I have loved Middle Eastern music since my high school days in California. I used to make weekly trips to the Record Store in town to check out the latest LP's in the World Music bin, spending my saved up lunch money on awesome sounds instead of disgusting cafeteria food. When cassette players came out, I made cassette copies of my albums, and I still have several of those old cassette tapes.
Fast forwarding to my forties, when Mohamed and I married and he came to us in the States, I once played my favorite old cassette while we were driving. He listened in amazement and asked where did I get that music? He told me the name of the artist and the song, and said he listened to this when he was growing up, back in his village in Egypt! We were stunned to think that we were both enjoying the same music 25 years earlier, on two separate ends of the earth!
Any foreign music is fine with me, but the more traditional folk music is really great to my ears and heart. The more strange it sounds, the more I like it. See the guys playing the horns in the picture above? This is a traditional "Saeedi" band, meaning they play in the traditional manner of the folks in South, or Upper, Egypt. They are very popular at weddings, and the famous dancing horses of Egypt are trained to dance to the tune of the mizmar, the long horns you see the men playing in this picture. It's wonderful fun and quite exciting to witness a wedding in Egypt!
The mizmar is an ancient musical instrument still found all over the Middle East. If you've ever seen a snake charmer playing his horn in front of a reed basket with a snake dancing to his tune, you have seen a mizmarist in action. It looks and sounds a bit like a trumpet, but an accomplished Egyptian can easily turn a kazoo into an awesome mizmar.
Years before moving to Egypt, while we were still living on our farm in South Carolina, we were at a farmer market one day and all the kids were handed kazoos. I got one for Mohamed, too, as he was interested to find out what is this funny sounding little plastic toy making all the kids so excited. After figuring it out and humming a few notes into it, he blew us all away with his impersonation of a Saidi Mizmarist! I swear the snakes wanted to come out of hiding to dance in front of him, he was so cool! It was my fate, I couldn't help myself, I fell in love with mizmar music from that moment and the relationship keeps getting better and better!
Traditionally, the mizmar is made only from one solid piece of wood from an apricot tree. First the wood is lathed to achieve the correct shape, then finger holes are made, and then the mouthpiece is attached. (Here's an excellent youtube video showing how a traditional mizmar is made). The mizmar can vary in size and length, giving different tonal qualities to the instrument. These days you can also find mizmars made from the wood of Beech trees, and also of metal, adding quite a lot of variety to the instrument's sounds. Whatever the size or composition of the mizmar, once you've hear one, you'll always recognize another one instantly. The mizmar is, for me, the quintessential sound of the Middle East, able to "mizmar-ize" my imagination, carrying me on an unforgettable magic carpet ride with its delightfully exotic sound!
Here's a video of a live band in Egypt featuring great mizmar music, among other exciting things to see, and finally, here's a great clip of theEgyptian Dancing Horses, and an extra bonus of traditional Saidi fun in the second half of this clip!