This week I have a special treat for all the readers around the world. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sal Maktoub on his experience as a Tannoura artist and what the industry is like now. Why? In my Make Me Amazing Program, level 3 deals with learning regional dance styles and props. One lecture is about Sufism, Zaar and Tannoura. As always, the more research that is done, the more questions that are produced. Enjoy this educational and insightful article about tannoura by the amazing artist, Sal Maktoub!
In Your Words, What is the Tannoura Scene like in Egypt Right Now?
It Is one of those things that I have come to realize living there that there is always a demand for, even though people don’t care about it too much. With the Tannoura shows, you can have that entertainment year-round, even during Ramadan, but it is not so much that people are really into it. It is simply something that is expected to be seen and accepted by society. For example, in Egypt, not everyone wants to go see a belly dancer. Bellydance is expected to be seen and part of the traditional celebrations, but people don’t view them with a high amount of respect, it is the same with us.
The guys that do Tannoura and are considered the authority on it, are part of Al Tanoura Troupe. The performers in this troupe typically have a minimum of 3 shows a week, and also travel outside the country. If you are part of that troupe, you are considered to be the real deal, mainly because their shows are both entertaining and religious.
I would say that compared to belly dance and other entertainment types, that this is the art that is more accepted. It is the one type of performance that can cross that fence between being strictly entertainment or show the religious route.
When it comes to things like Zaar, people think of it as taboo or black magic. Tannoura on the other hand, has the entertainment factor which helps elevate it above the Zaar.
What Inspired You to Go to Egypt and Obtain a Performance Contract?
I always wanted to go. Ancient Egypt was my fascination as a kid. When I went for the first time it was 6 years ago (2011). I fell in love with everything there. I went after the first revolution, so I had no point of referent as to how things were (Egyptians would exclaim that things were better before the revolution). After that first trip, something within me said I had to go back. When I came back, I made sure to have money saved in case no opportunities came about. My main drive for taking that trip was that I just wanted to be a student again. I had been teaching for a few years and I wanted to be a student again, and I didn’t have anyone here or any place to learn the topics I wanted to dive into. What better place than the birth place of it all?
On this second trip, I focused on the musical aspect of the Tannoura. I learned about playing the Saggat (the big ones). I didn’t go looking for a contract per say, it just kind of happened. Friends of friends of friends said that there was an opportunity, so I took the chance. I figured, “you might as well go to Sharm el-Sheikh and get some experience”. The opportunity was priceless and I had to learn very quickly! You have to perform 3,4,5 shows a night, and you don’t really have a day off and the timing is very different. You have to know your skill level to be able to accommodate all that stuff. There is no preparing for it, they just throw you to the wolves.
Tell Me About Sufism Through Your Eyes
Mystic, I think would be the first word that would come to mind. I wouldn’t say that what I do is Sufism and that Tannoura is Sufism. The Turkish style with the artist dressed in white is more of that type to me. As far as the spinning goes, if you do it the right way, with the right technique, you can definitely kind of escape. You just go into another world! And when you come out of it, you feel light and elevated and that you connected to something else that wasn’t down here.
As far as Sufism in Egypt, I know that it exists (they have celebrations for the birthdays of prophets and “saints” where Tanoura Dancers perform). I haven’t experienced those though so I cannot speak much about it. I will say that this is where things get controversial because it goes back to that “religious thing” and Islam.
Are the Majority of Tannoura Artists You Have Come Across Today Practitioners of Sufism or Not?
I wouldn’t say that being a Sufi practitioner is seen as a good thing in Egypt. Because the vast majority of people are Muslim, that line is kind of blurred. It is a religious dance, and If someone WERE a Sufi practitioner, I don’t think they wouldn’t come out and say it.
Historically, Sufi’s Would Attend Rigorous Training for Years at Tekkles. What Was Your Training Like?
The Tannoura troupe is the authority on this. They do both shows (the religious and entertainment ones). They are not very open to everyone coming to train. They take it super seriously, and not something to be exploited by foreigners. As far as my background, I actually trained with Mohammed Kazafy’s assistant (his name is Meedo) who is also part of Reda troupe. He basically said, “put on the skirt, put your feet in this manner, and make it your constant”. Just like how you shimmy and are then able to layer on top of it, that is how the footwork and technique must be.
I remember that first week of training. Not only that, but I found a video of me recently from that first week and it looks like such a disaster. Once I came back to the States, I just had to keep what I learned going for myself and the right spinning eventually happened. I added a skirt, and then another skirt, and then juggled the daffouf (multiple daff). I use flags now and I do the Saggat now with the spinning as well. I have to keep pushing to do more and try something different to keep me challenged.
I am not Middle Eastern or Egyptian. My biggest compliment is when I am told “enta masri“, which means, “you are Egyptian”. It is not that I want to fool people into thinking I’m Egyptian, I just want to do it right, so that I am just as good.
When I go back to Egypt, I pick someone different to learn from every time.
What Is It About the Whirling That Attracts You the Most?
It was that show that I went to in Al Ghuri during my first trip that really affected me. The first year I went I was going to go to London immediately after for a competition. Part of the competition requirements was that you had to perform an Oriental during preliminaries, and if you made it to finals, you had to dance a folkloric piece.
