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Tayib, Nasser, Ali and Aref from left to right.

Gilded Serpent presents...
The Secret of Saiidi Song and Dance-
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
by Keti Sharif

For folk 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…

"Saiidi". 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!

So where 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.

Last year, 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.

Aref, 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 singer.

Saiidi 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.

Handsome 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?"

"Yes", 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 of everything!" 

The musicians 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”.

The members 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 secret.

'Saiidi - Traditional Music and Rhythms from Upper Egypt' is a one hour 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:

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