Tabla Classes

 “You don’t want to look like a machine when you play, sticking your arms out at odd angles. Yes, you want it to sound right, but you want it to look good too! No, you have to bend your wrist like this! Imagine that you are holding an orange in this hand, now hit the drum!”

Although I am able to pick up some new skills quickly, such as sports or card games, this is definitely not the case with music. In fact, I think that I would put myself in the category of “musically challenged”, some of the indicators of which include being unable to hold any beat for more than ten seconds and having little or no inability to distinguish when a note is out of tune. This comes in sharp contrast to my wife Caity, who not only has a beautiful voice and a great musical ear, but also rocks the jembe and can somehow make clapping sound like music and not just someone following the beat.

For the last two months however, we have been taking classes to play the tabla, one of the most common musical instruments in Egypt, with its beats accompanying most singers and featuring prominently in many orchestras. Egyptians grow up listening to the tabla and many can sit down and play at least one quick rhythm. This is sort of like Americans with the guitar, except our ability to play often only extends to the air guitar! :P

It certainly has lots of character

When we decided to take lessons, we went out and bought a used drum off an expat leaving the country. It turned out to be a very used drum and although covered with a beautiful mother-of-pearl design, some of the coating has started to flake off. This is especially comical when a small piece of your drum shoots off across the room when playing a particularly fast rhythm.

I have never seriously taken music lessons before and I quickly found out that even the simplest hits were a lot harder than expected. The tabla has three main ways to strike the drum and all, predictably, are named after the sound they make: the dum reverberates deeply through the drum, the tak is a flat sounding strike right in the center of the drum and the iss is the sharp high sound that comes from hitting the rim of the drum’s face. At first it seemed like it would be easy, but I ended up spending the whole first class endlessly repeating one of the three hits, striving to get the sound and the form just right.

After mastering the first beats, you find out that there are in fact many, many other types of hits, and even multiple ways of making the same sound. This gets confusing quite quickly as few of the new hits get different names and so you end up with three different taks and four different dums. When I try and write down the different rhythms I am then forced to make up my own words for each new hit so that even Caity has to ask me to translate! This must come from the learning style that is not based on sheet music, but instead watching the teacher and then repeating, recording each new rhythm in your head instead of a songbook.

Our teacher, Bassem, was born in a small town but luckily received a music scholarship that allowed him to visit the main town in the region and take lessons in tabla and other instruments. This eventually culminated in a spot in a musical group in Cairo where he was even given the opportunity to teach the tabla abroad in France as part of a music exchange. He is now struggling to make it as a musician in Cairo, a task that is certainly challenging.

With each new rhythm he teaches us, we seem to be moving geographically around Egypt. For example, one is called the felaHi, or peasant’s rhythm, which takes you out of the city and into the fields that run up the Nile valley.  Another, the sa’idi, is from the Said region in southern Egypt and brings to mind the more serious turbaned men of that region with their long galabiyya robes. Each rhythm also has its own special introductory beat that announces to all those listening, “get ready, here comes the new rhythm!”

The later classes are thankfully getting easier, as Caity and I slowly learn one simple rhythm after the next. It also becomes clear that there is a significant and humbling gap between my “musically challenged” ability and Caity’s effortless musical grace. After each lesson, I studiously practice every day until the next week’s lesson only to find that Caity, who just warms up a little bit before each new lesson, is miraculously at my newly acquired level!

This has provided a good opportunity for reflection. It seems that the older we get, the fewer completely new skills we attempt to acquire. Having stuck with activities that I am already competent at for the last couple years, I have forgotten how hard it is to learn something from scratch. I am not accustomed to making endless mistakes and working very hard for seemingly little gain. This process of starting anew is a great test for the ego, which certainly does not enjoy the struggle and feeling “bad” or “incompetent” at something.

The best way to deal with this test seems to be laughter, which means I end up laughing a lot in class. Slowly however, the flat hits and off beats sound less like judgment and more like progress. Besides, my Dad always told me that, “a man who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”

Who knows, maybe with enough practice I may eventually be able to hold a beat a beat for more than ten seconds and look like I am holding an orange at the same time.

Baptism by Fire

It is 100 degrees outside. I started sweating before I even got out of the subway and drank half a liter of water before our entire group had arrived. We clustered in groups under the shade of stunted trees planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Anything to get out of Cairo’s baking June sun.

