When the Bedouin Jerry Can Band steps on stage in their traditional attire to sing ancient songs from the Sinai desert, their unusual musical instruments — an ammunition box and a jerry can used for percussion — are among the first things the audience notices.
The band came together in 2003 at the suggestion of Zakaria Ibrahim, a well-known music festival organizer, composer and founder of the El Mastaba Center for Folk Music in Cairo.
“Ibrahim suggested that we form a Bedouin band and play Sinai folk music,” Yahya al-Shorbagi, flute player and founder of the band, told Al-Monitor. “At that stage, we only had a flute and a few tambours. We also had a small empty ammunition box and a jerry can, a type of container soldiers used to transport petrol during the war, both from the 1967 war with Israel.”
The band released its first album, “Coffee Time,” a collaboration with Ibrahim and his British partner. Shorbagi noted, “It received broad acclaim in Europe, and [we sang] in several festivals there. We then started doing concerts in the UK. In 2008, we participated in a festival in Manchester City, we held concerts in Liverpool, and then we sang in concerts in Spain, a festival in Marseilles, and then New Zealand in 2009.”
The band's other members are Gomaa Ghunaim on lyre and vocals, Moussa Salem on lyre, Ayman Salim on the jerry can, Ali Salameh on the ammunition box and Mohamed al-Arayshi on tambour. Khaled al-Shaarawi contributes lead vocals.
Shorbagi remarked that Western audiences have loved the instruments and the tunes. “They were amazed by the modest instruments we were using and how some of them were made from remnants of war, particularly the jerry can,” he stated.
“We would tell them how we found this container in the desert and discovered that it made a nice sound, so we turned it into a musical instrument,” Shorbagi said. “We did the same with the empty ammunition box, upcycling the remnants of war. Our aim is to convey a message that these [accessories to killing] are now producing music for people to enjoy.”
Shorbagi explained that Sinai Bedouin music was influenced by Levantine music, while the Bedouin of Matrouh, in northwestern Egypt, were influenced by Libyan heritage, given their geographic juxtaposition.
“We never were really influenced by Oriental music,” Shorbagi said. “We only introduced a few instruments, such as the ney [a flute believed to have originated in Persia or Turkey], which is [from] ancient times. But we have retained our original lyrical heritage, which tells our tales, such as stories of Bedouin flirting, like in the song ‘Maareya, oh, Mareeya, I swear I care only for you and I will never hold another.’”
He noted that the band engages with Bedouin children in the Sinai to help preserve their heritage and continue to pass it down from one generation to the next. “We teach children to sing and play musical instruments, as well as use remnants of war so a new generation can create music the way we do,” Shorbagi explained.
“We used to perform at El Mastaba Center for Folk Music in Cairo every month, but the current conditions [of insurgency and military operations] in Sinai have restricted our activity, due to the difficulty of traveling,” Shorbagi said. “We would leave Arish in the morning to get to the theater, and it would take us nearly half a day, which is difficult for us. But we have been able to hold concerts over the past months in Sharm el-Sheikh and participated in the Ismailia International Festival.”
In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Ashraf Abdel Rahman, professor of music criticism at the Academy of Arts in Cairo, remarked how the Bedouin Jerry Can Band manages to combine heritage and unorthodox instruments. He explained that no wrong notes can be detected in their songs, as if the band were using real musical instruments. He praised the members' combining standard instruments and remnants of war.
“What is unique about the band is that it managed to record Bedouin music, a historical precedent,” Rahman asserted. “In the past, the late artist Farid al-Atrash presented an operetta using Bedouin music, and so did the late vocalist Mohammed al-Kahlawi, who also performed many Bedouin songs, but their art was not documented in the form of albums and recordings.”