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Egyptian band breathes life into Pharaonic music

An unprecedented project on the revival of ancient Egyptian music reconstructs ancient musical instruments to sing melodies inspired by inscriptions painted on temple walls.

An Egyptian band offers its audience a musical journey to the time of the pharaohs, through melodies inspired by inscriptions painted on temple walls, songs played with ancient musical instruments and lyrics sung by musicians dressed like pharaohs.

Ahfad el-Fara’na (Grandchildren of the Pharaohs) was founded in 2007 to revive, protect and spread the ancient Egyptian musical heritage. The unprecedented initiative, which is part of the National Project for the Revival of Ancient Egyptian Music, was launched by professor Khairy el-Malt, who has been interested in ancient Egyptian music since the 1990s.

"This idea came to me in 1990 when I got a glimpse of the temples from a plane as I was traveling to the upper Egyptian governorate of Qena to give a series of lectures. The view of the temples from the plane window encouraged me to dive into the world of ancient Egyptian music. I started working on the project a decade later," Malt, a professor of musicology at Helwan University, told Al-Monitor.

The project received a grant from the European Union in 2004 and another grant from the World Bank in 2005, to become the first entity teaching ancient Egyptian music and providing students with a master's degree. "The study [of ancient Egyptian music] on an academic level is required to ensure the continuation of the project. Without preparing qualified cadres, this project would fall into oblivion," Malt said.

The band was formed after extensive academic research of the instruments and other aspects of the music of pharaonic times. “This project has two aspects: academic and cultural,” Malt added. “On the academic front, we thoroughly studied all the pharaonic instruments discovered worldwide. We began with eight instruments and we have reproduced nearly 21 instruments. We are preparing for more."

The project team resorted to experts from Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea and other countries in search of ancient Egyptian musical instruments.

One of the obstacles in regard to the reproduction of the instruments was that animal intestines were used as strings. He noted, “To produce similar sounds with the reconstructed instruments, we needed similar materials. Fortunately, some German experts were very helpful and provided us with the required materials as they were highly interested in the project."

After the reproduction of the instruments, it was time to find the musicians who could play them. The first students to graduate from the ancient Egyptian music classes came together in a band. "After reconstructing the main instruments, we established the band in order to spread this musical culture; this is the cultural aspect of the project," Malt said.

The music was inspired by the rhythmic moves carved on the temple walls.

"Some paintings, for instance, depict a maestro who moves his shoulders and hands in certain ways to direct the musicians. Each move is a melody and refers to a certain scale. All these scales are derived from ancient Egypt, which is the birthplace of all genres of music," Malt said. “Our slogan is that we make the stones speak.”

The songs' themes are derived from pharaonic civilization. "The band members selected some texts that highlight the ancient Egyptians' daily life. We also use some religious texts. Music was considered one of the holy sciences and it was highly regarded. The fact that there were so many instruments shows that the pharaohs prioritized art. There were more than 13 types of lutes in different sizes. There were also 20 types of harps," he said.

Malt said that ancient Egyptian rituals included music and hymns, and that the priests were in charge of protecting this music from being merged with other foreign cultures brought by invaders. Temples also included spaces for music instruction.

Malt said modern Egyptians should work to keep the heritage, saying, "As we are the grandsons of the pharaohs, it is our responsibility to keep the distinctively Egyptian characteristics of the music."

But preserving the heritage with reconstructed Pharaonic instruments is far from easy. “When we prepare for a concert, we have to take certain things into consideration while using or transferring these instruments from one place to another, since they are made from old materials and the maintenance costs are high," Asmaa Karem, a senior member of the project and the band, said.

The band is composed of between nine and 11 members. The main and most important instruments the band depends on are the harp, lute, flute and tambourine.

Karem emphasized that the main aim of the band is to raise public awareness of this musical heritage, in addition to spreading it. "Most people who come to listen to us are the intellectuals and those who are already interested in ancient Egyptian civilization. We also want to attract ordinary citizens through certain songs that include words they use. In Upper Egypt, for instance, there are many songs that people used to sing at weddings and other occasions. These songs — including church music — date back to ancient Egypt. They were etched within the society's collective subconscious and passed on from one generation to another," she said.

The lack of financial resources remains the key obstacle faced by the band. "The band and the project in general did not get support from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. But if supported, this project could play a vital role in reinvigorating the tourism sector," Malt said.

He added that any financial support would be used to spread pharaonic music through concerts, seminars and cultural events. "The temple walls tell us everything. We depend on them to get the lyrics, melodies and scales,” he concluded.

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