Music is an upheld tradition in Libya and is the centre of both personal and public celebrations.
Even in national celebrations such as the anniversary of the February 17 revolution, the traditional musical band called a noba took centre stage and beckoned ripples of spectators to surround the makeshift dance floor.
Folk music comes in different styles; some overshadow others in the modern scene. The noba can be thought of as a mobile musical band, usually comprising of three or more young men with a special skill in playing the drums, flute, or cymbals. The noba is a band called on whenever a celebration is in order.
At the sound of the traditional beat, neighbors and passerby gather to join the clapping and dancing. The happiest or bravest of the crowd assume a position in the middle, and whirl their hips the Libyan way – in harmony to the drum beats that pound harder in response to the crowd’s excitement.
The noba is a type of music that has to be witnessed. It is more about experiencing the harmonic moment, rather than hearing the melody.
Zimzamat is another form of live band. Its most obvious distinction from the noba is that it is comprised of female musicians instead.
This traditional band is a group of women, not necessarily older in age, who make appearances at events for females; singing rhyming lines that richly and often candidly convey Libyan culture.
For someone unaccustomed to the hype that comes along with the female band, it takes some focus to hear the words being sung.
The rhymes often describe the young dancers, or praise the bride and groom and their families. Like the noba, the female band livens up the party and entices guests to provide the main source of entertainment on the dance floor.
The instruments used by zimzamat bands are goblet and frame drums. The vocals are meant to be high-pitched; as if in competition with the drum reverberations that conclude each rhyming verse.
Back in the day, Libyan women catered to their own events; made their own music, entertained themselves, and served their own guests. Now special occasions are not as often hosted in the home.
Even the skill of memorizing traditional song lyrics is a talent absent in the younger generations. Women now need paid-help to do the things that family and friends used to do themselves.
Nowadays, hiring a band of zimzamat ensures that a party will be upbeat, entertaining, and up to the standards of tradition and societal expectations when it comes to music.
Interestingly, zimzamat are not only found at events hosted at home, but can also been found in Tripoli’s most decadent event halls. Often, wedding halls have a stage for the bride and groom, as well as one for the live band.
When present at the same time, it is stiff competition. The band often attracts more attention than the bride who is, traditionally, expected to remain collected and more reserved than brides in western cultures.
The contrast of having an electronic stereo system used by a live band, seated on cushions upholstered in tribal patterns is one of the ways Libyan tradition has used modern technology to its benefit.
In Libya, the expectations of tradition are not simply met, they are valued. Tradition has managed to withstand a position of esteem in the Libyan culture, and it is what makes following it as appealing as it is.
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 22 September 2012