BEDOUIN JERRY CAN BAND
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BEDOUIN JERRY CAN BAND

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The Bedouin Jerry Can Band, raucous rock stars of the Sinai, are on a mission to share their extraordinary music with the outside world. By Rachel Aspden

As the sun sinks over an expanse of grimy sand and desert scrub, a group of Bedouin squat patiently around a wood fire. Pick-up trucks and battered cars roar past on the Sinai coastal highway behind them, hurrying to the nearby town of al-Arish to break the Ramadan fast. The smell of roasting meat drifts up from a breeze-block shelter below, the sun finally slips below the horizon, and after a date and a sip of water the men hurry off to pray, throwing their chequered headcloths on the sand as prayer rugs. A table-sized dish piled with rice, bread and hunks of roast chicken arrives, spoons are considered and cast aside, and everyone digs in with their hands. For the next several minutes, the only sounds are of contented chewing.

The silence is uncharacteristic; this is dinner with the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, the raucous, boisterous rock stars of the Sinai Desert. But, as the menu suggests, they have few of the trappings - record deals, publicists, stylists, pro motional tours - of their pampered western counterparts. Their hits are centuries-old songs and poems; their audiences fellow Bedouin and local people; their venues desert encampments or rooms in oasis towns. Their home-made instruments are most extraordinary of all - the simsimiyya, an ancient Egyptian five-stringed lyre, the rebaba, a wood-and-wolfskin single-stringed fiddle, the maghrouna, a double pipe, the ney, a desert flute, and an idiosyncratic array of percussion - tablas, clay jugs, an ammunition box and the eponymous jerrycans, petrol containers scavenged from the war debris that litters the North Sinai Desert.

Unlike the more famous Touareg desert band Tinariwen, the Jerry Can Band have made few concessions to western sensibilities. This is no guitar-led "desert blues" influenced by Hendrix or Robert Plant, but a harder-edged sound deeply rooted in its environment. "To understand our music, you have to understand this place," says the lead singer, Goma Ghanaeim, as he hands out tiny glasses of sweet tea made over the fire. "Even our instruments are made from desert materials."

"The Bedouin are like fish, and this desert is our water - we can't live outside it," explains Ayman Hassane, the slight, clever-faced jerrycan percussionist. "But we don't want to be isolated. Here in Sinai we live at a crossroads, and we need to share our culture." The band's first album, Coffee Time (a reference to the grinding and drinking ritual that is at the heart of all Bedouin gatherings), is an attempt to do that, as is their first international show in London this month, part of the Barbican's "Ramadan Nights" season.

Hassane is right; the triangle of land that the Jerry Can Band crisscross to play at summer weddings, tend livestock or visit their fellow Suwarka tribespeople in the desert has a fraught history. Successively controlled by the Ottoman empire, Britain and Egypt, the desert is still scarred from the Egyptian-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 and a 15-year Israeli occupation that ended in 1982. The band's rusted jerrycans and ammunition boxes - some still with their Hebrew labelling - are reminders of a time many of the Suwarka were forced into exile in the Delta towns of mainland Egypt. "Our sheikh Ayeed Abu Gerir even died there," says Ghanaeim, "and we still visit his tomb every year."

But the band insist their choice of percussion is not a political statement. "The jerkans [jerry cans] were there, and we just found they sound good," says Hassane in a matter-of-fact way. Indeed, the Sinai Bedouin, who have relations in the deserts of Israel and Jordan, hold themselves slightly aloof from national conflicts. They have a mistrustful relationship with the Egyptian central government, which suspects them of running guns to and from Gaza, smuggling hash from Israel and Lebanon and, most recently, of having had a hand in the bombings of beach resorts in Taba, Ras Shaitan and Sharm el-Sheikh. In the subsequent crackdown, hundreds of Bed ouin and their families were rounded up, beaten and imprisoned. As we pile into a car to visit the rest of the band in al-Arish, Ghanaeim says that the situation has improved. "Now, the government are worried about unrest," he explains, "and they've told the police to be polite to us." As the packed car inches towards a roadblock on the outskirts of al-Arish, the young policemen assiduously greet us with a courteous "salaam aleikum". Everyone replies with exaggerated gravity, then giggles as we drive away.

