Cairo Sounds – Egyptian Folk Music


El Baramka troupe: These are working fishermen from El Manzala Lake. Their dance is spontaneous and not choreographed, and rooted in their long-standing traditions.

El Mastaba Center has a brilliant line-up of Egyptian Folk Music in the month of October, 2015 (see schedule). Every Thursday at the El Dammah Theatre for 30 EGP (20EGP with reservations) enjoy an interactive evening of dance and song with troupes such as El Tanbura from Port Said and the Bedouin Jerry Can Band from Sinai.

El Mastaba Center celebrates its 15th anniversary, founded in 2000 by Zakaria Ibrahim,  and Cairo The Family Guide (AUC Press)  is proud to have been the first publication to write about the Center in its 2001 edition. Here is an excerpt from the Guide:

El Mastaba is an independent cultural center, which is dedicated to collecting and documenting Egyptian music, song, and dance, and recording it. Folkloric music is passed down through generations connected by instruments, language, beliefs, and communities. For example, the music of Rango developed when people from Sudan and Ethiopia began to settle in northern Egypt.


Mohammad Ali’s army conquered Sudan in 1820. During the next  fifty years, Sudanese joined the army. Slaves were brought from Ethiopia and southern Sudan to work in cotton cultivation. People from these tribes formed communities such as one found today in Ismailiya—Arayshiyyit al-Abid (the Slaves Stockades), and they developed their music, which has similarities to Middle Eastern culture but with its own sense of rhythm and meaning. -Cairo the Family Guide.

The music of RANGO is performed on homemade instruments. There are only a few rango idiophones left in existence; the rango is a Sudanese marimba that is made of wooden keys with gourd-like resonators. The percussionists play on goatskin drums, use a recycled steel girder and shakers from aerosol cans. Wrapped around the dancer is a mangor— a belt made of hundreds of dried goats’ hooves. The tanbura—a huge wooden lyre draped in tassels and  beads—plays and important role in Zar music and probably originated in Upper Egypt.





NubNour presents traditional Nubian music, dances, and songs, many of which reflect the suffering of the Nubian people: in the 1960s, around 100,000 Nubians were forced to resettle in the desert without compensation when the rising waters from the construction of the High Dam flooded the villages of their homeland. Since then, they have suffered political marginalization and, as their way of life was tied to the Nile, a loss of identity and culture. However, their music continues to be inspired by this displacement and loss which figure prominently in their music. This music plays an important role in keeping alive the Nubian heritage and languages.

“Amandujr” is an ancient Nubian legend about the Nile. It tells how people drowned beneath the currents of the world’s greatest river never die and how their souls continue to live deep in the River bed.

Nubian people felt a great affinity with nature, living their lives in accordance with the seasons and continual ebb and flow of the Nile – the earliest Nubian songs were inspired by their farming origins. Nubian hand drums, known as “Duff” (fashioned from goat skins and wood) were thought to be a key link between their people and their environment, with the ability to produce the sounds of Fire, Water and Air through complex rhythms. In addition to songs for cultivation and harvesting the Nubian people sang epic poetry of Love and religion, recognising both Islam and Christianity. – el Mastaba Center

Concerts start at 9:00 pm at El Dammah Theater: (check time! in the winter months time might change to 8:00pm)

30 Al Belaasi, Al Balaqsah, Abdeen, Cairo, Egypt.

Doors open at 8:30 pm
Tickets at the door, 30 LE
Reserved tickets 20 LE (Telephone 011 50 99 5354)

One more thing —the Simsimiyya, an ancient Egyptian lyre.

 There is evidence that the simsimiyya has existed for centuries in the Arabian Gulf and along East Africa. Her music (the lyre is always referred to as feminine and her players as lovers) is said to have the ability to calm the waters of the Red Sea. Another folk tale attributes her origins to a mysterious, enchanting Siren who slowly seduces both the lover and the audience with mesmerizing melodies derived from ancient exorcism rituals.-Zakaria Ibrahim

On one of my expeditions to Gilf el-Kabir, our guides built a simsimiyya lyre from a cupboard door (with handle), wire, and whittled pegs. Evening of sipping strong tea as the cold rose around us, we were warmed by delicate sounds that took their leave across the ancient sands.


