Female-led Egyptian ensemble keeps rhythmic folk music alive

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Backed by a troupe on drums and tambourines, 72-year-old Um Sameh performs songs that gradually crescendo against waves of percussion.

One of the last practitioners of Zar music, she is part of an ensemble called Mazaher that was formed to keep the traditional art form alive.

Zar was once practised in several countries in the region, and the group, in which women are the lead musicians, draws on variations of the music originating from southern Egypt and Sudan.

Songs are passed down orally and are meant to serve as a form of musical therapy, says Um Sameh.

She performs regularly at the Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts in Cairo, and has been singing since she was 13.

“My history with the Zar started with my mother, because she used to be a ‘rayesa’ (leader),” she said.

“When my mother was old, she made me the leader, just like her.”