Within Sound of the Nile – Tracing the Composer Soliman Gamil

Illustration: Chloé Griffin

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, researchers from all over the world were on the trail of the past in Egypt. Already as a boy, Soliman Gamil accompanied some of them to learn about the music of the Pharaonic period.

After his musical education in Cairo and Paris, he travelled through Egypt with a tape recorder to document traditional rituals. During the sixties, Gamil invited village musicians to Cairo to form a National Music Troupe. They developed his 20th century compositions together – with instruments in use millennia earlier by the first pharaonic orchestra in human history. (Artwork: Chloé Griffin)

45-minute documentary with:

Nagy Shaker, designer, artist, and professor at Cairo University 

Shady El Noshokaty, artist

Gamal Al-Ghitani, writer and art critic

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby, director of the cultural center Makan in Cairo

Abdo Gobaer, writer

Serenade Gamil, daughter of Soliman Gamil

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy, Sufi singer

Mohamed Hindi, musician in Soliman Gamil’s National Music Troupe

℗ 2009 Chloé Griffin, Paul Paulun, Sam Wilder | 2022 edit by Paul Paulun

English/Arabic version (photo by Soliman Gamil used with kind permission by Serenade Gamil)

English/Arabic version with English subtitles

Within Sound of the Nile

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Inshad

Nagy Shaker:

Look, the very young people, they like it, but they don’t know why. So I have to explain what this music is about. It’s strange, they haven’t heard something like this before – so they like it, but they don’t know why – what’s the secret about it, why it reached them. I have to explain this music, what value it has and how it’s done and all this. And then, when they do hear it again, they can appreciate it more.

Chloé Griffin:

Have you ever heard of the Egyptian composer Soliman Gamil?

Shady El Noshokaty:

What’s the name? What’s the name? – Soliman Gamil? – It seems familiar for me. Very familiar. He worked with folklore. He changed the folk to orchestra. And he used some Egyptian folk instruments in orchestra.

Abdo Gobaer:

By the way, Soliman Gamil did music for a lot of films. There are lots of conductors who did films and music, but the people don’t recognize them. When Soliman Gamil would do music for a film, people talked about it, that this is the music of Soliman Gamil.

Gamal Al-Ghitani:

I think he tried to contact the deep soul of Egypt through the study and the music. Not only by writing, but also in practical, because this man collected lots of popular music from the countryside.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

There’s two Soliman Gamil. The composer – anyone can say: I like his music or I don’t like it. It’s a question of taste. And there’s the other Soliman Gamil, who had this consciousness about our music as it is. He did a lot of research, he wrote a lot about this music. So it’s not only what he composed, but especially his concept about music: Okay, we can do everything with our music, but let’s remember that we have to keep, we have to preserve, we have to record at least this legacy.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Collecting the Harvest

Serenade Gamil:

My father used to compare the folkloric actual music with his researches that he did on Pharaonic music. When he was 14, 15 years old, he had this chance to help Dr. Hans Hickmann in his researches about Pharaonic music on the temples. He was having his instrument, the khanoun and he used to measure the size of the chords of the harp on the walls of the temples compared to the khanoun just to find out in which tone and which musical scale it was used during the Pharaonic period.

Nagy Shaker:

I think he was also inspired by all these fresks and reliefs and instruments when searching about the character of music. Of course, it was difficult to find complete things, but he could get a formal idea. After he studied the Pharaonic work, he could understand that there is sort of an influence and relationship, which reached to Coptic music in a way or another.

Serenade Gamil:

The word Copt means Egyptian and when Islam came to Egypt, everybody was Coptic. So there were people who converted to Islam and there were people who stayed Christians, Orthodox, Coptic.

Field-recording:

Koran recitor in a tunnel

Serenade Gamil:

When you hear the recitation in the churches, it’s like you’re hearing a sheik, a muslim sheik – reciting, too. So there’s an interaction between this Pharaonic, which is not lost, but we cannot hear it, but it continues through Coptic recitation till Islamic recitation.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

The relation is of three cultures which have met together and become enmeshed together. There is a blending. But even in this blending, the color of each component is preserved, and so is the type of performance. And an interaction and meeting came about between these peoples, and between these musics, without any contradictions or conflicts.