Ten minutes later, we are installed at the band's favourite street cafe in a sandy alley. Suddenly, everyone is talking all at once, mobile phones chirp 15 different ringtones, two more musicians ride right up to the table on a battered motorbike, a mustachioed history professor from Suez Canal University is summoned "for the intellectual questi - New Statesman Magazine (UK)


Bedouin Jerry Can Band: Reinventing ancient musical traditions to breathe new life into Egypt's folk scene. By Tim Cumming

The Bedouin Jerry Can Band, a collective of musicians, dancers and sufi singers from the oasis town of El Arish in the northern Sinai, are coming to Britain with a debut album, Coffee Time, and a showcase concert to close the Barbican's Ramadan Nights festival.

Getting British visas has not been easy for these semi-nomadic tribesmen. Most of them have no passport and had to have their teeth examined in Cairo to ascertain their age for British visa requirements. Alas, one of the older members, the poet Admaan, whose words and rich, sun-cracked voice opens Coffee Time with a traditional Bedouin greeting and closes it with an epic tale of brewing coffee in a storm, is unable to leave at all, on account of all his teeth having fallen out. The Rolling Stones never had customs problems like this.

When I went to meet the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, we set off for El Arish with a shrill 1992 home-made cassette of the band blasting from the car stereo, weaving through the chaos of Cairo's traffic. Approaching El Arish some five hours later, the first band member we meet is lead singer and simsimiyya player Goma Ghanaeim, walking back from his mosque dressed in a black jellaba and Bedouin headgear.

"We are in the middle between Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt," he says, gesturing around him. "The Sinai is the crossroads of all the wars and historical activity that has happened here. A lot of different cultures have passed through, and it appears in our music and dance traditions."

It's the music of the Sinai that we've come to discover, as we arrive at Goma's brother's camp, rattling up a rocky, unlit track off the main road, as men in long, flowing jellaba emerge from a low-built, flat-roofed, breeze-block home carrying huge dishes of lamb, rice and beans as the evening prayer call erupts from a nearby mosque.

We settle in a group inside a semi-circular boundary of palm leaves where BJB members, friends and family gather to eat and to drink sweet tea flavoured with desert herbs, and afterwards to smoke Cleopatra cigarettes and tell stories.

With me is the band's manager, Zakaria Ibrahim. Over the last decade, his El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music has played a key role in reviving, preserving and disseminating the traditional music of Egypt.

El Mastaba occupies an apartment block in central Cairo, its walls hung with a treasure trove of instruments, its shelves filled with field recordings gathered from across the country. Egypt's ancient musical traditions – steeped as they are in ceremony, magic, historical and cultural lore, mysticism, and plain, old-fashioned romance – have not only been saved from what would have been almost certain oblivion, but are thriving.

"There is the real thing and there is the copy," explains Zakaria. "And in Egypt there are thousands of copies. A group belonging to the Palace of Culture will be Bedouin one minute, fishermen the next, from Upper Egypt the next. They don't present the identity of their locale, but all of Egypt in an amalgam. And they call it folk music, which means there's no space for the real thing." He nods towards the musicians around the fire. "It has to disappear because someone else has moved in."

And it looks as if there's an eviction notice being served on the intruders. Just as Zakaria launched El Mastaba, the BJB came together to preserve the songs and stories of their own intensely lyrical tradition. By joining forces to produce Coffee Time, they have, says Zakaria, "developed the music more than it has been in years".

"We learnt our songs from the older generation," explains Goma. "We didn't want to see them disappear – for us it is music that keeps our culture together. It's music that gives us our feeling of identity."

For centuries it was a music carried alone by poets, accompanying stories of love, rivalry and hospitality on the one-string rababa, the melancholic nay, the ear-piercing double-reed magroona, and on the simsimiyya, a five-string lyre that sounds like an enchanted banjo. All these instruments are descended from pharaonic Egypt; hearing them together is like opening a window on to ancient history.

"Today our melodies are the same, the songs are the same, but what's changed," says Ayman Hassanne, master percussionist of the jerry cans, "was that before, each instrument was played by itself. What we have done is put all these different instruments together to make a new sound from the same traditional melodies. The old musicians played without knowing any of the scales they were using. But now we know what we're doing, we know the tonality of the music, and we work from the same tuning. Before, each player tuned their instrument according to how they felt."

