The Simsimiyya of Port-Saïd

Ensemble Al-Tanbûrah

From Port Saïd to Zanzibar, the simsimiyya lyra induces cheerfulness and caresses the ear. This traditional instrument which dates back the Pharaonic times, still sounds like an invitation to dancing and happiness. In ancient times, it used to entertain people on a background of songs evoking the peddling aboard the ships which went up and down the Canal. Nowadaysn it resounds in the cafés of Ismailia or Port Saïd, where musicians have formed such ensembles as the Al-Tanbûrah, one of the country’s most famous. Its repertoire offers melodic forms which fuse with the instrument. With musicians so full of life, the people on the cruise ships have much fun! The soloists come one after the other without showing off, since the absolute star remains the simsimiyya.


1Yâ qalb /Oh my heart, pray for the Prophet – 1’29
2Shuftu al-qamar /I have seen the moon on the beauty’s breast – 9’07
3Kawânî al-hubb /I am consumed by love – 5’08
4Wa al-salât ‘al-nabî /Pray for the Prophet – 1’39
5Ahwâ qamar /I love the moon – 7’24
6‘Azzil min bayti /Leave my house, you Saidi – 3’38
7Wal-karîm ma khâb /The Generous One is not disappointed – 0’39
8Badrun arid /I want a love as luminous as the full moon… – 4’46
9Baghannî / I sing
– Sabâh al-habâyib /The lovers’ morning
– Banât al-‘Urbân /The Bedouin girls
– ‘Ali ya ‘Ali / Ali, oh Ali – 7’57
10Yâ bulbul al-afrâh /Oh nightingale of joy – 1’23
11Qâsî mâ qâsî /So much suffering – 5’03
12Yâ ‘âzif al-awtâr /Oh you who plucks the strings of the musical instrument… – 7’45

Interpreters et instruments

Zakaria Ibrahim (direction)
Mohamed El Shenawy
Mohamed Shoheib, dit Mimi
Gamal Farag
Embabi Abdallah
Ahmed Atiatallah
Ahmad Nasr, dit Hamâm
Ragab Aly, dit El Sheikh Ragab
El Sayyed Mahmoud, dit El Sayyed el Gizawy
Ahmed Ghoneim, dit El Khal
Salah Mostapha Soliman, dit El Hosary
Alaa El Shazly Awad
Gamal Awad Mohamed
Morsy Ibrahim ; Ibrahim Nasr
Samy Abdel Naby ; Morsy Soltan
Ramadan Mohamed Abdelkader


« The death of  folklore is due to the existence of folk troupes », declares Zakaria Ibrahim, who founded the Firqat al-Tanbûrah band in 1989. Based in Port Said, this ensemble is the guardian of a genre that is quite unknown in the West and even in Egypt, a genre belonging to the popular urban repertory of the Suez canal.

What is remarkable about the musical concert performed by this band, a true spectacle on its own, is its dazzling presence. The separation between the stage and the audience fades away with the first few bars, as if in response to John Cage’s assertion: « All is music and there is no more music ». The protagonists, composed of around fifteen people, a blend of all ages – seventy for the eldest and around twenty for the youngest – are singers, musicians, actors, mimes and dancers, all of which, of course, exercise different professions on their own. This is obviously an exclusively all-male troupe since, by tradition, women have never been integrated into these joyous demonstrations that, moreover, used to take place in the cafés or the streets.

