Sacred rituals featuring the tambura

Spiritual music keeps tradition alive for Basra’s Afro-Iraqi community

BASRA, October 2 — The tambura is an instrument with origins in African musical traditions, and a striking resemblance to the ancient Sumerian lyre, making it a unique mainstay in Basra’s Afro-Iraqi community and the sacred musical rituals called Al-Zeeran, or Al-Mekayyad.

Spiritual musicians in the community assert that the tambura is used to extract spirits from the underworld in people plagued with different afflictions.

Haider Naji, a practitioner of the tradition, explained to 964:

The instrument I hold is over three centuries old, passed down through generations. There are even older instruments in existence. The tambura is not merely a musical instrument, as some may think, but it’s a spiritual tool we use to invoke and exorcise spirits of the underworld from people seeking treatment.

These chants, tied to the tambura, have been passed down through generations from the [Prophet’s] companion Bilal al-Habashi and Suraqah al-Nubi. We believe that our master Bilal al-Habashi used to play the tambura and recite religious hymns in his unique way.

While playing, we recite praises of the noble Prophet and narrate his biography.

Visibly, the tambura resembles a lyre and consists of the main strings, the body crafted from oak wood with a front made of leather. The tambura has six strings, formerly made from animal intestines but now crafted from plastic wires. In Arabic, we call these strings Al-Sitta.

The tambura is the primary instrument in the Al-Mekayyad rituals, practiced exclusively by the Afro-Iraqi community. There are several Al-Mekayyad locations in Basra.