The band's name comes from their percussive arsenal of Israeli jerry cans and ammo boxes, left behind from Is - The Independent (UK)


Bedouin Jerry Can Band, LSO St Luke's, Barbican Ramadan Nights Festival. By David Honigmann

The Bedouin Jerry Can Band take a proprietary approach to their music. Illegal file-sharing, they warn, will "incur the wrath of the ancient pharaohs". They disdain the Stratocasters beloved of the Touareg guitar bands that have made desert music synonymous with gritty, loping blues played at a camel's pace. These Bedouins take a different approach. Their music is played on reed pipes, the simsimiyya, or five-string lyre, and the rababa, a single-stringed wolfskin fiddle. The percussion is hammered out on the detritus of the six-day war: ammunition boxes and the eponymous jerry cans.

Their concert as part of the Ramadan Nights festival conjured a near-Biblical setting. There was a four-poster tent, with rugs on the floor covered with clay jugs. Medhat El Issawy and Goma Ghanaeim, sitting cross-legged, played a duet on flute and lyre. In ones and twos, more of the band appeared, all in full Bedouin robes and sandals; nine in all, the only absentee the elderly poet Soliman Agmaan, kept away by visa problems.

Most of them took turns stepping up to lead: a Chaucerian mix of singers and songs ranging from the mildly bawdy to the tragic. Periodically Rana Awad, in a colourful embroidered dress, engaged in a bouncing step dance with Ghanaeim, who shook a colourful camel-driving stick like a Bedouin morris dancer. Behind them, the percussion section thumped jerry cans to produce a deep, metallic bass boom, slapped the mouth of a clay jug until it moaned like a djinn, and knocked triplets out of an ammunition box.

Late on, Ayman Hassanne roasted coffee beans in a frying pan, tossing them noisily for full musical effect, before crushing them with a giant pestle to an expectant fiddle tune. Nostrils quivered in anticipation. The band's manager, Zakaria Ibrahim, incongruously dressed in a diamond-patterned sweater and shiny shoes, joined Khalied Al Sharawy to hymn the role of black coffee in resolving disputes and preserving cultural identity. Other members of the band handed out cups of fresh coffee to the audience. Music, dancing and hot refreshment: an oasis of hospitality so perfect that stepping back out into a rainy Old Street came as a shock. - Financial Times (UK)


The nomadic tribes collectively known as the Bedouin have been roaming the desert regions of the Arab world for millennia and music plays a central role in their culture. Indeed, it’s used for everything from tracing a stranger’s family tree to encouraging reluctant camels. Anyone who has spent time amongst Bedouin will know that they are legendarily hospitable and that it doesn’t require much to inspire a good party, which often revolves around the grinding and drinking of coffee – it’s more fun than it sounds!

These desert-dwellers are also extraordinarily resourceful and their instruments have always been made from whatever comes to hand, be they pipes whittled from marsh reeds or drums made from the flotsam of the region’s military conflicts, including the jerry cans from which the group take their name. The Bedouin Jerry Can Band’s music is an infectious blend of clattering rhythms and rousing choruses, interspersed with more subtle melodies accompanied by pipes and the grainy sound of the rabab (horsehair fiddle). However, the real delight of the album is the silvery sound of the simsimiya (five-string lyre), which manages to be both electrifyingly rhythmic and enchantingly elegaic.

The BJB’s performances are rather more smoothly produced and approachable than some other similar groups, and that is undoubtedly a good thing: this is a genre of music that is wonderful if you’re in the midst of a party under the Sinai stars but can be a bewildering din on your iPod at home.

BILL BADLEY
- Songlines magazine (UK)


Featuring lyres, flutes, fiddles, tablas and, of course, jerry cans scavenged from the Sinai desert after the Six Day War in 1967, this unusual collection of Bedouin folk songs has been assembled from the histories of the nomadic tribes of the Middle East. With its rapid percussion and pounding beat, it is an interesting contrast to the Tuareg desert blues, which seem designed to while away long hours alone in the saddle. The Bedouin sound more at home dancing at oasis gatherings, where they can tell each other about real hospitality, black coffee, camel trains, desert postmen and black-eyed women with green tattoos. An undeniable sense of fun flows infectiously through these songs.

