Secret of Saiidi Song and Dance-
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
by Keti Sharif
dance enthusiasts, the Egyptian Saiidi conjures up images of
gallant rhythms, prancing horses, proud cane wielding Saiidi
warriors in cotton galebeyyas and joyous village weddings from
Upper Egypt. Certainly Saiidi is all that and more. But it
hides its own local secret, and that is what is rather interesting…
Say this word anywhere in Egypt (including El Saiid) and
colloquially it implies someone who is funny, backward -
a loveable, gullible character with salt-of-the-earth village
simplicity. To call someone “Saiidi” is a local term or endearment
for a likeable buffoon!
do the two worlds of the Saiidi style of song and dance meet?
One is indeed gallant, imbued with fierce national pride -
especially with it's symbol of the Arabian dancing horse (hassan)
and dramatic stepping pattern to the equally gallant rhythms.
Yet the other implies a sense of humor akin to buffoonery.
Somehow the two messages, although poles apart, are cheerfully
interwoven in most Saiidi songs.
when Omar Kamel and I decided to make a DVD
on Egypt’s Saiidi musicians with the Shabeyya Rababa
band from Luxor, we really weren't sure what they
would talk about. The band members were always jubilant and
fun at parties, so we wanted to get to know more about them
and their music. We had gotten to know the band members quite
well and knew they were musicians who were untrained in academic
musicality yet serious about the preservation of their folkloric
art. But upon interviewing each of them, what we learned surprised
us. Yes, they demonstrated the powerful Saiidi tabla rhythms,
played the soulful rababa and shook their shimmering fish skin-covered
reqs (tambourines). That we were expecting. But what we didn't
expect was the sarcastic jest and almost-too-playful innuendo
in those Saiidi lyrics! The comical aspect was contagious;
we were in fits of laughter as they sung their village songs.
the 18 year old Rababa player has such a cheeky smirk you know
his songs are equally playful and wicked - even if you don't
understand the lyrics. "How can you call yourself a man
when you haven't even rolled your moustache yet? In fact, you
haven’t even a moustache to roll" are the lyrics from
a song from Sohag, telling the story of how a very young man
wins the affections of the storyteller's wife. And how about "She
went shopping for melons, oh what lovely melons, she chose
the two best melons in the market!" are the core lyrics
of another song about a “Saiida” village woman shopping at
the fruit markets and who catches the wandering eye of the
songs are usually lighthearted in essence - and even the
songs that seem drenched in melancholy, often belie an acute
Upper Egyptian cynicism. So when dancing to these folkloric
Saiidi songs - the key element is to tap into your satirical
and teasing "Saiidi" persona.
The female "Saiida" (dancer
from Upper Egypt) gestures subtly yet flirtatiously, dressed
in her well-covered galebeyya, and with a simple scarf tied
at her hips. The headscarf and large coin earrings too, are
a part of the understated Saiidi costume. She is not dressed
to dazzle - she is a country girl at heart. But she certainly
has a city-wise sense of humor. The overall feel of this “Saiida”
character is all-woman, one who is quietly confident and could
match any man’s robust sense of humor, although she hides a
giggle and a smirk at the local satire. She is understated
in her agile hip moves and uncomplicated shimmies - but hits
every accent with precision. She is modest as required, yet
capable of understanding and appreciating the bawdiest joke. In
fact, she personifies the very character of the Egyptian Baladi
woman – strong, playful, yet subtle in her femininity as she
gestures quietly, confidently.
Tabla player, 26 year old Nasser, who stands
over six foot swathed in his noble Saiidi attire of crisp dark
blue floor-length galebeyya, pattered neck scarf and white
head-dress, already has three wives and a bevy of playful children.
He says there is still room for one more wife, and he would
prefer a redhead! "So", I asked him, "Do the
Saiidi songs talk about the day to day occurrences with multiple
partners in Saiidi Islamic marriages?"
Nasser answers, "most Saiidi songs talk about village
life and who is doing what with whom… Saiidi villagers thrive
on gossip, its the staple of everyone’s daily news, so of
course our songs are about this. We enjoy it. We make fun
dressed in traditional clothing appear demure, but there is
no shyness when it comes to the risqué sexual innuendo in Saiidi
lyrics. Sometimes innuendo is even found in subtle dance gesture
- for example the hand grinding gesture women dancers make
implies "I can crush you to pulp with my teasing hips,
boy". Yet overall there is a relaxed and fun nature that
expresses a type of communal story telling and celebration
in movement, rather than a serious perfectionism in the dance-art.
Communal dance it is. Communal lyrics too. The essence of community
in shared song and dance features prominently in Saiidi society.
Ali explains that the Saiidi warriors used to fight publicly
for state competitions, to the live Saiidi percussion rhythms
with a heavy staff or 'tahktib'. The town folk would gather
and watch the proceedings in the village square, as two or
four fighters would perform their martial art-like warrior's
dance, with agile steps, hopping moves and swift strikes against
the other's tahktib. Skillful and proud, the best "warriors" would
win local government trophies and medallions to wear around
their necks. “To be a Saiidi fighter”, Ali says, “is the ultimate
honor of being a Saiidi man”.
of the Shabeyya band are young and hail from various provinces
in Upper Egypt - Luxor, Sohag and Qena - where they regularly
travel to entertain at Saiidi weddings and traditional festivities. "Rababa
playing is our tradition”, says Tayib, who
was taught how to play Rababa by his uncle. “Boys learn from
four years of age how to craft the Rababa from a coconut shell,
and attach horse hair and lamb's gut.” Tayib knows how to make
a Rababa, as the instrument-making is an intergenerational
skill. “We are proud of our traditional songs and dances, and
we like to have fun too - so sometimes our lyrics are ad-lib
and become one long joke." The band clearly enjoy their
music and have fun as they keep their traditional art alive.
And as dancers, Saiidi’s special breed of gallantry and humor,
makes it enjoyable to dance to…and more-so when we know its
- Traditional Music and Rhythms from Upper Egypt' is a one
cultural documentary film Keti Sharif produced in Egypt. Her
website contains more information on Saiidi, including how
to twirl the Saiidi cane, step-by-step: www.ketisharif.com
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