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By a bizarre quirk of history, the Egyptian band El Tanbura, who all come from Port Said, owe their distinctive sound to a British prime minister.
At the heart of their traditional repertoire is the simsimiyya, a lyre, which only became popular through the protest songs of their home town when Anthony Eden bombed Port Said in his ill-fated attempt to seize the Suez canal.
The 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis falls this week and the sight of members of the audience dancing on stage with the Egyptian band was a fine way to remember the debacle.
With the release of their latest album, Between the Desert and the Sea, and their appearance in the last show of the Barbican’s Ramadan Nights festival, El Tanbura are breaking through into the international mainstream,
remarkable for a band with such a local identity.
Dressed in pristine galabiyehs, the all-male band of 11 musicians began in a deceptively sober fashion, with a performance of Sufi songs.
Each opened with the pure accompaniment of the flute, the kawala, and the tanbura, an instrument once only used in private healing rituals until the band began playing it in performance.
Different members of the group took their turn to sing a haunting invocation which would then accelerate into a frenzied, percussion-driven rhythm.
The climax to the first part of the evening came with the mesmerising appearance of an anarchic whirling dervish, who peeled off the layers of his skirt and span them above his head until he dissolved into a kaleidoscope of colours.
Part of the band’s charm and appeal lies in a mixture of the sacred and the profane. They are streetwise characters, yet consummate musicians. They bewitch the audience with devotional chanting and then break the spell with some exuberant, laddish dancing.
One of the hits of the night was the “Canal Song”, written specially for the 50th anniversary. Some of the band members are clearly old enough to remember the invasion, but in the tradition of Port Said it’s now musical folklore.