When I talked to Kazafy he asked me, “what do you want to do?”. I told him initially that I wanted to do a Saidi piece. He looked at me and said, “do you know such and such?” I replied that I heard of him, but I didn’t know him personally. The reason Kazafy brought it up was because he knew that “such and such” was going to be performing a Saidi also, and he has been doing it for a lot longer. I took the hint, and asked suggested to Kazafy, “what about Tannoura?” Kazafy was like, are you sure you want to do Tannoura?” He asked me several times if I was sure, as he knew the connotations that it carried in Egypt. Once I assured him that yes, I was indeed sure, he set me up with the costuming, training and etc., so part of how I came to Tannoura was the motivation for competition.
What is the Difference (in Your Words) Between the Whirling Dervishers, Tannoura Artists, and the Moroccan Guedra?
To me, the Turkish whirling dervish is the purist form of it all. The continuous repetition has everything to do with the dancer being the connection between the earth and the sky. As far as tannoura, it can be strictly entertainment, where you add all of the different props. On the religious side of it, it is done for reverence, but more of a communal thing compared to the whirling dervishes of Turkey.
In the Turkish Sema ritual, each Sufi is its own star, and they all spin in the same direction around each other, much how the planets and stars revolve in our galaxy. But looking at the Egyptians form from a religious standpoint, there is one principle dancer in the center, and then a circle of other dancers around him, and then the musicians along the backside of the dancers, and the audience completing the circle in front of the dancers. The energy is all encompassing, and you feel like you are part of the show, part of the universe or the galaxy. Whereas with the Turkish format, the energy is between the guys, in their own space.
The Guedra I honestly don’t know too much about, but what I can say as far as all three is that it is all about reverence and connecting with a force higher up.
What is the Latest Fad in Tannoura Performance? Glow in the Dark and Blacklight Paint Has Been Popular as Well as LED Costuming for Some Time. What is “In” Now?
Right now, it has everything to do with the costuming. Things are a lot more intricate, even the galabeya have embroidery on the sleeves and on the cuffs. The vests now have more of a shape, as it protrudes out from the shoulders a little bit. It has an inverted triangle shape coming down is the new silhouette and the lights are now too much! The lights make us look like a Christmas tree with many colors. It is definitely changing as far as the style of the costuming. The headpiece and galabeya are so intricate.
As far as the skirt, the designs change over time. I feel like right now they are looking at the older styles of tannoura fashions and bringing it back, but using new materials.
Could You Share With Our Readers About Your Background?
I am a complete foreigner. For me, when I started, they told me “we know that you think this is something that is cool, but here in Egypt, you won’t be someone who will be respected”. But for our industry (belly dance and performance in the United States), yeah it does set you apart. That was always something that stayed with me in the back of my mind. “This is just going to be for the entertainment value” they said. I wanted for myself to know more, and for it to become more than that. As with all art and artist, the goal is to move your audience, to make them feel something. And this had always been my objective when I perform.
For me, what definitely helped the most was learning the language, learning the music, and learning the tannoura show in El Ghouri. I used to see that show 2 times a week when I was there. And every time I would notice something different. For example, how the singer with just the use of language could control the energy of the room. It definitely comes down to the language. That is the way to get a hold of the culture, because you really understand the communication and it is not superficial.
How Much Do These Costumes Cost? Thousands?
For a good costume with everything, I have spent a pretty penny, and this is just on the essentials. It doesn’t include the extra props I’ve included in my shows (flags, sagat,LED lights, etc.)
Talk To Me About The Colors. They Used to Represent the Orders. How Do You Choose What Colors To Wear?
I look at the colors from more a design standpoint. There was only one costume where I was concerned about the colors as I wanted it to represent anyone from the Middle East (there flags all have white, black, and red). I would be fake if I did select colors based upon an order as I don’t know enough and I am not a sufi or part or an order. In Egypt it’s the same, things are looked upon from a design viewpoint. The only color that has any significance is the color green as that is the color for God.
How Do You Not Get Dizzy or Fall Over?
One of the best complisults (a compliment and an insult at the same time) I got was “your performance was so good, I had to look away otherwise I would have thrown up”. Do I get dizzy? No. How you hold you head, how you do the technique, this is what will keep you from becoming dizzy. There are times you can’t spot during tannoura, but one thing I learned was that l if you start spotting, you end spotting you’ll be alright.
Talk To Me About Female Tannoura Artists. Is This Becoming a “Thing”?
The new thing now is the girl dervishes. They don’t have the power the guys have as far as execution goes, but I can name at least 3 that are making a mark. They perform, and that is ok over there (in Egypt). One of the women tannoura artists I know is the sister of one of the guys that trained me when I went to Egypt. She was young and not married yet. One of the girls that came from the Luxor troupe did both styles (entertainment and the religious aspect).
About Sal Maktoub:
Sal Maktoub is an internationally acclaimed instructor and performer in Middle Eastern dance and folklore. His time spent within the Arab culture and community in the Middle East bring to his classes and shows very authentic, unique qualities that create a dynamic style that is very much his own. Most renowned for his Egyptian Tanoura show, Sal is the only performing professional of this mesmerizing dance on the North American continent.
Make sure to visit his website: http://salmaktoub.com. LIKE his page, and follow him on Instagram and Snapchat by searching fro “Sal Maktoub”.