Hymns of praise can be – and often are – addressed to all manner of beloveds, but it’s possible that ‘The Canal Song’ of Port Said group El Tanbura is the first time that the Suez Canal has been so apostrophized. ‘It happened 50 years ago/ We nationalized our canal,’ sing the Egyptian collective’s two singers to an enthusiastic accompaniment, and the chorus agree: ‘It is the greatest canal!’
Founded in 1989 by singer Zakaria Ibrahim, El Tanbura – which includes master musicians, fisherfolk and philosophers among them – have clearly been around but, despite previous albums from the Parisian Institut du Monde Arabe and the US Calabash operation, this Harmonia Mundi-distributed work represents a much-needed access to the group.
There are many reasons to pick up on Between the Desert and The Sea’s vigorous music – bouncy percussion, choruses and handclaps – but the chief reason is its virtuouso simsimiyya playing. The simsimiyya is an ancient lyre (always feminine and addressed as a lover) dating back to pharaonic times. In El Tanbura’s hands, it’s an instrument that lives. With a slightly metallic timbre, it presents a precise, rippling sound. El Tanbura’s repertoire ranges from regional traditional tunes to dedications such as ‘The Canal Song’ and ‘Waziery’, the latter for the lyre master of the same name, but the fascination is in a music that draws together ancient and modern, Arabic and Mediterranean.Louise Gray