During the recital, the musicians find themselves calling out to each other,  encouraging each other or sometimes exchanging instruments, specially the framed drum or riqq. Thrown about in a good-natured manner, the drum flies over the stage only to fall back adroitly and in time, in the hands of another member who deftly grasps and plays it until he gets tired, whereupon the drum is passed, in turn, to the person beside him. There are few instruments: two lyres accompanied by percussions (the tabla, single-membraned clay drum shaped like a chalice, the riqq, framed drum with little cymbals, the European triangle and little cymbals: kasât nubâsiyya) as well as a daring addition, the European non-membraned tambourine with jingles, and doted with small cymbals in order to second its Egyptian counterpart, the riqq. The lyre players, who play the main instrument of the band, take turns to rest for a few minutes during the concert. The musician leaves his instrument, goes forward on stage, takes the microphone and sings, mimics, and dances a few steps. The performers, seated or standing, come forward, hop up and down, wiggle about according to no particular rule that would impose on the simple and spontaneous movements. There is no evidence of a specific choreography, everything is permitted, including numerous allusions to feminine dances, such as belly dancing, the swaying of hips, or the trembling or gyration of the neck which is borrowed from the dhikr ritual that irresistibly leads to the trance. The performance also uses props such as the cane: it twirls around in the hands of the singer-dancer although specialists such as Magda Saleh class these movements, on the whole, under the denomination of bambutiyya (see D. Henni Chebra and Ch. Poché, Les Danses dans le monde arabe ou l’héritage des almées [Dances of the Arab world or the heritage of the Amahs], L’Harmattan, Paris 1996).

Moreover, there is no main singer in the ensemble but all members take turns in performing as soloists, careful not to be carried away by stardom since it is the group, as a whole, that takes precedence and remains sovereign. The style is thus that of collective singing in the presence of a leader who sets the tone and starts the musical phrase. This corresponds to what we can call « responsorial » since it will be recited by the ensemble. Sometimes the progress of the group will override the soloist’s words. Other times it is the group that breaks into the musical phrase which thus becomes a song in unison. Then there are parts which are more recited and declaimed than sung:  these remind us of the vocal techniques used in children’s games. As if to better defend the liberty of movement, the group has no formal costume. The protagonists wear their everyday clothes which can be blue jeans or gallabiyyas. 

Nothing in all of this would lead you to believe that this is an event directed by professionals and yet you are well aware of an amazing cohesion. Everything happens as if another barrier has broken down between the amateur and the professional. It is hard to place them.

The musicians are happy to be playing their music and transmit their joy to us. This joy lights up their faces. At first glance, you catch sight of an impression of disorder, but it is indeed an aesthetic space that reflects a circular setting as its basic structure, although it is not evident from the beginning. This is thus in direct contrast with musicians being placed stiffly on the stage or, rather, to their submission to the rules of performance.

The attribution generally bestowed on these musicians, who are free from any scenic constraints, is best epitomized by the dialectal term suhbagiyya (from sahiba, to accompany). This term is not only used to cover the state of popular aesthetics in the Suez canal region. It also shows up in the Egyptian musical literature of late 19th century where musicologists and specially Fikrî Butrus, one of the first to have mentioned it in his book, Al-kitâb al-dahabî  [The Golden Book of Musical Art], Alexandria, 1960s, apply this term to a disorganized manner of playing music. The suhbagiyyas were groups of musicians scattered throughout Egypt. Their role consisted of entertaining at parties thereby dominating the activities of all concerts, including those dedicated to intellectual arts. Of course the suhbagiyyas were well known in the Egyptian capital. According to Butrus, they hardly differentiated between timed and out of time music. The suhbagiyyas represented a rather frowned-upon movement, since the members were given over to drugs. This movement was impetuously contained by the revolution engendered by the great Egyptian singer of the late 19th century, Abduh al-Hâmûlî (1841 – 1901), on his return from Istanbul, where this exceptional character was repeatedly invited to.

Much has been written about the spirit of this peaceful revolution. The existence of the Port Said suhbagiyyas is a reminder that, among other things, the behavior on stage is a way of living the music. The Hâmûlî revolution thus muzzled this musical expression. It established a new rapport, giving greater importance to the separation of the performer on the one hand, and the public, on the other. A separation that culminates in the concerts of Arabic music played today at the Cairo opera. Here the performers place themselves in an almost ceremonial position, under an often heavy display, dictated by the rules of the stage. Their attitude prevents them from letting themselves go, even though they give themselves up to the musical frenzy. The Port Said suhbagiyyas, survivors of a state of mind which seemed to have reigned on a large scale in old Egypt, thus represent an inverse movement which no longer exists. This movement gives its participants total liberty, thereby creating an aesthetics of exhilaration linked to the fact that the performer melts within the framework of a collective play of music that no longer needs individualities in order to affirm itself.