Abdo Gobaer:

We as writers struggle to make our own way in the novel and change it to become an Oriental writing. So I was attached to his work and his research especially, because he tried to make something completely new, which is kind of a symphony music, but taking the items from our heritage. It leads to being modern and at the same time being an Egyptian. I was doing the same – I was looking in our heritage for items which I could use in my modern writing. So I learned a lot from his music and from his writing. He was very, very useful. Not only for me, but all my colleagues that write poetry and novels and short stories – they do admire him.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Rhythmic Dialogue (split up)

Abdo Gobaer:

Most of the artists were leftist, so they found what happened in ’52 was a chance for them to influence this new regime, which came and wanted to make a social society.

Nagy Shaker:

The 50s and 60s were a very rich period for the art and culture.

Abdo Gobaer:

Cairo was a beautiful city – very quiet, very clean – full of culture. Everywhere you’d find exhibitions. You’d find halls, in which they’d do all kinds of music.

Nagy Shaker:

There was this dream for a better Egypt. And all people were having this sense and the will to do something.

Abdo Gobaer:

The artists and writers in this period – they worked in their field, doing their job which they think is their responsibility.

Nagy Shaker:

I founded a puppet theatre, but after ten years I believed that puppet theatre is not only for children, it could be for adults also, so I started  to make performances for adults that were based on political and social problems.

Abdo Gobaer:

These people knew what they wanted for themselves as artists and what they wanted for their society.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Rhythmic Dialogue

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

Soliman Gamil had a programme on the radio, called Alhan min al-sharq wa l-gharb, Music From East and West, I don’t remember the details, but I think it was Tuesdays at 11 pm. He used to present music from the West, maybe Mozart, maybe Beethoven, and he was explaining, analyzing and trying to initiate people to this music.

Gamal Al-Ghitani:

His programme did not only present classical music, but also Oriental music: Oriental classical Arabic music, Indian music, also popular music from Egypt. When I say popular, I mean the countryside, Sufi music, music from Upper Egypt, arghoul, nai …

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

… and one day, the director of the radio told him: »It will be not Tuesday, not at 11 pm – it’ll be at 4 o’clock in the morning«. At a time, when nobody can listen.  Okay – he accepted it. He was very humble man, great manners. The week after or two weeks after, he received a phone call from the radio: »Come on right now! We have to get the programme back in the right time at 11 o’clock«. So he went back to the radio to record the programme and when he finished, he asked: »But why? You changed and suddenly you’re calling me back to record this?« And he discovered that Gamal Abdel Nasser, our president, liked his programme and when it disappeared, he just asked; »What about Soliman Gamil‘s programme? Where is it?« And thus of course: Everybody – oahh – come back!

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Isis looking for Osiris

Serenade Gamil:

At the time this folkloric music was seen to be: No, it’s music of the villages, it’s not civilized and it’s not having a theory like Arabic music and classical European music. It doesn’t have a theory – like: people are playing anything… So for him, it was not like this.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

It was the period when Egypt was in modernization, Tharwat Okasha was Minister of Culture and he used to have this idea: We have to do what the West is doing. We have to imitate the West, if we would like to be developed. And Soliman Gamil: No. We have to learn from the West, but at the same time, we have our treasures. So he started to send messages to the President to tell, if we would like to rebuild this country, we should look to the development, but we also should look to our roots. We have to build our development and future on solid roots.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

Many of us, my brothers and I, we hold on to the traditions. Why? So that things will carry on through the generations, and the generations will meet.

Serenade Gamil:

He was so much into modernity and so much into tradition. He wanted Egypt to be developed with preserving the sources of its main tradition. And to preserve that, you cannot neglect modernity. That’s why they wanted to have a school in 1968 for folkloric musicians.

Mohamed Hindi:

He’d take all of us, peasants, in our jalabiyas and turbans. We’d go to the minister and say, look this is our Shabi heritage. We need to put together a troupe.