DAVID HUTCHEON
- The Times (UK)


A band of Bedouin musicians from the Sinai desert with songs about camels, coffee and beautiful girls. This fine, dozen-strong group accompany themselves on flute, rubab fiddle, the delicate simsimiyya lyre which dates back to pharaonic times plus ammunition boxes and fuel cans that date back to the Six Day War. The Bedouin are famous for their hospitality and it's easy to imagine sitting down with these guys round a fire and enjoying these rousing songs till late in the night. The track Black Coffee is particularly good in this respect and comes complete with the sound of a wooden coffee grinder. The group promises coffee at their Ramadan Nights performance at St Luke's next Tuesday. I hope they can do a version without sugar.

SIMON BROUGHTON - London Evening Standard


"No Stratocasters" is the proud boast, a rebuke to all the Tinariwens and Toumasts who bring the sonic values of The Clash to the desert. Bedouin Jerry Can Band are based in the Sinai rather than the Sahara, and their signature is a cacophony of found percussion, produced by battering on ammunition boxes discarded during the Six Day War, with a top end of simsimiyya (the five-string lyre popularised by El Tanbura), pipes and wolf-skin fiddle. Songs tell of forbidden and doomed love, coffee and camels.

DAVID HONIGMANN
- Financial Times (UK)


WHILE Tinariwen systematically re-tailor their art to suit commercial demands, this band of Bedouin nomads keeps the faith. They won't swap their simsimiyya lyres for guitars, and love the sound of the jerry cans they found littering the deserts. Their music is raw, atmospheric, and free of electronic "aids," and they have invited their fellow simsimiyya champions El Tanbura to join them on three tracks. The title refers to the preparation of the drink which is the focus of all Bedouin gatherings, and the lyrics reflect the basic realities of desert life - love, hospitality, and the beauty of the stars.

MICHAEL CHURCH
- The Scotsman


Bedouin Jerry Can Band: Reinventing ancient musical traditions to breathe new life into Egypt's folk scene. By Tim Cumming

The Bedouin Jerry Can Band, a collective of musicians, dancers and sufi singers from the oasis town of El Arish in the northern Sinai, are coming to Britain with a debut album, Coffee Time, and a showcase concert to close the Barbican's Ramadan Nights festival.

Getting British visas has not been easy for these semi-nomadic tribesmen. Most of them have no passport and had to have their teeth examined in Cairo to ascertain their age for British visa requirements. Alas, one of the older members, the poet Admaan, whose words and rich, sun-cracked voice opens Coffee Time with a traditional Bedouin greeting and closes it with an epic tale of brewing coffee in a storm, is unable to leave at all, on account of all his teeth having fallen out. The Rolling Stones never had customs problems like this.

When I went to meet the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, we set off for El Arish with a shrill 1992 home-made cassette of the band blasting from the car stereo, weaving through the chaos of Cairo's traffic. Approaching El Arish some five hours later, the first band member we meet is lead singer and simsimiyya player Goma Ghanaeim, walking back from his mosque dressed in a black jellaba and Bedouin headgear.

"We are in the middle between Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt," he says, gesturing around him. "The Sinai is the crossroads of all the wars and historical activity that has happened here. A lot of different cultures have passed through, and it appears in our music and dance traditions."

It's the music of the Sinai that we've come to discover, as we arrive at Goma's brother's camp, rattling up a rocky, unlit track off the main road, as men in long, flowing jellaba emerge from a low-built, flat-roofed, breeze-block home carrying huge dishes of lamb, rice and beans as the evening prayer call erupts from a nearby mosque.

We settle in a group inside a semi-circular boundary of palm leaves where BJB members, friends and family gather to eat and to drink sweet tea flavoured with desert herbs, and afterwards to smoke Cleopatra cigarettes and tell stories.

With me is the band's manager, Zakaria Ibrahim. Over the last decade, his El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music has played a key role in reviving, preserving and disseminating the traditional music of Egypt.

El Mastaba occupies an apartment block in central Cairo, its walls hung with a treasure trove of instruments, its shelves filled with field recordings gathered from across the country. Egypt's ancient musical traditions – steeped as they are in ceremony, magic, historical and cultural lore, mysticism, and plain, old-fashioned romance – have not only been saved from what would have been almost certain oblivion, but are thriving.