But we had a good reason to leave the sanctuary of our air-conditioned apartments. Today is Cairo’s first batizado. For those of you who do not know Portuguese (I certainly don’t), batizado means baptism, which in capoeira means that today is the day that we earn our first belts. Our capoeira teacher in Cairo invited professors from France, Oman and Sharm al-Sheikh to fly in for our initiation ceremony followed by two days of workshops.

I had been eagerly and nervously looking forward to today since I got back to Cairo but I had not thought about the weather when I saw the date was set for mid-June. But despite the heat, about thirty of us gathered in the courtyard of a French school waiting for the professors to arrive. Luckily it is only 80 or 90 in the shade, by Egyptian standards, completely normal.

The music really began when the professors arrived. Two large drums pounded out a deep rhythm of bap boom bap, bap boom bap which was followed by ten tambourines, a bell and ten others clapping along. At the heart of the music was the unique twang of the barimbau and the rise and fall of the professor’s voice as he led us through a number of call and response songs in Portuguese. I am sure that the nuns who still lived at the school were wondering what the heck was going on in their courtyard.

We then split up into two groups, each making up one half of our large circle, with those earning the green (first level) belts on one side and those earning the green-yellow belts (second level) on the other. While the music continued, we would then pair off, one beginner playing with one advanced student in the middle of the circle, finishing to let the next pair begin. The kicks, cartwheels and handstands, timed to the rhythm of the music, warmed us up for the peak of the batizado. It was time to get our belts.

I have never seriously practiced any other martial art but I appreciated our professor’s perspective on the belts. “Do not get caught up with them,” one told us, “you cannot throw your belt into the ring and expect it to fight for you. They are markers of your ability but they should not be your limits. It is much better to have someone see you play and think, ‘wow, they only have that belt,’ instead of getting a belt and going no higher because you think you are so good.” Be humble and play well they told us, you are much more important than your belt.

But it was time. Those earning green belts (myself included) went first. Each person would play with a professor who would enter the roda (circle) with the student’s new belt tied around their arm, leg, chest or head as if saying, “here it is. Come and get it!”

The interaction between two people in the roda is called “playing” and I think that is the best way to describe it. Each person is not only moving along with the music, but also dancing with their partner, weaving in and out of their kicks or mirroring their cartwheels. Above all, everyone has fun. You can tell the professors pretty easily because they often have the biggest smiles on their faces. :)

When it was my turn, I faced the professor (who had my belt tied around his forehead) in front of the main group of instruments. We started by both cartwheeling into the center and then began the familiar swaying steps of the jenga. We traded spins and kicks, with the professor pressing me but also allowing me room to show off a little of what I had learned. At the end however, he deftly swept my feet out from under me in mid-kick, landing me on the ground and ending our match. Each round ended this way, with the professor finding some way to humble the newly graduated student. It is a ceremony that seemed to say at once, “congratulations on your belt, but you still have much to learn.”

The students earning the next level belt were much more interesting to watch with both students and professors kicking faster, ducking quicker and performing much more impressive acrobatics. As a surprise, our teacher in Cairo also obtained his next belt, but he had to earn it by playing with each one of the foreign professors in an incredible show of skill that at times caused me to stop and stare, missing the beat of the music.

The day ended with a final open roda where everyone freely played, all sporting their new belts. At the end of the day, the main professor spoke to us and said, “I am delighted to be here and I thank you all for coming and for inviting us. The students are the most important thing in capoeira, without them, we teachers are nothing.”

And with that, four hours and at least three liters of water later, the batizado ended. I spent so much of the time clapping to the music and I was actually sore from it the next day. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sore from clapping!

But we had earned our first belts. We were tired, sore and drenched in sweat, but it was worth it. If we are lucky, maybe the next batizado in Cairo will have air conditioning. :P

My Taxi Story, or Half a Kidney

A few years ago an Egyptian author named Khalid al-Khamissi wrote a book entitled “Taxi”, a fascinating collection of conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers about their lives and perspectives on social problems in Egypt. The book was a huge success, not only because it was well written and tackles many important issues in Egyptian society, but perhaps also because almost everyone who lives here also has a taxi story. If I were to contribute a story to al-Khamissi’s compilation, it would certainly be my taxi ride last Sunday.

