families. Port Said was divided in two parts, Western and Egyptian; the foreigners organised weekly dancing parties, the Egyptians gathered in dammas to play music and sing.

In damma gatherings, the musicians and singers sat in a circle, often on laundry stools. The instruments used were the tabla-drum, spoons, and sometimes a tambourine. The simsimiyya didn't come along until probably the late thirties. The words of the songs were usually about love or religious feelings.

The ethnomusicologist Mohamed Shabana, in his doctoral thesis, studied the music of the Canal district and its different historical and stylistic layers. According to him, the damma songs are influenced by at least five musical genres: the religious hadra, the workers' songs, the songs of awalims, the old muwashshah songs and the traditions of the surrounding areas. Also more classical genres belonging to the upper class "descended" to the music of ordinary people of the district.

According to some sources the simsimiyya instrument came to the Canal shores in 1938, and became smoothly adapted to the musical tradition of the district. Soon it become the most essential instrument of this urban tradition of Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez. The simsimiyya music is insomuch similar in the whole area, that we can speak about one genre. Differences between regions include, according to Shabana, dialectal variation in the lyrics as well as the shape of the instrument, which varies slightly from region to region.

The political meaning

sing, o simsimiyya
to the bullet of the rifle
and the strong hand on the trigger
sing to the cannons
and to people behind them
and tell to the leader:
shoot not just once
shoot a thousand shots

Simsimiyya received a new importance in the 1950's when it became connected to the ideology of the resistance movement against British occupation, and it became the instrument of nationalistic music. The occupation forces confronted among the inhabitants of Suez a frantic resistance movement which reached its culmination in 1950-51. The renewed music tradition is filled with stories about the fierce nationalism and fighting spirit of Suez. 1967 Egypt fought the Six-Day War against Israel, during which most homes in Suez were destroyed. The town became a ghost town torn to pieces, with its inhabitants evacuated along the Nile Delta. During that period the simsimiyya groups formed by young men had an important role in maintaining the unity of people originating from the Canal area.

One of the most known personalities who had effect on the reforming of the simsimiyya tradition is Mohamed Mahmoud Ghazali, known as Captain Ghazali, born in 1928, who was a lead figure of the resistance movement and formed a simsimiyya band called Awlad al-Ard in 1967.

The old lyrics were replaced with words describing new meanings and notions that were fundamental in the new political situation, and also expressed feelings of the sacredness of the battle and the glory of dying for one's own homeland. Ghazali even used to take his band all the way to the front line to perform their songs to encourage the combatants.

The troupe was known by the name firqat al-battaniyya ('the blanket orchestra') due to their habit of performing, seated in a circle, on a blanket. Beside the simsimiyya, the instruments used were a washbasin, tin cans, spoons and empty bottles, to produce different rhythms. Ghazali wrote the lyrics; he wanted to "convey to all Egyptians the comforting message of hope and security and to raise the fighting spirit of the troops". He used to travel around the villages singing Suez songs and making people know that the resistance movement was still strong. The band soon becamefamous all over Egypt; several groups were founded in different parts of the country, and many poets began to write song lyrics.

After the victorious war of 1973 (Yom kippur war to Israelis, October war to Egyptians), the inhabitants of the Canal towns started to return to their homes, and the rebuilding began. During that period the influence of media to Egyptian music increased, and the simsimiyya tradition got its part of that influence; old songs were brought back to life, the proportion of the nationalistic songs decreased, and the simsimiyya instrument started to be used for performing different kinds of music.

The Al-Tanboura band from Port Said is probably the most famous simsimiyya band nowadays. It was founded in 1989 by Zakaria Ibrahim, who's aim is to enliven and preserve the old damma tradition. The band has also modernised the music tradition as well as the instrument itself. The lyrics of the band's songs often consist of old formulas, elements of religious rituals, popular wisdom and different metaphors.

The dance

Simsimiyya is an essential part of the repertoire of the folklore troupes of the Canal district. Mohamed El Hosseny, native of Suez and known as a leading dancer of Reda Troupe and Mahmoud Reda Troupe as well as a dance instructor and choreographer, started his career as a young boy in Suez folklore troupe, and feels very strongly being brought up by simsimiyya. While dancing simsimiyya he expresses most of all feelings of joy. The dance movements are brisk and cheerful, and include different charleston-styled steps. Men's dancing include impressive jumps, women do hip movements as well. The dancers also play with spoons, and in Suez, the performance also includes syncopated clapping, kaff, used only in Suez simsimiyya (kaff is also known in Nubian and Bedouine music, but the connection between these different traditions remains unknown). The district has no typical ethnic dress, and the dresses consist of stylised clothing of different groups of workers: fishermen, coastguard, bambutiyya (men who use rowing boats to trade between the harbour and the big ships). When Hosseny was dancing in Suez folklore troupe, the repertoire consisted mostly of love songs and different tableaux, among others the "Henna Night of Suez", which is one of the most famous and most often performed simsimiyya tableaux. Dances were also made to nationalistic songs. Hosseny prefers to do his own choreographies to old folk songs that are created spontaneously and have a romantic and yet joyful, sometimes even humorous mood.

A living tradition

Simsimiyya is still a living tradition. Weddings are organised in Suez with simsimiyya bands entertaining the guests. Hosseny mentions an episode that happened to him once: he was walking in his home town carrying a simsimiyya, when suddenly people gathered around him, grabbed the instrument and started to sing in the middle of the street.

The author's very first simsimiyya experience dates from the 1980-ies from Port Said where I was invited to a small meeting of a political party. The meeting was concluded with a musical performance, and I was told that this was the way they did it every time. There were a few old men sitting in the corner of the room, one of them playing simsimiyya, another one accompanying him with a washboard, two other men were singing. I don't recall the words, but I remember that some of the participants of the meeting stood up to dance in slow steps of bambutiyya.

References (among others)
Dwight F. Reynolds 2000, Music and the Suez Canal: the Birth of a Regional Popular Culture.
Unpublished conference paper.
Captain Ghazali: Simsimiyya Stories. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1998/401/people.htm. 30.9.2004
Conversations with Mohamed El Hosseny and Mohamed Shabana during autumn 2004