When the stage crew at Abu Dhabi's Womad festival come to setting up the Sudanese-Egyptian group Rango, they would be advised to take care in handling the 190-year-old idiophone, or rango, into stage position. There are but two known to exist (perhaps three, at a price) and the instrument comes suffused in an aura of magic and mystery. For many decades a fixture at Egyptian-Sudanese street weddings, the idiophone looks and sounds like nothing else. Built on a heavy rectangular wooden frame, it consists of a rack of wooden keys that are struck with double mallets. The sound is naturally amplified courtesy of an array of bulbous gourds from an unknown Sudanese fruit that act as resonators. Held together over the years with strips of tape, matchboxes and even bandages - the gourds look as if they've been mummified - the instrument speaks with a compelling buzz that more than fulfils its basic function: to make you want to get up and lose yourself in the enveloping, persistent rhythms of the music.
The instrument was rediscovered and rescued from certain oblivion by Zakaria Ibrahim, a passionate researcher, producer and preserver of Egpyt's folk traditions. Ibrahim, who established the El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music in Cairo a decade ago, grew up in Port Said, the bustling canal-side town on the northeastern tip of Africa, where container ships slip silently through the mighty Suez day and night. There, at one of the many canal-side cafes serving tea, coffee and shisha pipes, Ibrahim's cherished local band of fishermen, Sufis, singers and master musicians - the now internationally acclaimed El Tanbura - gather every Wednesday to play late into the night for anyone who wishes to listen.
Later this summer, El Tanbura share the same bill with the rap superstar Jay-Z at France's equivalent of Glastonbury, the Eurockeennes Festival. Given the prevalence of Middle Eastern inflections in contemporary Black American music, one wonders if Jay-Z will be inspired to exchange his New York state of mind for a more relaxed Port Said vibe when they perform with te Moroccan-French singer Hindi Zahra.
Since 2005, together with the English producer Michael Whitewood, Ibrahim and El Tanbura have produced several internationally acclaimed albums, toured worldwide and brought Egypt's ancient music traditions to new audiences. He and Whitewood have also worked the same magic with the Sinai-based Bedouin Jerry Can Band, whose mixture of desert poetry and rhythmic complexity interwoven with sweet folk melodies have opened up the Bedouin's desert traditions to the outside world.
Now, it's Rango's turn - the band as well as the instrument. The instrument (and the musical tradition that comes with it) first came to Egypt with Sudanese slaves brought back by Mohamed Ali after the invasion of 1820. This was the workforce used to pick Egyptian cotton, and the original rango repertoire was split between songs for the secretive - ceremonial zar gatherings, which were meant to bring solace from suffering - and the social, with its repertoire of wedding music and old army marching songs.
Ibrahim first heard about Rango from the Egyptian master musician Waziery, one of the great players of the simsimiyya (the small Egyptian lyre that can be seen in many a Pharaonic Egyptian relief). Ibrahim remembers Waziery's misty-eyed nostalgia for the rango at Sudanese weddings before it died out in the 1970s with the rise of amplification, keyboards, guitars, pop records and rickety, overloaded PA systems. Matching those volumes has been the challenge every traditional musician worldwide has faced. The rango almost vanished for good, but with dogged persistence, Ibrahim succeeded in locating examples of the instrument with the help of the last surviving rango player, Hassan Bergamon, who had grown up with the instrument in the 1950s and 1960s.
"I grew up in Arayshiyyit el Abid (the slave stockades) in Ismailia," Bergamon says. "Rango and tanbura were in the house and I grew to love them, and learnt to play them." His home was known as "the house of rango" and his mother was a fourth-generation zar singer, so as a boy, it was natural for him to climb out of his window at night to perform at wedding parties - a habit his strict uncle went to great lengths to break, as it was not conducive to schoolwork.
