Cairo’s concert scene is diverse; on any given day you can find a concert showcasing the latest in contemporary Egyptian music and global sounds from hip-hop and reggae traditions. The friendly crew of managers at Makan – located at 1, Saad Zaghloul Street, across from the eponymously named tomb and museum – have gone the other way, setting their space aside to breathe life into some of Egypt’s oldest musical traditions. Makan’s goal is to preserve traditional and endangered music, along with the broader historical contexts and cultures that they come from.

With that mission in mind, Makan has hosted Mazaher, a female-led Zar group, in residence for the past couple of years. Including some of the last remaining performers of Zar, the group puts on a show every week where instead of amplifiers and guitar pedals, they throw a concert with drums, flutes, tambourines and more obscure traditional instruments like the tanboura, which is a triangular harp-like string instrument. According to Makan’s website, Mazaher 'is inspired by the three different styles of Zar music practiced in Egypt – the Egyptian or Upper Egyptian Zar, Abu Gheit Zar and the Sudanese, or African Zar.'

Many of Mazaher’s songs are at least 10 minutes-long, revolving around trance-like, repetitious choruses. The variations in the cyclical rhythms and vocals, which frequently seem improvised and contingent upon the energy in the room, ensure that each week is a different experience. Zar remains fundamentally a live performance, although you can buy Mazaher’s albums in the lobby of Makan for a reasonable price. The women of Mazaher, who do the majority of singing, engage the audience that is seated quite close to the band. 

But Mazaher is much more than a band. They are an actual family, many of whom are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. Considering that Zar music has historically passed from generation to generation in Egypt’s villages, it is especially cool that this latest generation now performs for packed houses at this local music lounge.

Indeed, to even get a seat at one of Mazaher’s Wednesday concerts, you definitely have to show up on time, and if you want to be up close on the ground level (there’s a mezzanine for extra seating); plan on arriving earlier. Despite the 30LE entrance fee to Makan, many audience members keep coming back to hear another two-hour set.

During the brief intermission, the members of Mazaher are eager to speak with fans and tell their stories. It’s that kind of friendliness, along with the intimate physical environment of Makan that makes it pretty easy to forget about the hustle and bustle just outside the front door.

If you are looking for a uniquely Egyptian nightlife option, outside of the usual concert hall circuit, Makan is definitely worth a visit. The venue itself is comfortable, decorated deliberately and sparsely to look like a modern loft with the appeal of a traditional, communal-style stage.