Seen from Port Said, the repertory of the suhbagiyyas and the Firqat al-Tanbûrah band, which is merely a realization of the urban popular music of the canal region, takes into consideration the local maritime history. It sheds light on this history by explaining the how and why of the presence of the lyre. The population movements, accelerated since the digging of the Suez canal in the last quarter of the 19th century, have allowed numerous populations of the Red sea, not only to go up North, but also to establish themselves there. We are thus in the presence of the development of a small-scale music made up of a structure of elements coming from the North (Damietta) and the South, gravitating around street pedlars waiting for the arrival of the ships in order to sell their goods. These people got their name from the English word bumboat which gave rise to the local bambutiyya which was later applied to a style of choreography. This same repertory later developed in the barracks called qishlaq (a Turkish word) which was the stage for an amazing mixture of populations and the military men who lived there with their families.

Moreover, this activity was accompanied by lyres. This movement of ships, sailboats or dhows, introduced a new kind of lyre, known in the southern part of the Red sea and called simsimiyya in some regions of the Arabic peninsula’s coastlines. While in Egypt the generic term for the lyre is tanbûra, designating a generally pentatonic instrument that is particularly common in Upper Egypt and often seen in Cairo in the old times, the Suez canal region provides a type of instrument of a slightly smaller caliber also called simsimiyya. The word’s etymology is uncertain, but this instrument is linked to dancing, like the simsimiyya of Zanzibar, as well as songs. It is also used in the practice of the zâr, a wide-spread cult of possession in the countries bordering the Red sea. What is certain is that until quite recently, each ship employed, for mysterious reasons, a simsimiyya player who, it seems, would bring joy to the voyage; it is also believed that they had the power to make the winds rise. In any case, the simsimiyya had probably showed up in the canal region by the turn of the 20th century, since Camille Saint-Saëns describes the lyre music he heard in Ismailia without naming the instrument.

But the present simsimiyya has lost its exogenous elements, to become a truly Egyptian instrument. The number of strings have multiplied: the two models which you can hear on this disc have increased their strings from 7 to 9 while traditionally they only had 5.  The pegs which cross the horizontal bar have replaced the hemp and cloth rings set on the cross-head to which all the strings were tied, in order to hold each other up, thus aligning this instrument on the manufacturing procedures deriving from the Arab lute. These modifications presently permit to play, without hesitation, such maqâms as the bayyâti and the rasd, the basis of popular Egyptian and suhbagiyya repertory. In order to integrate into local life, the simsimiyya has thus abandoned its originally pentatonic chord for that of the Arabic tetracordal range.

The repertory accompanying the simsimiyya is comprised of short pieces, conceived as preludes (istihlâlât) called jawâb damma and longer, responsorial pieces called damma and simsimiyya. It is not always easy to distinguish between one and the other, but in the simsimiyya genre, the lyre always starts the piece and is not preceded by a prelude. Inversely, the damma genre is defined by the direct entry of the song. Another element of distinction is that in the damma genre, the role entrusted to the group is often more important than that of the soloist. As to the simsimiyya, it is characterized by the presence of a refrain which introduces the song (ughniya). The relationship between jawâb damma and damma takes account of the modal nature that is necessarily the same for each of the pieces. The series which is thus presented under the generic term of simsimiyya and damma obeys a similar architecture: a free element links itself to a rhythmed and therefore timed section which often accelerates and gives rise to hand claps. The sung texts of dialectal poetry favor anacoluthons: the verses follow each other without any apparent logical link. They are the prerogatives of everyday life, praising a character or a woman, flattering another, turning to satire and even social criticism, dispensing morals. References to nature, to the world of poultry (pigeons, nightingales), and to the symbiosis between man and the surrounding nature (the moon) are quite frequent. So are calls to religious characters and praises of the Prophet: but whatever the speech, the mandatory optimism prevails.

Christian Poché
Translated by Mona Khazindar

  • Reference : 321.026
  • Ean : 794 881 472 420
  • Main artist : Ensemble Al-Tanbürah
  • Year of recording: 1996
  • Year of publishing: 1999
  • Music style: Folk music
  • Country: Egypt
  • City of recording: Paris
  • Main language: Arabic
  • Composers: Traditional
  • Lyricists: Traditional
  • Copyright: Institut du Monde Arabe