Makan: A Spotlight on Forgotten Culture

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Nestled between the old buildings of down town Cairo, Makan, also known as “The Egyptian Center for Culture and Art (ECCA)”, lies on the corner of Mansour and Saad Zaghloul Street just opposite of the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum.

Formerly used as a print shop, Makan seems like a fairly normal low-profile place at first, but once you set foot inside you are struck by a wave of cultural richness and authenticity that takes you back through time. The walls of the entrance are lined with black and white photo portraits of traditional artists, which instantly bring you up to pace with the atmosphere of the whole place.

As you step past the entrance and into the two-storey performance room you find that the place seems untouched since its last occupants left, with antique equipment dotted around the place, whether it’s the 60-year-old radio or the primitive gas heater. The dim lighting, the flaking, discolored walls, and the ancient iron doors also go a long way towards reiterating the aged atmosphere and seem to take you back through time. Although the actual physical space is not large, the atmosphere of the place is laden with so much history that could almost be touched.

Quickly gaining popularity as an alternative cultural scene that promotes the revival of various fading traditional musical themes, Makan has become notorious for its Zar musical performances performed by the Mazaher Ensemble.

Zar is a community healing ritual including music, song, and dance known to have originated in East Africa, namely Ethiopia, and gradually spread to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The practice in itself is both dominated by women and performed mainly for women. The Zar, while always being frowned upon, has known to be interpreted in many ways, from the casting away of spirits to the liberation of women from societal pressures. Yet the fact remains that it is a deeply spiritual practice that can alter the consciousness of those seriously engaged in it and leave them in a trance-like state. This is a natural side effect brought about by the monotonous beats that are followed by frantic, loud drumming, which is not too different from trance music.

Once the first-time visitor conquers the automatic apprehension that is tied to the concept of the Zar, one can actually enjoy the experience and make the mental distinction that it is not actually a Zar ritual but rather a purely musical and cultural performance.

The performance begins with the leader of the Zar (Kodia) lighting incense and making a few prayers before launching into a number of songs. The songs usually send the message of a need for some form of help in the face of sickness or dire emotional conditions in gerenal. Each musical piece is also characterized by a distinctive drumming rhythm that reflects the origins of the song. Whether the beat is Moroccan, Arabian, or Sudanese, all songs culminate with a frantic beating of drums at the end. Throughout the entire performance, the Kodia also performs some dance moves to the music.

The music played is energetic and certainly rejuvenating. The interesting aspect about Makan is the fact that it is a small place, which makes the whole musical experience very intimate. You are practically sitting with the musicians rather than watching them perform on a stage.  This is a very interesting experience on its own as you can monitor their movements and the instruments used in an attempt to get a deeper understanding of the whole atmosphere.

 

Makan’s goals are not confined to the promotion of Zar musical themes. As they state on their website they are committed to recording and archiving traditional musical practices ranging from Zar, to Mawawil (ballads and songs from Gypsy traditions of the Delta), to Nubian songs. They are also committed to providing performance possibilities for practitioners, promoting an audio aesthetic that respects musical diversity, as well as organizing encounters among a range of performing artists through workshops, rehearsals, performances or facilitating their participation in festivals.

 

Makan also hosts events that mix between different musical styles. In November 2007, Cuban jazz musician Nardy Castellini was invited to play with the Mazaher ensemble which resulted in a richly diverse, yet harmonious performance. The contrast resulting from different beats merging and melding together was revitalizing as one listened to the saxophone and the megwez play the same tunes, and to Cuban melodies being accompanied by the tabla. 

 

Makan stages performances on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so next time you're in the neighborhood and feel that you’re in the mood for a little re-charge, step right in and enjoy a unique musical experience along with a cup of their signature karkade.

 

You can visit Makan's Website at www.egyptmusic.org

 

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