Before I start this- I'd like to admit that I am taking a lot of the following info from a sheet we were given at the Zar performance in 'Makan' last night when the group called 'Mazaher' performed, so forgive me if it sounds a bit like a lecture at times. I know that the dancers among you are interested in this stuff so bear with me the rest of you!
Zar is a community healing ritual of drumming and dancing whose tradition is carried mainly by women for women (men do have secondary roles). Originated in East Africa, it is found across east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. I hadn't realised what close links it has with African music and dance but after experiencing it, it makes perfect sense. A beautiful expression of womanhood. Perhpas thats also the reason why the lead singer reminded me so much of 'Mama Afrika' in Afridonia- she had the same grace and beauty. Zar has been marginalised due to the magic, mystery, spirits and alternative nature of social, healing and religious practise. It was misrepresented as the exorcism of spirits- but the idea is to play a variety of types of rhythms until you hit on one which makes the sick person, you are aiming to help, want to dance. It is a space within which women can release their tensions and frustrations of everyday life and feel free within the music and movement. Often the dance movements involve swinging your head from one side to the other with very basic foot steps and much deep rooted movement of shoulders and hips. It can even lead to an altered state of consciousness or trance. A cathartic experience and a physical and spiritual purification.
Because Zar is part of an underground culture it has remained largely unchanged over the years except that for the same reason unfortunately many songs have been lost through time. There are currently only 25 people in the whole of Egypt (according to the info from the Makan centre!) who still carry on this musical legacy.
However, when I mentioned to my cleaner (she only comes once a week for a couple of hours- I know it sounds extravagant but its not really!!!!) that I had seen a Zar she said there were these gatherings of women all over the city every night (or at least that was the jist I got with my limited Arabic) and has invited me to go with her see a 'real' one (rather than in a cultural centre)……… so watch this blog for more info on the underground culture of Cairo! (The real shabbi- i.e. what the people listen to!!!)