Rango music is an almost extinct form of Egyptian Sudanese music. It has only one famed player, Hasan Bergamon. There is, according to Bergamon, only one rango instrument in Egypt, if not the entire world and it is more than 100 years old. Hasan Mersal, or Bergamon as he is better known, is an Egyptian from Ismailia, the son of an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father.
His eyes light up when he speaks of his music as it symbolises everything to him; his childhood, his career, his roots, and his home in Ismailia. He speaks of a time where the rango was a fixture of Egyptian Sudanese culture. Now, it is barely heard of, even among Sudanese Egyptians.
“I learned to play the rango out of love and a dedication to these instruments, the tanboura, the simsemeya and the rango, which go together as the violin and the cello do in the Western tradition,” Bergamon explained. “There used to be many who had mastered the instrument, but the last of them died last year.”
The instrument, not unlike a xylophone or a marimba, and Bergamon insists it could be the origin of both, is made primarily out of wood and the wooden keys produce a strong, enchanting sound. According to him, the instrument has a deep spiritual aspect and was the cause of much celebration when it was delivered to someone’s house. “Back in the day, people used to sacrifice animals at the arrival of a rango instrument. And if you could not afford this, you burned incense or sprayed water mixed with sugar on the door’s threshold. Of course, today people sacrifice when they buy a new phone,” he added laughing.
Bergamon explained that its spiritual aspect comes from the music itself, which puts you in a “trance-like” state and which creates a spiritual mood just by listening to it. “It has power over you. The instrument cannot just be manufactured anywhere,” he said. “You can give the specifications to a factory but it would never sound the same.” Tradition also hindered its popularity, since rango players usually do not like outsiders filming or documenting concerts, except when a substantial trust has been established between both sides.
Bergamon held a number of jobs, including one at the post office, before he was approached by Zakaria Ibrahim, the founder of El Mastaba, a cultural center in Cairo. “Ibrahim is a researcher, and he asked El Wazery, a famous musician in Ismailia, about rango. I was then brought to Cairo and was introduced to Ibrahim who asked me to revive the tradition.” According to Bergamon, at this time the last instrument in the world was in Alexandria and belonged to a master of rango.
“It was very difficult procuring it, but we finally did it and I have been performing at the Mastaba ever since,” Bergamon said.
He insists that lack of interest is the reason for the near-extinction of the rango. “There is no one to teach the instrument to, because very few have heard of it to begin with. I would gladly teach anyone this tradition, family or not, because it means a lot to me. There is some interest outside of Egypt, where people seem more fascinated with the instrument.” Nonetheless, he said that El Mastaba has been invaluable in reviving the tradition and things could improve as more awareness is raised about the tradition.
I met Bergamon at a cosy street cafe in Ain Shams where he resides and where he insisted I have both tea and coffee. A modest but shrewd man, Bergamon represents the remnants of this dying tradition. He represents one of the narratives of Egyptian culture, in his case through music that are hidden and marginalised in favour of mainstream Egyptian culture.
The rango is an integral part of Egyptian culture and survives still in the enclaves that are less interested in creating a framework through which a specific kind of culture can operate, but where all kinds of Egyptian cultures, and there are many of them, can flourish.