The Zaar is a community healing ritual of drumming and dancing, primarily involving women and led by women. It was said to have originated in East Africa and has been practised in Egypt since pre-Islamic times.
While the oldest academic references to the Egyptian Zaar date back to 1862, archaeological remains show that this type of ritual played in part in the lives of Ancient Egyptians.
Whereas the Tanoura dance is done as a means of connecting with God or a higher being, the aim of the Zaar is to pacify everyday spirits. It also serves to harmonize the inner lives of the participants and provide a space in which women can 'work out the tensions and frustrations of social constraints which limit their movements, their dress, their voices and even their dreams.' Little wonder that it is viewed with suspicion and even hostility in many quarters.
Because it has a marginal status in Egypt and is part of the underground culture, Zaar music and songs have survived with little interference from outside influences. The downside is that many of the songs have been lost and at present there are only 25 people in the whole of Egypt who carry its musical legacy.
One of the highlights of our trip to Cairo was a performance of Mazaher, a Zaar ensemble, at the Makan Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art (ECCA). Crammed into a small, dark room, in close proximity to the singers and musicians, it was a truly unforgettable experience.