"He broke up the rango," says Hassan. "He smashed it up. And after, I concentrated only on playing the tanbura in zar." For many Egyptians there is an air of superstition surrounding the Sudanese zar and the rango instrument - as Whitewood found when he arrived at a recording studio in Cairo to put down tracks for last summer's inaugural Rango EP, Sudani Voodoo. At the sight of the vintage rango being carried through the studio doors, the managers boldly declared that if they had any problems with hauntings and spirits, Whitewood would be invoiced the exorcism costs, and that it "wasn't appropriate to record this kind of music".
"I can't imagine that happening at Abbey Road," the producer muses. He vividly recalls a hair-raising taxi ride through Cairo during the same sessions, with one of the 190-year-old rangos roped on to the car roof. "People were staring and pointing at it through the streets, saying, 'What on earth is that?" The rango instrument the band will use at Womad Abu Dhabi was recently in Whitewood's kitchen, ready to be crated in a flight case for its journey to the Gulf. "It's a bit like that box at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark," he quips. But if disaster should strike, there is one other rango instrument - only the third known to exist in the world - ensconced in the family home of a former master musician in Alexandria. But they are asking a cool $50,000 for it. The real deal, it seems, never comes cheap.
Bride of the Zar, the Rango collective's album debut, was recorded last winter in two London studios, including the A&B in Willesden, where Bryan Adams recorded his chart-hugging 1990s epic "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)". Perhaps they were hoping for a little of the Adams magic to rub off? "It's actually one of the few places left in London where you can get a big band in the same room together with good eye contact but with enough control over the sound to be able to edit between takes," says Whitewood, whose sound micromanagement is evident in the clarity and variety of music on the album.
For Bride of the Zar, the release of which will coincide with Womad Abu Dhabi, they recorded a broad mix of the historical rango repertoire, from invocations to old army songs and even older tribal songs that Bergamon describes as being "fragments of very old songs covered in dust - no one can really say what it means". Add to these songs for weddings, henna nights and basic, all-out good time, hip-shaking dance music. It is mixed with an instrumental arsenal that includes old railway blocks for percussion as well as simsimiyyas fitted with retro pick-ups, cans of insect repellent filled with beans, the tanbura lyre and the rango itself, with its buzzing resonators. It's all topped by the piercing, ear-bending call of the ney flute. The overarching spell of Rango may be less easy to resist then even Adams's mega-hit.
Whitewood's main concern as producer was being able to replicate on record the colourful, energetic live Rango experience. "When you see them on stage you've got the band's frontman, TuTu, running about with his amazing headdress on. It's a real visual treat, but on the album it's got to live on the strength of a recording rather than what they do - and do so well - in a live show." The kinetic, ecstatic live experience is captured most vividly on disc by the likes of Free Mind with Sheikha Zanieb, on which the female Egyptian singer sandblasts the studio microphones with a song from the zar tradition about the suffering of women.
Elsewhere, listeners can get a whiff of the souped-up, electrified, reverb-drenched rango and simsimiyya on the cacophonous Baladia Wey, an example of the street wedding repertoire that can shake the surrounding buildings to their foundations. "We did indeed rig up a crappy Egyptian PA in the studio," says Whitewood, "and tried some crazy things like putting everything through Fender twin amps." The recording sessions were scattered through a triumphant UK tour that kicked off as part of the Barbican Centre's Transcender Weekender, where the group turned loose the spirit of a Cairo street party onto the Barbican's unsuspecting audience, many of whom found themselves abandoning their seats to follow the ebullient, befeathered TuTu in a rango-fuelled conga line of percussion, simsimiyya players, ululating audience members and, at its centre, Bergamon's circular, hypnotic rhythms of the rango. It summoned up the sheer joy and physical abandon of a crowd united by the urge to move, to dance, and to fulfil that most universal of human experiences - to make some noise. Abu Dhabi audiences are in for a real treat.
Rango perform at Womad Abu Dhabi on April 22 and 23. For more information visit www.womadabudhabi.ae.