Serenade Gamil:

Egypt was socialist during Nasser and the political vision at the time was to impose socialism in the villages. So he said: No, let’s create cultural centers in each village and let people in the villages express themselves through painting, through poetry, through music and perform in these cultural centers. We cannot impose a political vision, which is outside from the normal peasant in Egypt. Let them express what they feel! This is the real socialism. So for him the peasant is eloquent.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

So they created the ballett, the symphonic orchestra, the conservatoire, the arts academy, and at the same time, in every village you could find a small group of traditional music, paid by the government.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Promenade on the Nile

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

I was the director of this cultural center and I went to Soliman Gamil the first time to ask him consultancy. And he started slowly, very slowly to tell me: Listen to this! … Listen to that! .. Feel this! .. Have a taste! Just touch this!! ..

Mohamed Hindi:

He was very humble, one of the truly humble men. He would sit with the ordinary folk. On the floor, like this. He was Shabi, and he sat with the Shabi people and would say »Do it like this, do it like this.«

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

And he was, of course, the first person to give me names of great musicians. Go to see this peasant in that village. He’s playing arghoul – he’s good, you’ll like him. Go to <?> café or this place, a coffee shop in a street, where musicians used to go, go there and you’ll meet somebody.

Nagy Shaker:

He was going all over Egypt to search for those players with different folk instruments and collecting teams. He was inviting them to Cairo to experiment with them, to study with them and to make groups.

Mohamed Hindi:

He would say that we possess Shabi art that is stronger than orchestras. So we made a school. A school in Champillion Street, in his apartment. He’d sit down at the piano and practice with the Shabi musicians. The phrase might be written with four or five notes. But then Soliman comes and says: »Play this with your imagination and don’t worry a bit about what’s written. I just wrote this down for memorization, for some other group that will come in and record. But as for that, you go and play it however you want.«

Nagy Shaker:

From these experiments he composed lots of music with his ideas. Using their skill in playing, he was imagining a new form of music with these elements.

Serenade Gamil:

He was so severe with the punctuality of what has to be performed. So all the time they write something and then they hide it – just to remember what he says what they should play. Okay, they learn their music from one generation to another by hearing, but there they were writing. They had symbols and these symbols are Pharaonic – hieroglyphic. And they have interpretation for everything. You have interpretation for the time, for silence, for the notes. Afterwards, he communicated with them with these symbols.

Mohamed Hindi:

And when you go back and listen to it, you’ll say: »That’s not Shabi.« I say: »That’s Shabi!« And you might say: »What on earth are you talking about?!«

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Promenade on the Nile

Mohamed Hindi:

He would take the Shabi performance, and listen to what was there. But whatever was missing, he would put it in.

Nagy Shaker:

He was not a traditional composer, not staying at the table and write. No, he was improvising with the artist, the player in the same moment. And they’d experiment together until he found something interesting, and then he fixed it.

Mohamed Hindi:

All of our instruments and our forms are Pharaonic, but they’ve been developed and changed. When he was in the studio, you could see that he had such solid experience with the traditional instruments. Amazing.

Nagy Shaker:

To do something valuable from these very old instruments with their limited possibilities. This was his challenge. To put it in a more complex music with modern ideas, with modern imagination, with creativity to make his music. He believed in these instruments.

Mohamed Hindi:

He was the only one who would take these instruments and develop them. How would he develop them? According to their real essence. He wouldn’t develop them apart from the very nature of the instrument. You know, from here to here. It keeps its own color, that’s his genius.

Nagy Shaker:

For example, when you hit the rababa, it’s not very nice to hear it, it’s a little bit rough. It’s a rough instrument, but you have the nai, which is a very delicate and smooth instrument and arghoul, this aooooaaahh, which has a very deep sound. And he was collecting all these to make combinations. Because in the folk music, you can hear only one instrument or two, and they usually sing the same melody, so he was trying to make combinations between all these to make new value.

