Female drummers find a beat in Cairo

A duo of young Egyptian women are drumming their way across Cairo and hope to spread their art among other aspiring female musicians.

al-monitor Female drummers Rania Omar (R) and Donia Samir (L) bang on drums at a cafe in Dahab, Egypt, Oct. 2, 2016. Photo by FACEBOOK/RaniaDoniaOfficial.
Menna A. Farouk

Menna A. Farouk

@MennaFarouk91

Topics covered

women in society, tradition, music, egyptian women, egyptian society, egyptian culture, cairo, belly dancing

Oct 21, 2016

Two young Egyptian drummers are defying their country's social norms and taboos by taking part in an art form that has scarcely been practiced by women and is usually associated with belly dancing.

Donia Sami and Rania Omar started the first female drumming band in Egypt to challenge Egyptian society's stereotypes and encourage more Egyptian women to take up their art.

“Art is for everyone,” Donia, 21, told Al-Monitor. “Playing any instrument is a right of every woman on earth, especially if she is passionate about it,” added the young drummer, who began to play at the age of 16 and is also studying acting and directing.

In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, banging on drums has usually been associated with men rather than women, and performances by female drummers are seen by conservative societies as abnormal and shameful. Some people also believe that women cannot be drummers because the art requires physical strength, stamina and endurance.

“We want to change this social stereotype and let society know that women can be and do whatever they want to be and do,” Donia said.

Donia and Rania have been harshly criticized since they started their band, but they say that they are determined to keep up with their art and blaze a trail for other women passionate about drums.

Rania, who shares her friend’s passion for music, said that there are many talented female drummers in Egypt, but they are let down by society. “In Egypt, we have many women fond of drumming, but they are lambasted by their families, friends and the audience. That is why most of them quit,” Rania, 23, told Al-Monitor.

In Rania’s case, she said, it is even worse because she wears the hijab and experiences more pressure. But she said she does not mind it: “It is my passion and as long as I am able to bang on drums I can endure anything.” Rania studied business administration at university and has been playing the drums since she was 13 years old.

When Donia and Rania were introduced to each other on Facebook a few months ago, they met and agreed to start a band. With the support of their families and friends, the two young artists have put on dazzling performances on Al-Moez Street, one of the oldest in Egypt’s capital, in downtown Cairo and the Cairo Opera House, among other venues. In their performances, which are most often on the streets, Donia and Rania hypnotize their audiences and leave them with smiles on their faces.

Videotapes of their performances went viral on social networking sites and within a few months, they attracted tens of thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers.

Loai M. Dahab, one of Rania and Donia's fans, wrote on the band's Facebook page in response to a question for fans that what he loves the most about their performances is the look of challenge in their eyes: “When they play the drums, they are striking with their hands all social norms and traditions.”

Nagham Ali, another fan, wrote that she doesn't have a specific reason for supporting them, but called their performances "perfect" and said, “They are more than gorgeous. I love them so much.”

Donia said that the audiences are usually thrilled by their performances, but the enthusiasm does not prevent negative comments. “Bad comments making fun of us are always there. But we have stopped being emotionally affected by them because we are doing what we love and our families are proud of us,” Donia said.

She added that in Egypt, drums have always been associated with being the background for belly dance performances, and that is another stereotype that the two drummers aspire to change. “In many countries around the world, there are solo performances of only drums and people love them so much," Donia said. “We want the Egyptian people to have that culture too.”

Donia and Rania also seek to perform across the country, especially in the conservative Upper Egyptian governorates. “We want our art to reach each and every part of this country and let people know that women are capable of playing any kind of music,” Rania said.

The drum is the oldest known musical instrument in the world, dating back to 4000 B.C. in Egypt. The instrument has long been very widely used across Africa. Drums have been made from an enormous variety of materials including alligator skins. Across cultures, drums have been used for much more than music and celebrations. They were commonly used during battles to motivate fighters and communicate orders, and in more peaceful times to make announcements.

In Arab and Middle Eastern countries, drummers are most often seen as part of musical ensembles or in the background for belly dancers. Drummers rarely perform on their own in the Middle East.

One exception is Egyptian percussionist Said El Artist, who broke all the rules and formed a band of 10 drummers that over the years has increased to nearly 100. Artist refined his art and found a warm reception in Middle Eastern audiences. He established a school of percussion that has attracted both Egyptian and foreign students.

Donia and Rania want to follow suit and establish their own girls-only school, where they will help women and girls learn to drum. Rania said that the students will then join their group and form the first major all-female drumming band.

“Drums are cheerful. They get out negative energy, anger and fear and spread joy and peace,” said Donia. “We want to spread happiness and peace in the world through our art. We want to be happy and make other people happy.”

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