Music by Michael Levy
“My Heart Was Burnt by Love”
Album: An Ancient Lyre Echoes of the Ancient World – created at

Art of Thorn Figure Carving

trader from Ibadan at beach on a Sunday afternoon

trader from Ibadan at the beach on a Sunday afternoon

Legoland move over! Lego, a multi-million dollar toy industry, bases its building block toys on creating representations of a western society at work and at play. Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891–1958), a carpenter from Billund, Denmark and founder of Lego, began making wooden toys in 1932.

Nigeria Magazine No. 14, 1938

Nigeria Magazine No. 14, 1938 (See full article here)

At about the same time in Nigeria, Mr. J. D. Akeredolu, a craft teacher in Government School, Owo, Ondo Province, experimented with materials to carve name stamps. He discovered the conical thorns that grew at the base of some forest trees were suitable for carving detailed, miniature sculptures. These delightful figures featured everyday life in Yorubaland.


Map of Yorubaland

The imagination of these two men mirrored the customs and culture of the life around them represented through  their craft. Whether in Denmark or Nigeria, Christiansen and Akeredolu carved their world. We are the recipients of this grand reproduction of cultural anthropological art.

In the 1930’s, Mr. J. D. Akeredolu taught the art of thorn carving to his pupils and generations later thorn carvers still produce charming, miniature sculptures of a traditional life style. Mr. Akeredolu’s philosophy was similar to that of the Lego philosophy: to build something amazing from the tools at hand.

Thorn carvings are unique to Nigeria. The thorns come from 2 varieties of forest trees. The Yoruba names are the Ata tree and the Ogungun tree, the latter’s botanical name is Ceiba pentandra (Nigerian Trees, Keay, Onochie, Stanfield, 1964). The thorns grow up to 5 inches in length and their relative malleability makes for easier carving with a simple pocket knife. The thorns come in three different colors: beige, pink and brown. The brown color comes from the thorn of the Ata tree while the pink and softer wood of the Ogungun tree is used to carve small pieces like hats, dishes, legs and arms, which are glued into place with a paste made from rice water.

From the typical Yoruba village life of pounded yam and palm wine tapper to a commentary on social issues of 1970s Bar Beach executions of criminals to satirical visa queue, thorn figures have the absorbing quality to relate traditional Nigerian lifestyle on a diminutive scale.

The carvings are specific to the Yoruba culture and mirror life events such as women preparing food, fishing and hunting, transportation, even a nativity scene or a mosque. After ‘mammy wagons’ were banned, the carvers turned to crafting the more common mode of transportation: the motorcycle and the ke-ke (tuk-tuk; auto rickshaw). There are carvings of a kidnapped oil executive being taken away by heavily armed men in a canoe with the military in pursuit telling the story of on-going kidnappings in the Delta area of Nigeria.

Thorn figure carvings may not develop into an industry or a theme park. Yet they still capture the imagination of young and old alike. Whether coming upon them in a local market or perchance finding a trader on the beach, it is always a delightful pastime to study and appreciate the intricate carvings that provide us with an excellent illustration of Yoruba culture and customs.

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thorn carver, Lagos market, 1997 photo credit: Saadia Lababidi

Thorn carver, Lagos market, 1997
photo credit: Saadia Lababidi

African Appliqué

©Nation Online Project Design: Moh. Salah

©Nation Online Project
Design: Mohamed Salah

Two thousand five hundred miles span the distance between Egypt and Republic of Benin. Depending upon the route traveled, the countries are separated by the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Between the two countries of North and West Africa, respectively, there are few cultural similarities; however, there is one shared commonality: a handicraft—appliqué embroidery.


