Zar music: kicking out the jinns

What if music could expel the demons, devils and malicious spirits that were bringing you bad health, bad luck and bad vibes in general?

In Cairo, a diehard group of traditional musicians are keeping alive the ancient art of zar - music, song and dance that developed around rituals designed to drive out jinn (demons, spirits or angels; the word is the origin of the English genie)) or ward off incoming ones.

According to the group, who go by the name Mazaher:

"Zar is an ancient tradition in which women play a leading role and which is practiced in several countries in the region. The zar is a pacification and purification ritual in which a small group of people gather with the aim to communicate in an energetic interaction with uneseen entities and to harmonise their inner lives and pacify the spirits...

"Zar is part of the underground culture, therefore the music and songs have survived as a sub-culture in their original form without any great interference which would have caused much change. However, the underground ritual practice became limited in its form and many of the songs were lost, only 25 persons within the whole of Egypt still carry knowledge of the musical legacy of the zar."

In keeping the tradition alive Mazaher have been supported by the marvellous Makan centre, headed by the indefatigable Dr Ahmed El Maghraby, where the group performs regularly and is now one of the few places in Egypt where a zar performance can be seen in public - although they do apparently continue in private in some areas.

This seems to be a significant change compared to the early 1980s, when the academic Laurie Eisler was undertaking anthropological research into zar, which she recounted in a 1995 article:

"As we approached the neighborhood, there would be cart loads of “baladi” women, drawn by horses, coming from the nearby countryside to visit the shrine, pray and make wishes for the health of their children and husbands, picnic, and then spend several hours at one of the several zars down the street. It was a festive atmosphere, and the air was filled with the sound of drums, even the tiny ceramic ones for sale by the shrine for the children to beat on."

One interesting facet of zar is that, traditionally, the performances have only been open to women - although male musicians are permitted. This is a rare thing in a bleakly patriarchal society like Egypt's. According to an article in Abu Dhabi newspaper The National:

"Zar gatherings act as a vital form of expression for women in conservative, strictly patriarchal rural communities, according to the folk music expert Zakaria Ibrahim.

"'In the past, men could meet in coffee houses and spend hours but women couldn't," says Ibrahim, "For women in a Muslim country, the Zar acted as a kind of woman's club, where they meet each other and speak about mutual suffering.'"

Whether zar performances continue in rural Egypt I couldn't say, but by all accounts the popularity and accessibility of the rituals has declined massively. Back in 2013, Mahida, the group's frontwoman - who seems to be permanently dressed in shimmering black robes and gold jewellery - told The National that although many Egyptians are familiar with the music, it is:

"often misunderstood because it is portrayed in movies and on television as a form of black magic and exorcism. The country's conservatives have denounced it as un-Islamic, while many take issue with the prominent role women play in the ceremony."

Furthermore, there seems to be a significant class component to the music. Eisler notes that upper-class Cairenes wouldn't dream of being seen near a zar ritual, while a more recent piece highlights how "richer Egyptians... view folk performers as poor and uneducated," while commercialisation poses a risk to the integrity of the music: "The tourist industry, only just recovering, does little to help encourage folk traditions further and in some cases the artists are devalued as just another product to consume."

Eisler describes in more detail the origins, practices and purposes of the participants. While male musicians have long been part of zar, in the early 1980s the bands were apparently either all-male or all-female - Mazaher's gender mix seems to be a departure from this tradition.

But whoever is in the band, the musicians need to be on top form. Eisler recounts:

"According to the women I interviewed, the purpose of going to the zar was 'to relax', a concept which I grew to understand as a deep sense of calmness associated with the state of trance, experienced while moving to music, with the resulting peace of mind lasting even after the event was over. If that transcendent state wasn’t reached, the zar wasn’t 'successful', and usually the musicians were blamed." 

The performances at Makan differ from a traditional zar performance, having as their main purpose entertainment and education rather than the casting out of jinn. No-one, presumably, is going to blame the band if their jinn are still hanging around after the music is over.

This leads to the question of whether the music is over, once and for all. The decline in zar performances in recent decades (at least in Egypt - zar is also present in numerous other countries) has led to various articles in the English-language press about its diminishing popularity and, according to the above-noted article in The National, forthcoming "extinction". But that article was written five years ago and Mazaher, at least, are still going strong. Maybe it's not over yet.