It was about 11:45 pm and I had just left a farewell dinner for a friend going home for the summer. Since the subway in Cairo closes at midnight (a very weird concept to those from New York City) I decided to catch a cab home instead. I asked the first taxi that stopped to take me back along the corniche, but he said we could not go that way because of a protest. He offered instead to take me by a different route. I agreed and got in the car.

The driver (Ashraf, as he later introduced himself) seemed a little worked up, so I asked him about the protests he mentioned earlier. In a clearly frustrated tone, he pointed to a large crack running down the center of his windshield and said, “You see this? This is from the protesters! There were people jumping up and down on my roof!” I had never heard of people literally attacking cars before, especially so late, but I agreed that it was definitely best for us to take another road to my apartment.

As we started along our new route, it became clear that the new crack in his windshield was not the only thing distressing him that night. “I have not eaten or drank anything in two days,” he told me in a pained voice. Confused, I asked him what the problem was and his story spilled out of him in a fast and frustrated torrent of words.

“You understand Arabic right? Ok, I need to go to the hospital for a cleaning. I have to go three times a week and it costs 360 Gineh [about $60] per cleaning. How can I pay for that? This car is not even mine! I am renting it and now there’s this damned crack in the windshield! I have to pay 1000 Gineh a week and I have three children to send to school on top of rent and food! Its impossible!”

The more he spoke, the more emotional he became, gesturing wildly and driving dangerously close to cars as we flew past them. I said a quick prayer in the hopes that an accident would not end his problems, and our lives, prematurely.

He continued. “Two days ago I went to the hospital because I needed a cleaning but I only had 120 Gineh. It was not enough so they threw me out! This was a State hospital and they would not treat me! You know, one of my kidneys does not work and the other is only working at 50 percent so I have to go into the hospital three times a week to have my blood cleaned. If I don’t have it cleaned then I cannot eat or drink because it will make problems with my blood sugar. So I have not eaten or drank anything for two days and wont until I get the money for a cleaning.” He ended with the exasperated remark, “All a want to do is drink some water and have a little food.”

He was beyond frustrated. He was speaking like a man trying to carry a burden too great for him to bear and instead of finding help, has only met rejection wherever he turned for assistance. He finished his story by slamming his hand against his steering wheel shouting, “Egypt is trash! Trash!”

I was shocked by his final words. Since coming back after the revolution, I have only heard words of hope, people happy with what had been accomplished and looking towards the future with a—at times cautious—optimism. The driver’s story drove home the point that the Egyptian Revolution did not bring an end to the problems that plagued the country under Mubarak, it only brought the possibility for improvement. Millions are still living in poverty or unemployed and public infrastructure is deteriorating. To put it another way, Mubarak leaving did not make it any easier for Ashraf to get his weekly dialysis treatment.

Throughout the conversation, I was wrestling with how much I should help Ashraf through what was clearly a very trying predicament. Obviously this was not a problem solved by just a generous tip. I decided I would give him all the money in my wallet, around 150 Gineh or five times the trip fare.

As we came closer to my apartment, Ashraf turned around in his seat and sincerely asked if I would help him. I realize now that if I were being truly generous, he would not have had to ask. I should have told him as soon as I decided to help and saved him stressful and embarrassing act of asking a complete stranger for financial assistance.

When we arrived at my apartment I handed over all the money I had with me. He counted it quickly and then turned back to me, desperately asking if I had more, as this would not cover the treatment he urgently needed. I asked him to wait and went up to my apartment and got all the money I had, another 300 Gineh, and came back down to give it to him. He thanked me profusely, but it was clear that this was only a temporary solution.

I helped Ashraf get this treatment, but I worry about what he will do for the next week and the one after. He should not have to rely on the generosity of complete strangers and it is not his fault that he is forced to ask. This is the result of decades of a government putting itself before the people, where those in charge spent more time pursuing personal wealth than improving the lives of those they were “elected” to serve.

Ashraf was not asking for extravagance or anything more than he needed. He was looking for a government and a society that respected him as a person and did not reject him based on the money in his pocket. He was looking for a just society.

Often words like justice can loose their meaning as they are adopted as vague political slogans or continually repeated by pundits on television. Justice is more than an abstract concept. It is a profound belief that should underlay the foundations of our actions, our society and our government. If that were the case, stories like Ashraf’s would not exist. We would be beyond them.

 “There can be no doubt whatever that if the day star of justice, which the clouds of tyranny have obscured, were to shed its light upon men, the face of the earth would be completely transformed.”

-Baha’u’llah