"There is the real thing and there is the copy," explains Zakaria. "And in Egypt there are thousands of copies. A group belonging to the Palace of Culture will be Bedouin one minute, fishermen the next, from Upper Egypt the next. They don't present the identity of their locale, but all of Egypt in an amalgam. And they call it folk music, which means there's no space for the real thing." He nods towards the musicians around the fire. "It has to disappear because someone else has moved in."

And it looks as if there's an eviction notice being served on the intruders. Just as Zakaria launched El Mastaba, the BJB came together to preserve the songs and stories of their own intensely lyrical tradition. By joining forces to produce Coffee Time, they have, says Zakaria, "developed the music more than it has been in years".

"We learnt our songs from the older generation," explains Goma. "We didn't want to see them disappear – for us it is music that keeps our culture together. It's music that gives us our feeling of identity."

For centuries it was a music carried alone by poets, accompanying stories of love, rivalry and hospitality on the one-string rababa, the melancholic nay, the ear-piercing double-reed magroona, and on the simsimiyya, a five-string lyre that sounds like an enchanted banjo. All these instruments are descended from pharaonic Egypt; hearing them together is like opening a window on to ancient history.

"Today our melodies are the same, the songs are the same, but what's changed," says Ayman Hassanne, master percussionist of the jerry cans, "was that before, each instrument was played by itself. What we have done is put all these different instruments together to make a new sound from the same traditional melodies. The old musicians played without knowing any of the scales they were using. But now we know what we're doing, we know the tonality of the music, and we work from the same tuning. Before, each player tuned their instrument according to how they felt."

The band's name comes from their percussive arsenal of Israeli jerry cans and ammo boxes, left behind from Is - The Independent (UK)


Discography

Album

"COFFEE TIME" (2007) 30IPS 50667

Photos

Bio

Bedouin Jerry Can Band (BJB) are a collective of semi-nomadic musicians, poets, storytellers and coffee grinders from the Egyptian Sinai desert. Members are drawn from residents of El Arish, an oasis city lying on the Mediterranean coast of Sinai and from followers of a Sufi sect of the Suwarka tribe who reside at the nearby settlement of Abo El Hossain.

The group’s songs and poetry recall the exploits of the ancient Arabian Bedouin tribes through stories from Sinai, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Arabian Gulf recounting boundless generosity to guests, fables about trusty camels, warnings of the dastardly deeds of sheep rustlers and tales of unrequited love for the girl with beautiful eyes in the next settlement.

Blending the Simsimiyya (a traditional Egyptian lyre) with desert flutes and reed pipes, BJB perform traditional melodies accompanied by infectious rhythms played on tablas, frame drums and clay jugs; augmented by ammunition boxes & jerry can percussion salvaged from the former battlegrounds of the Six-day War of 1967.

The introduction of this unusual arsenal of junk percussion into BJB’s music by founder member Medhat El Issawy was at first viewed with some local scepticism. Although the musicians (whom at this time were known as Takht El Arish) were simply continuing a time-honoured Bedouin tradition of making good use of the riches of Sinai, in an environment where the modern world has eroded many traditional ways of life change is seldom welcomed. Tribal songs are viewed by many as one of the last remaining outposts of Bedouin culture to have survived relatively unaltered for centuries.

Fortunately, any initial criticisms were soon superseded by unanimous agreement from audiences that the metallic ring of the battered petrol cans bought a distinctive (and pleasing) bass-end identity to the sound of the band’s music, and thus the musicians became known as Jerry Can.

A succession of Turkish, British, Israeli, and Egyptian rulers have all bought many changes to Sinai since the end of the 19th century and the romantic image of a desert-dwelling people wandering under the stars now looks quite antiquated, not least because Egyptian skies are becoming increasingly obscured by light pollution and traffic fumes. New songs and poems however continue to circulate between Bedouin communities, paradoxically aided by the trappings of modern times in the form mobile phones and cheap MP3 players imported into the area via the Suez Canal (home to album guest vocalists and fellow Simsimiyya champions El Tanbura).

While the transmission and dissemination of storytelling and traditional music is evolving, contemporary Sinai Bedouin culture is still firmly underpinned by the same proud tribal values of honesty, loyalty and hospitality as practised by their nomadic ancestors travelling the Arabian plains.