Khayamiya is a decorative appliqué textile in Egypt

photo 2

Abomey appliqué – Benin

Questions of cultural diffusion arise. Cultural exchange over the centuries cannot be ignored. Let’s take a moment to imagine a caravan arriving at Timbuktu with embroidered tents from Egypt that move from person to person toward the Gulf of Guinea. Or a Portuguese or British ship docked at the old port of Whydah trading cloth and appliqué textiles for slaves.

Trade is a powerful stimuli for creativity and it might be possible that 200 years ago an Abomey king ordered a craftsman to embroider symbols onto fabric after acquiring an appliqué from Egypt.

photo 3

photo credit: René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen.

There are some striking similarities when studying the art of appliqué from each country. Craftsmen from both countries utilize  the technique of appliqué (stitching fabric to fabric) for practical use or for decoration. Both craftsmen use a blind stitch so the thread is not visible at the front of the design. Both craftsmen piece together shapes and designs that have an intentional pattern or a story. In both countries, appliqué is a handicraft made by men not women.


sitting cross legged on a diwan



But there are differences. In Benin, wood specialist, gold and silver casters, weavers and embroiders were in the king’s service. All objects were connected with the dynasty or had religious motivation.


design begins with drawing pattern on perforated stencil, dusting, redrawing the pattern on fabric

In Egypt, the ancient art of appliqué was practiced by artisans to create decorative tents used by the high-ranking military, members of the royal courts, and the wealthy to create colorful rooms in large open spaces.
In Benin, cloth and thread were an import and most likely only in the possession of the king as cotton is not native to the tropics. Whereas the history of cloth and weaving is traced back to ancient Egypt as early as 5500 BCE.

photo 1 (1)

photo credit René Gardi 1969″African Crafts and Craftsmen. Patterns are stitched into place before attaching with a blind stitch


Decorative appliqué textile in Egypt are known as khayamiya, a hand stitched technique used to decorate tents, wall hangings, and pillow covers. They are made in Cairo in a covered market known at Street of the Tentmakers or Sharia al Khayamiya. This craft has been in continuous use since the Mamluk era but intricate pieces of embroidered tents are recorded as far back as the Twenty-First Dynasty where evidence of a funeral tent for the Egyptian Queen Istemkheb was documented by Gaston Maspero in 1881 after excavation of the Queen’s tomb at Deir el Bahri.

Tent makers in Cairo hand stitch cotton appliqué over heavy cotton fabric. The thick materials used for tents protect from the heat, sun, and dust. Geometric designs derived from Islamic motifs and curvilinear arabesque are popular for tent interiors. Pharaonic art, calligraphic patterns, text from the Quran, and animal, bird and fish motifs are also utilized to create a beautiful products such as bedspreads, pillows, and wall-hangings.


Hand stitching is performed by skilled artisans who sit cross-legged on pillows in their stalls on the Street of the Tentmakers. Their technique begins with a pattern drawn onto a stencil, then the stencil is perforated, holes are dusted that makes a pattern on the fabric. The stencil is removed and a line is drawn that follows the dotted-line. A pattern on the fabric is revealed. Small pieces of fabric are cut with scissors, and a blind stitch is used to attach the fabric along the lines of the pattern. (See photo above.)


Formerly, the Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin, West Africa, was once ruled by a powerful dynasty of eleven kings from 1600-1900. In the land, then, known as the Slave Coast, the name of the capital city was Abomey. The kingdom ended under French occupation around 1900. But during the reign of the Fon (king), their armies and amazons were powerful and fearful, often instigating slave raids and attacked territories larger than their own.

At the time various handicrafts flourished in Abomey to represent the individual Fon’s superiority. Kings and ministers of the court brought craftsmen to the palace to carve thrones with symbols for the king that represent power and historical events.

