Bedouin Jerrycan Band

The Desert Sound that Rocks Cairo
Members of Bedouin Jerrycan Band in action. (Credit: Salwa Samir)
Members of Bedouin Jerrycan Band in action. (Credit: Salwa Samir)

Audiences are sitting on wooden chairs and their eyes are fixed on the stage waiting for the band members to appear. A few minutes later, members of the band wearing traditional garments show up amid a great applause from the attendees.

They are five men, playing music and singing at the same time.

One holds a frame drum, the next has the simsimiyya, a stringed instrument that has its roots in ancient Egypt, one holds the reed pipe, another has the drum and one holds a jerrycan.

“The five members are from North Sinai’s Al Arish except for two men who are Bedouins living among tribes in the desert,” Zakaria Ibrahim, founder of Bedouin Jerrycan band, told the Majalla.

The poetry and songs they perform tackle many topics related to Sinai heritage such as the moon, camels and coffee.  Their songs and poetry recall the exploits of the ancient Arabian Bedouin tribes through stories and fables about trusty camels, warnings of the dastardly deeds of sheep rustlers, and tales of unrequited love for the girl with beautiful eyes.

One song was against women expressing that when they get married their demands are exorbitant to the extent that their husbands go bankrupt. Another ditty tackles the subject of how grumpy women are.

Two women in the audience asked the singer, do you sing this song to your wife? He laughingly replied, no, for fear of not entering his home again.

“The tribal society is different from the urban one regarding customs and traditions. Unfortunately, they deal with women as being at a lower level than them. It is a masculine society,” Ibrahim said. “But they have songs about longing for the lover.”

One song is about asking the postman about whether he has a letter from his lover.

The audience interacts with the band performance by clapping on the beat and dancing with the band on stage. After the performance, the audience was keen to thank them for their performance and snapped photos with them.

According to Ibrahim, the story of the band’s formation goes back to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Ibrahim, 70, hailed from Port Said, a city that lies in the northeast of Egypt. He was fond of the folk arts there and joined a troupe where he dances and sings. Because of the Israeli war, he and other Port Said residents and those overlooking the Suez Canal were displaced and had to leave their cities. The war lasted for six years and ended by Egyptian victory in 1973.

Ibrahim, 17 at that time, and his family went to Senbellawein, in Dakahlia governorate, northeast of Cairo. One day, he heard a beautiful tune from a simsimiyya. That sound was played by another displaced person but from Ismailia. Those displaced people formed a band and Ibrahim was its dancer and singer.

He was keen to learn their folklore. He listened to them and transcribed the folklore which is passed down from generation to generation orally, but not written. 

Then he went to Cairo in 1971 where he studied agriculture. He was among those who took part in many demonstrations against the Israeli occupation of Sinai.

In 1974, he returned to Port Said, bearing in his mind the charm of Egyptian popular heritage and his dream to find ways to save it from extinction. Enthusiastically, he toured many towns to hear from its folklore artists, and to listen, collect and record their popular heritage. In the 1980s, Ibrahim formed El Tanbura band in Port Said whose aim was to revive traditional Egyptian music especially the simsimiyya and tanbura instruments. It was followed by forming other bands such as Rango, the Sudanese tribal band.

In 2000, he established El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music in Cairo, where he hosted the concerts of the bands he had formed.

Ibrahim flew to Al Arish in North Sinai governorate where he searched for musicians to form a band for Sinai heritage.

He formed the band in 2003, blending the simsimiyya and reed pipes in traditional melodies accompanied by rhythms played on the tabla, the frame drum and as well as on instruments fastened from ammunition boxes and jerrycans, which soldiers used to transport petroleum products during war, salvaged from the former battlegrounds of the Six-day War of 1967.

“The band couldn't bring the ammunition boxes to this concert because of the inspections at security checkpoints on their way to Cairo,” Ibrahim said.

The Bedouin Jerrycan Band has participated in international festivals, including Glastonbury in England and WOMAD in Australia.

In 2007, the band released its first album, “Coffee Time,” in collaboration with Ibrahim and the British production company 30 IPS Ltd.

One year later, the band took part in a festival in Manchester City, in addition to festivals in Spain and New Zealand.

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