Dances With Spirits

Published at Brownbook Magazine
Though it’s not necessarily considered Tunisian, stambeli can only be found in Tunisia.

A ritual dance belonging to Tunisia’s Sub-Saharan community, stambeli can occasionally be seen performed on the streets of Tunis, when members of the community dress up in masks and costumes to wander the medina as they sing, dance and play the shqashiq.

Despite its gradual demise, there remains a few dedicated practitioners of the tradition, like at Dar Barnu – the last surviving house where those of Bornu origin continue to congregate in Tunis. Here, Belhassen Barnawi, the only son of Abdul Majid Barnawi – the late head of Dar Barnu – continues to perform stambeli as a musician and singer.
According to Barnawi, the word ‘stambeli’ is rooted in the Sub-Saharan term ‘sambeli’, and refers to the spirit possession ceremonies that continue to be performed in parts of Nigeria and Mali.
The ritual made its way to Tunis during the Ottoman Empire. Many Sub-Saharans arrived in Tunis in the 19th century, often for forced labour and against their will. A network of communal housing was established, consisting of numerous structures that served as a refuge where displaced individuals could find others who spoke their language and shared their customs. Many were of Hausa speaking groups from the areas surrounding Lake Chad.
It was within this community that the stambeli tradition was developed and spread, enabling both captive and free men and women to maintain their cultural and spiritual practices. Today, in Sidi Abdeslam, a bustling neighborhood on the periphery of Tunis, Dar Barnu continues the stambeli practice, seeing it simultaneously as a musical art form, an agent of healing, a form of communication, a performance of history and an implicit critique of society.
The term stambeli refers to the music as well as the ritual ceremony itself. ‘Music is the defining component and central agent in the ritual,’ Barnawi says, as he reflects on the different instruments. ‘The guembri, a sacred, bass-register plucke lute with three-strings, speaks to the spirits. Although similarly spiked lutes are found across West Africa, no instrument is identical to the guembri.’
Another instrument that’s integral to the stambeli performance, he says, is the shqashiq – iron clappers that look like concussion idiophones. The shqashiq is linked to the history of Islam, being firmly associated with Sidi Bilal, Islam’s first muezzin who was freed by Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Bilal is an important figure among the Sub-Saharan community in North Africa, with many claiming spiritual descent from him. Some even refer to themselves as ‘awled Sidi Bilal’, or children of Saint Bilal.
Karim Touwayma, a Tunisian contemporary dancer, choreographer and researcher of stambeli, revisits the dance form through his choreography spectacle ‘L’Arifa’. For Touwayma, an essential component of stambeli – besides the guembri – is the arifa, the dancer who directly connects with the spirits, and through her trance, recognises evil and cures accordingly.
‘There is a magic that is heard, seen, sensed and felt between the yinna – the master of guembri – and the arifa,’ Touwayma says. ‘The yinna must know what to play and how to play it. The singing does not reach the sprits until the guembri has drawn the spirit into the ritual space of the performance.’
Two coloured banners or cloths typically cover the arifa, says Barnawi. One is draped over her shoulders and the other is tied around her waist, with the fabric’s colour depending on a saint’s preference. He adds that the rest of the troupe is typically dressed in traditional Tunisian fabrics.
Others who partake in the musical performances can be seen wearing a leather mask, which represents stambeli’s legendary figure Boussadia, a mythical character who’s largely seen as the tradition’s first musician. According to folklore, he lived in Sub-Saharan Africa until he heard that raiders on a Tunis-bound caravan had captured his daughter, Sadia. Boussadia followed the caravan routes to Tunis and upon his arrival, wandered the streets, playing the shqashiq and singing lyrics that begged onlookers to help him find his daughter.
The masks worn today cover the entire face and drape over the shoulders. It has cutouts for the eyes and mouth, which are lined with cowry shells. Atop the mask is a conical headdress adorned with a tuft of feathers and the head of a bird with a long beak. An accompanying costume covers the body and consists of a draping, bright red vest that’s decorated with cowries and dangling amulets. Tied across the waist, too, is a skirt fashioned from dozens of animal tails.
Stambeli is not only a physical performance, but also an embodiment of cultural memory, narrating unrecorded history and stories, believes Touwayma. ‘The lyrics are sung in a manner designed to be incomprehensible. The language of the song is a mixture of Tunisian Arabic and Ajami – a form of the Hausa and Kanuri languages of Sub-Saharan Africa,’ he says.
Containing diverse religious, geographical and historical traditions, stambeli can neither be reduced to a sole purpose, nor to a single regional or religious foundation. Its rich history is one that is greatly varied and steeped in Tunisia’s long term balancing of racial and social boundaries.
While there are only a few priests of the stambeli tradition left today, Touwayma strives to spread awareness of the ritual. Having performed and facilitated workshops in Brussels, Greece, Germany and elsewhere, Touwayma is currently working on a documentation of the tradition. His dreams, he says, are for ‘the whole world to dance stambeli.’



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