Appliquéd cloth was a technique in early embroideries to create figures, symbols, and representations. The symbols were used to decorate wall hangings, flags, umbrellas, buildings and other royal items during the reign of the king. One observes gruesome warlike scenes, the head of a decapitated enemy, a prisoner hanged or impaled. Such representations are always direct references to the specific heroic deeds of a specific Fon, and because these stories and deeds were told over and over again, everyone knew what was meant by them.

IMG_1832Throughout its history each Fon (king) had special symbols and proverbs associated with his rule. To read more about the symbols and proverbs click here. The Fons were as follows:

IMG_1834 (1)Gangnihessou: 1600-1620, the King of Allada and the big brother of the first Fon (king) of Dahomey. Royal Symbols: bird and drum



IMG_1834 - Version 2Dako-donou: 1620-1645. Royal Symbols: indigo jar & “briquettes”



IMG_1834 - Version 3Houegbadja: 1645-1685. Royal Symbols: fish and wicker trap (As a prince, he once avoided a trap which had been set for him.



IMG_1834 - Version 4Akaba: 1685-1708, crowned at 50 years old. Royal Symbols: wild boar, chameleon & sword




IMG_1834 - Version 5Agadja: 1708-1741  Initially resisted the slave trade, then became a major slaver.  Lost war with Oyo in 1720.  Paid tribute until 1818. Royal Symbols: boat


IMG_1834 - Version 5 (1)Tegbessou:1740 -1774




IMG_1834 - Version 5 (2)Kpengla: 1774-1789





IMG_1834 - Version 5 (3)Agonglo: 1789-1797. Royal Symbols: pineapple



IMG_1834 - Version 5 (4)Ghezo: 1818-1858, 40 years, 40 wars, “killer of elephants”. Royal Symbols: buffalo without dress


— (1798-1817): Despotic king written out of history for being internally violent and not interested in expansionism.

IMG_1834 - Version 5 (5)Glele: 1858-1889. Royal Symbols: lion (the teeth of the lion are pushed and feared also).



IMG_1834 - Version 5 (6)Gbehanzin: 1889-1906, opposed colonial invasion. Exiled by French and died in Algeria. Royal Symbols: shark and egg in hand



IMG_1834 - Version 5 (7)Ago-Li-Agbo: 1894-1900.  Enthroned by French and later exiled. Royal Symbols: leg kicking a rock, bow



photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell

photo credit: African Design, Margaret Trowell, Dover Publications, Inc. 2003.  “The power and might of the chiefs are often expressed by symbolic forms or scenes; while the ceremonial staves and axes and paddles of many African tribes have a refinement and dignity of design which compare favorably with the regalia of more technically advanced peoples in spite of their limited choice of materials. ” p. 15


Susanne Wenger at 100!

The òrìşà is like the many aspects in our unconscious: suffering, aggression, creativity, purity, love, wisdom… One can choose any of these roads towards the invisible, and make it alive inside oneself. – Susanne Wenger (1915-2009)


The Òşun Sacred Grove and Forest might have been lost to the world if it were not for the dedication of an Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger, born July 4, 1915, and who came to Osogbo, Nigeria  in 1960. She studied the Yoruba language, culture, and religion dedicating her life’s work to the restoration and protection of the shrines and grove.

To celebrate Susanne Wenger’s art, to honor her life’s work of perseverance in protection of Yoruba heritage, from my collection of Nigeria Magazine, I offer this gift.

Gods and Myths in Susanne Wenger’s Art

The Example of Batik Cloth

by Stanley P. Bohrer and Susanne Wenger Alarape

Nigeria Magazine, 1976, Issue 120.

Gods and myths-2-008Gods and myths-2-001Gods and myths-2-002Gods and myths-2-003Gods and myths-2-004Gods and myths-2-005Gods and myths-2-006Gods and myths-2-007(click on separate pages to enlarge)

Article in Obelisque Magazine, Osun Osogbo Grove, January 2015:

Go to post: Osun Sacred Grove and Forest

For more information go to :

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Osun Osogbo Sacred Groves

(Music in clip by Orin Orisa. Adedayo Ologundudu, Yoruba traditional songs of praises for Orisa: Osun Yoruba Spirit of Rivers.)

