News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

During the holy month of Ramadan, the streets of Cairo take on a different sound

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Cairo is a bustling, noisy city of 20 million people. But for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the streets welcome another kind of sound - drums and horn. NPR's Aya Batrawy met a group performing a unique blend of sound in the city's neighborhoods.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: It's just before Ramadan when I meet three wedding musicians from the city of Mansoura. They've traveled nearly 100 miles south to Cairo to perform a niche style of music. They zigzag through the city's narrow streets and alleys, surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: Their audience watches from balconies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: This is the sound of madeh, a genre rooted in praising and venerating the Prophet Muhammad. Ali Abdelminem plays the drum known as the tabla...

ALI ABDELMINEM: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: ...And tells me the most important part of this work is the public's approval. Without that, there's nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: If people like what they hear, they toss them money from their balconies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: Their work starts in the afternoon and runs late into the night. They stop only for prayers and for iftar - the meal that breaks their daylong fast. They eat at public spaces, like mosques, that offer free meals in Ramadan.

ABDELMINEM: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Abdelminem says he earns and receives whatever God provides each day, and he isn't begging or asking for anything. The few dollars they might earn a day is just enough to cover their costs in Cairo and send money to their kids back in Mansoura.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: Ragab el-Sherif is the man on the trumpet. Well, to give you a clearer picture, it's a 20-year-old golden-hued trumpet that's held together in some places with bandage tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATRAWY: And finally, there's Ahmed Mohammed, the youngest of the group at 25 years old. He also drums on the tabla, and it's his voice you're hearing here.

AHMED MOHAMMED: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: He's what Muslims call a hafez. That's someone who's memorized the entire Quran.

MOHAMMED: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says being a hafez helps him as a singer with intonation and rhythms of Arabic spoken word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOHAMMED: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: The group's sound, known as madeh, has roots in Egypt from the mid-20th century, when Muhammad Al-Kahlawi (ph), known as Sheikh Al-Maddahin (ph), popularized it. Al-Kahlawi became the voice behind hundreds of songs venerating the Prophet Muhammad on radio stations across the Middle East in the 1950s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOHAMMED: (Singing in non-English language).

BATRAWY: They also draw inspiration from other musical giants of that era, like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez. And like the streets of Cairo where they perform, their unique blend of sound is unscripted and improvised. They don't rehearse. Madeh comes from feeling, memory and the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATRAWY: And just like that, the theme song from "The Godfather" sneaks in.

RAGAB EL-SHERIF: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: El-Sherif says he didn't know it came from a Hollywood movie, and he just learned it by ear.

EL-SHERIF: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: I check in with them again during Ramadan. They tell me it's been a good run so far and that they've performed every night. The religious devotion, rhythms and trumpet of this group from Mansoura...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATRAWY: ...Echo Cairo's own cultural mosaic to create a distinctly Egyptian experience in Ramadan.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.