Mohamed Hindi:

You hear his music, and it has spiritualism, spiritualism in the body. He would take from here and then from here, but it would all agree with itself. He would make it agree. He took nothing by mistake.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

He read and translated many great books about music. He knew where things came from and how they developed and that is why he has an effect until today.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Sacred Lake

Serenade Gamil:

He is looking for the soul of the human being through music. For him musical expression was not music. It was the expression of the Egyptian during the whole life. In the Pharaonic civilization music was accompanying everything. Birth, offerance to the Sacred, everything was sacred – even labor. And you find this in the folkloric music.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

The traditional music had a function in society, and people have to participate.

Serenade Gamil:

During birth you have this musical ceremony.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

So you go to a wedding, you sing, you dance.

Serenade Gamil:

Marriage, death – it is a funeral with music.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

You go to the church, you sing. You go to the mosque, you sing. You listen to the Sufi music, you participate – you move.

Serenade Gamil:

Also when people go to work in the fields, they’re singing. When they’re coming back from the fields, they are singing another song.  When they are moving to go and find jobs in another village, they are singing.

Or in moments of solitude and melancholy, you find this musician with the nai – this folkloric instrument, which is Pharaonic – sitting and playing just for himself to get out his expression, psychological state of mind or maybe for a supplication – and he did compose a piece called Supplication.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Supplication

Serenade Gamil:

When he was a kid, like four or five years old – he was living in this district near the citadel, where there were many muleds, celebrations and he used to be fascinated with the folkloric troops and with the Sufi singing and Inshad – its singing.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

Inshad is the recitation of the Good. I recite the good. I recite truthfulness and faithfulness.

Mohamed Hindi:

They were a family from a Shabi area, Sayyida Aiysha, a really nice Shabi area. And they always loved to walk around and to find Shabi weddings, and watched everything. And here is where his ideas would come from, from watching the Shabi musicians.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

He had a religious background. He was familiar with the true expression of Egyptian religiosity, through performance and through imagination.

Serenade Gamil:

He was very mystical, too. For him sound is creation. He used to say: It’s the most abstract way of expression in creativity, because you cannot touch the sound, its vibration. You cannot touch the vibration. For him it’s like: The sound is the raw material – and every sound has its value.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Cairo at Dawn

Serenade Gamil:

And now we have this conflict of civilizations and all that. For my father, it was always that civilizations are inspiring each other and giving and taking. It’s not that they don’t know each other. No, they feel each other and they take from each other and they complement each other. They complement each other for the goodbeing of humanity. It’s an ongoing process.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

Material reality has triumphed over the East and the West. The material reality is the most important. But man must see: Where is his origin, his essence?

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

In the university, the Egyptian instruments are banned. You cannot learn or know how to play rababa in the Conservatoire or Arts Academy, because it’s considered backward and outdated.

Nagy Shaker:

Young people now are more interested in politics. And they are active to discuss all the problems of today in Egypt and the world through their work; painters or actors or musicians etcetera etcetera. I mean, since the last ten years, there is this movement which is growing little bit by little bit.

Music:

Soliman Gamil – Echoes of Memphis

Chloé Griffin:

Within Sound of the Nile – Tracing the Composer Soliman Gamil

by Chloé Griffin, Paul Paulun and Sam Wilder

with:

Nagy Shaker:

I was doing an experimental film with one of my Italian colleagues and told him: »Please Soliman, pass in Rome, where I was living at that time, to give me your music, because I want to use it in my film.« So he came to Italy and left me all his rolls and all his music.

Abdo Gobaer:

He discovered a lot of things, which before him, we didn’t know – at least in Egypt.

Gamal Al-Ghitani:

Soliman Gamil was like a bridge. He spoke about Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy like Beethoven.

Dr. Achmed Al-Maghraby:

We didn’t talk a lot about classification or types of music. All our talks really were into the essence of what music is. Fullstop.

Serenade Gamil:

He was following the traces all the time and trying to get to the soul of this music.

Sheik Mohamed El-Helbawy:

The most important thing in life is to be able to distinguish what is wasteful from what is fruitful. And this is why the lord created you ears.

Mohamed Hindi:

He lived his whole life with us, and he was a pleasant and good man. God rest his soul. Anything else?

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