Nubia is the gate to Sub-Saharan Africa and the bridge between the cultures of the Mediterranean Sea and the African continent, especially the Sudan. Nubian rituals, and the traditions of the Kenouz and the Fedija tribes, the two main language groups in Nubia (the third group – the Ukaylat – are essentially Arabic speakers) are closely integrated with singing, particularly in respect to feasts of rejoicing and wedding celebrations. In its traditional form this music is based on the interaction of all the performers and the audience with singing and clapping and accompanied by the tar, a frame drum and the kisir, a five-stringed lyre. Nubian music is further distinguished from other Egyptian styles by its use of the pentatonic scale and of particular and characteristic rhythms.
The process of migration from Old Nubia to the North started before the building of the first dam in 1902 and was followed by subsequent migrations and displacements. However, it was the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1963 which caused the total flooding of Nubian lands that brought the three distinct groups of Nubians together as permanent exiles from their homeland, creating “communities of memory”. Nubian traditions were severely affected by the traumatic experience of the disappearance of their natural environment, a main inspiration for their musical culture.
As early as the 1940s and 1950s, Nubian musicians began to experiment with Western instruments and composers began to integrate Western and Arabic pop-music rhythms, instruments and styles. Although this music is mostly consumed by Nubians (like traditional music in general, Nubian music is hardly heard on Egyptian radio or on television), a few “stars” have become increasingly popular in Egypt and abroad and the music has established itself as part of the world music scene.
The introduction of electric sound systems, specifically the microphone, is seen by some to have changed the character of the music itself. Today, cheap equipment prevails and microphones are usually placed in front of the main singer and one of the main instruments. This results in an imbalance and distortion of the sound, as the interplay of musicians, choir, and the singing and clapping of the audience is disrupted. Still, contemporary Nubian music is distinctive from Egyptian pop music in its instrumentation, its melodic and rhythmic characteristics and the importance of its older traditions as a continuing source of creativity. The use of polyrhythm in the Egyptian pop music scene represents a borrowing or the influence of this Sudanese music.