Dancers to the music of time: the Nuban

The ritual dates back centuries. Its grande dame is herself 100 years old. But the Nuban, a unique Dubai dance form, seems doomed to extinction.

UAE - Sharjah - Apr 20 - 2012: Kaneez, the 100 year old matriach of the Al Nuban dancers during the Sharjah Heritage days at Sharjah heritage area. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )
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She may be 100 years old and no longer able to cut it on the dance floor, but Kaneez, the last grande dame of Nuban, the traditional Afro-Emirati dance, sings and claps to keep rhythm from her wheelchair, as her troupe performs at the Sharjah Heritage Days.

The scene is one unchanged for generations: the male and female dancers face each other and move in steps in rows while dancing and singing to the rhythm of a stringed instrument, the tanbourah. Drums beat in a mesmerising tempo and accompany the swishing of the manjur, which is made of sailcloth with goat hooves sewn onto it. It is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind musical instrument, tied around a dancer's hip, creating a swishing sound as the performer sways to the rhythm of the music, dictating the pace for the dancers.

Kaneez is one of the last links to the heyday of the Nuban, a dance that traces its roots to Africa and that used to be one of the must-have fixtures at celebrations, weddings and significant events in Dubai. The Nuban was performed beside other traditional dances such as the Ayala, Harbiya, the Lewa and Haban. Her age is approximate - some think she could be even older than 100 - but she can certainly recall events back in the 1930s, her family says.

These days, though, there are fewer and fewer dancers and musicians to perform the Nuban. In the 1960s, there were three main troupes, two led by women, and with scores of dancers. Kaneez was an understudy in one of them, led by Hayat Sauda, but later set up her own troupe. In those days, it was a lucrative livelihood; not only did she get invited to perform at weddings but also was called to perform healing rituals.

However, time has not been kind to this art form and it is feared that the Nuban in the UAE may not survive the passing of the current generation of performers. One of the results of progress is that many traditional dance forms have been neglected. Modernisation alongside global cultural trends have meant that the younger generations have lost interest in older traditions. For many dance forms, this has been a death sentence.

The Nuban has probably suffered more than any other form. As the number of performers dwindled over the years, the three surviving troupes struggled to find enough dancers to perform at the few events to which they were still invited.

Other factors have also accelerated its decline. The dance is generally limited to Dubai, meaning it does not have the reach of other traditional art forms in the emirates.

Then there is the feeling that the African origins of the dance, along with its association with traditional healing rituals, may have also stigmatised it, particularly in the eyes of younger people.

One of the principal rites at which the dance was performed was exorcism rituals. A person said to be possessed by a jinn or a spirit (Zar) was brought before a gathering, incense was burnt, and the Nuban danced. The dancers formed a circle and moved around the afflicted person chanting religious verses to the hypnotic beat of the drums. The senior healer, usually a woman who headed the "therapy troupe", then conversed with the spirit, asking it to free its victim.

According to Dr Aisha Bilkhair, an expert on local folklore who is director of research and knowledge services at the National Center for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi, the word "Zar" is applied not only to a type of spirit but also the illness such a spirit can cause by possessing humans and the rituals used to pacify these spirits.

"Although Zar and Nuban are two different rituals," she says, "the relationship between them is symbiotic, complex and extremely important. Zar and Nuban were patronised by people ranging from high-ranking personalities to commoners."

Dr Bilkhiar has spent more than 30 years documenting vanishing performances, ceremonies and rituals, and hopes other scholars will continue her work. She says that dances such as the Nuban, with their fascinating mixture of influences, highlight the tolerance, respect and the belief in coexistence that were found throughout the Emirates from their earliest years.

Now as Kaneez's health deteroriates, her niece Umm Shihab is taking the responsibility of running her troupe. "The Nuban is like a virus in my blood," she says, singing a lyric from the Nuban, explaining why she does what she does: "This passion is my affliction; this passion is my essence; this passion is my ancestors' inheritance."

If Kaneez is the grande dame of the Nuban, then Tahir Ismail is considered its last maestro. A talented Manjur player, his haunting performances of the Nuban have been immortalised in a series of recordings by the Sharjah cultural department. These recordings and other song-based arts are the department's mammoth attempt to preserve and archive local traditions before they vanish.

Tahir learnt the art of Nuban from his mother, who was an understudy of Oshba bint Feruz and Hayat Sauda, past divas of the Nuban. Both women died around 20 years ago, after a lifetime of dedication to their art. While Sauda's instruments are preserved and have been inherited by another troupe, Oshba's have been lost to time.

Tahir, who is in his 50s and retired from the army, describes his love for the Nuban as a passion that throbs in his blood. Sadly, he has not been able to pass on this passion to his children or his grandchildren.

Tahir remembers the time when the Nuban was performed every Friday in his neighbourhood in Satwa, Dubai. It was a time, he recalls, before modern entertainment and when other forms of medicine were not widespread.

He laments the fact that only a few from the younger generation are learning the dance, and that their performances are mostly mechanical. "This generation of dancers do not understand the spirit that moves the dance and they don't have the same passion or understanding that was in the blood of my generation," he complains.

One of the handful of young people who are taking up the Nuban is Sabeel Al Nubi, now in his twenties and among the few from his generation to learn the art form. He swishes the Manjour and can play the Tanbourah, one of only two who can do this from the current generation.

Asked how long he has been performing, he says with evident pride: "I learnt the Nuban while I was in my mother's womb".

Facets of the nuban

The origins

In the UAE, the Nuban is the only form of African music that is named after its place of origin, Nuba (southern Kordofan in central and western Sudan.) In Sudan, it is called Rababah after the local name for the lyre-like instrument that accompanies the dance. In Egypt the same instrument is known as Al-simsimiyyah while in Uganda it is referred to as ndongo. In the Arabian Gulf it is called a tanbourah. There is a legend associated with the arrival of the instrument in the UAE. It is said that many years ago, two tambourah “sisters” known as Jamilah and Naza’ah, were thrown into the sea at Lingeh in what is now Iran because the elders had all died and the younger generation had lost interest. The tanbourahs washed up in Deira and were reclaimed by the local population. Later the same tanbourahs miraculously escaped a fire and made their way across the water to Bur Dubai. One is still there now, in the possession of Tahir Ismail.

The instruments

The tanbourah

Is a lyre-like instrument and looks like a large oud. It has six strings made of gut. In the UAE, only men play the tanbourah and are lead singers while in Iran women have been known to play it.  The drums  There are three medium-sized drums in the Nuban, which are made of cows' hide and are beaten with a palm tree stick. The drums are immobile and in the past the base was buried in the ground to make the sound deeper and resound better. Manjur  A strange musical accessory tied around the hip made of sailcloth or net with goats hoofs sewed on it.

The performanceThe musicians sit on the floor while the dancers form in two or four lines facing each other. The lines comprise both men and women numbering between eight and 11, the second of the same number of women and men. The conductor of the performance is essentially the player of the tanbourah who is accompanied by the three drums and the manjur. The male and female dancers move on a two-step steady rhythm to and fro, which is paced by the maestro and later on by the manjour, who sometimes moves to dance between the rows. A performance would last between 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the mood of the performers and the talent of the maestro.The Shallat, or poems, start with singing the praise of God and the Prophet Mohammed. The performers then switch to laments, romance and historical events. Some songs are in the original African language, the meaning of which is lost on contemporary dancers.