A time-worn, rusty jerrycan, with an old, empty car battery, alongside war remains and bullet containers with pottery; these are the main three instruments “El-Jerken” Bedouin troupe uses to create its musical rhythms and touching melodies. Singing for the beauty of nature, the love of life, and the passion for loved ones, “El-Jerken” band came from North Sinai, where destruction took over the place for a period of history, to use the remains of war in calling for peace, love, and beauty.
A group of several friends from North Sinai, who had passion for music which they inherited from their parents, connected to create the first Bedouin troupe out of the remains of the 1967 war in singing.
Their name, “El-Jerken” is the Arabised word for jerrycan. For years, they have taken the local Bedouin heritage to international arenas, performing at the world’s classiest theatres and music festivals.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, “El-Jerken” talked about their passion to reverse the image the world has of Sinai being a place of terrorism and a region of destruction.
When did you officially start as a band and why?
We started in early 2003; each of us naturally experimented with a certain type of percussion instrument through generations witnessing their ancestors play on it. So, we decided to gather and introduce our heritage to the world.
Where did the idea of using war remains as musical tools come from?
We mainly use jerrycans, car batteries, and bullet containers, which are the remains of the British occupation in 1967, as percussion instruments. In the past, there were no similar instruments to use in order to sing in the desert, we only used to sing and create the rhythms with our voices. Later on, we discovered that these items create the best tempo, helping us come up with some of the best music.
How do you feel using apparatus that was once used for killing and pain and turning them into joyful tools?
We want to deliver the message that we are peaceful human beings who hate war as much as others do. We are not people’s enemies and what happened is that Sinai is the land of truce. We also aim to tell the world that we have taken the equipment that was once used against us and turned it into a source of joy, art, and happiness.
Do you only perform heritage music or do you compose your own songs?
We mix both. We take the songs we grew up listening to our families sing and make some edits to the lyrics, tempo, and length. These improvised versions combine the past that was about to die with a modern twist that makes the songs fit for the current musical scene.
For example, most of our inherited songs used to be performed in the Sinai dialect, which is harder for city citizens to understand, so we make a few changes to the lyrics to make them convey the same meaning in a way that is easier for people to understand.
At the same time, we use the heritage rhythms and write lyrics to sing along in order to make sure they last for upcoming generations.
As for amending song lengths; in Sinai people can stay singing a certain song like “Al-Marbo’a” from the evening until sunrise, something that people cannot bear nowadays as concerts last only a few hours.
You have performed at different theatres across the world, how was this sort of art met by people who do not understand your language or heritage?
We performed several concerts in many countries including England, Italy, France, Australia, and Switzerland.
In each of them, people were astonished despite not understanding any of the lyrics. But the idea that these instruments produce certain sounds that we use as the base of our songs, was just astounding from their point of view. These tools help us deliver our message to people even when they do not understand us.
In many of our concerts, there were people dancing, while others stood still with their eyes closed in attempt to absorb the music coming from instruments they never knew about before like “Al-Simsemeya”, which is similar to Oud and “El-Mabroma” which is closest to “Mizmar”.
Foreigners generally like the idea that we perform a sort of music that is different from the genres they know.
To what extent do you find your music capable of fixing the mainstream image people have of North Sinai nowadays?
When you sing about the beauty of nature in the desert, including the moon, dark coffee, camels, and lost love, as well as our journey in life, we believe that our songs play an important role of telling Arabs [who understand our lyrics] that we seek nothing but peace. We aim to introduce the truth about Sinai, as the land of calmness, to the world through our songs. The image of terrorism that most people adopt is farthest from truth; Sinai citizens know the most about art, literature, and music, yet, the media-broadcasted image does not show that.
How closely do you find the heritage of Sinai’s songs related to musical traditions in the Middle East?
Egypt’s heritage music scene is extremely similar to neighbouring countries. It is closest to the Jordanian and Palestinian legacy with slight differences. It is mainly because our ancestors had the same cultural atmosphere in the desert.