Ramadan Kareem! A sweet story – kunafa

Spinning of Shredded Wheat on Ahmed Maher Street

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Hijiri calendar, is the month for fasting for Muslims. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Pillars of Faith. The benefits of which are given in the Qur’an, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you so that you may be more able to guard against evil.” (Qur’an 3:184) The faithful abstain from eating and drinking between dawn and sunset. The month of Ramadan, especially when in the summer with the long days and heat, is met with unhesitating and heightened anticipation.

One of the pleasurable anticipations of Ramadan season are the morsels of sweets, lightly spiced with cardamom and dipped in syrup, pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts, or the the Ramadan favorite, Kunafa—layers, top and bottom, of buttery, crunchy shredded wheat stuffed with white goat cheese and soaked in lemon sugar syrup.

“Kunafa is said to be of Fatimid origin,” says 62-year-old haj Ali Arafa, the owner of Cairo’s most famous kunafa outlet. Arafa grew up in his grandfather’s confectionery shop in the working class quarter of Al- Sayeda Zeinab, where he still works today. “It was introduced by a physician at the court of the Khalifa Abdel-Malek Bin Marawan,” he explains. “Some princes were having a hard time fasting because of their voracious appetite. So the doctor worked to develop a dish that would not only be delicious but would have a long-lasting warming and filling effect. The doctor then instructed the princes to eat great quantities of this heavy dish just before dawn. As a result, they never went hungry during the day again.”
(Al-Ahram 14 – 20 October 2004)

These are what sweet dreams and stories are made of…but to satisfy a sweet tooth, there is a beginning. In the case of kunafa, its travel to sweetness begins with the spinning of shredded wheat…

Before modernization, to make shredded wheat the process began with the dough dispersed through a sieve and cooked on a hot copper tray that was heated by a wood or coal oven set beneath the tray. Today, the process of making shredded wheat uses electricity and a mechanical oven that resembles a rotating tray-like skillet. The dough is much like a pancake batter. The equipment used to cook the dough is a hot iron that rotates while the dough is released through a metal funnel similar to a sieve. The kunafa threads emerge onto the iron tray that functions like a skillet. One rotation of the tray and the baker retrieves the strands. The sieve is adjusted for different widths of the thread.

raw shredded wheat

Kunafa is sold throughout the year but during the month of Ramadan the demand triples. Kunafa ovens can be found throughout Cairo particularly in Darb Ahmar and Sayyida Zeinab and on Ahmed Maher Street. People buy the raw shredded wheat from the stores and make their own sweet dishes at home.

SHUBRA: off the beaten path

Emblem is from Khedivate Egypt 1867-1881

Emblem  from Khedivate Egypt 1867-1881


Organized by: Amr Abo Tawila, Shaimaa Ashour & “Shurfa”‬

The Shubra Group

The Shubra Group


A morning tour of Shubra, a district in Cairo, is an unusual way to spend a Friday morning. But for a group of young Egyptian professionals, it does raise the question, ‘why’?  Taking advantage of a new event organized by Megawra, young Egyptian’s want to know their city and the organizers at Megawra have responded with a tour to Daher, Shubra and after the summer to Dokki.

What is there to see in Shubra? Plenty!  We wandered for 5 hours. Of course, the organizers had done their research with plenty of information to impart at every stop: streets are lined with 19th and 20th century architectural gems, old churches, the Mamluk Khandazar mosque, schools and hospital, and remnants of the past such as photograph studio, knife-maker, and even a WWII bunker.

Below is a mosaic of a day in Shubra. (Pass the cursor over the photo for the caption.)

Follow City Walks on  Facebook or Twitter at #ShubraCityWalk

See old photographs of Kitchener of Khartoum Hospital (now Shubra General Hospital), here ( .

To see “elevator baskets in action” in Shubra, go to Cairo Colors

By special request, a slideshow of pictures:

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