Gilded Serpent presents...
Streets of Cairo
Egyptian Rhythm,
Language and Dance

by Keti Sharif

Date: Feb 2006

Cairo's streets are much like its dance – streams of freestyle movement guided by intuition rather than rules. There are no 'principles' as such in both circumstances – it’s the organic-ness of Egyptian life that creates order in chaos. On the Egyptian streets the mayhem of beeping horns and no lanes or traffic lights would suggest total chaos due to lack of formation. Yet, like pebbles in a moving river, cars jostle and clang, donkey carts carry delicately balanced pyramids of oranges and potatoes, but there are rarely accidents - and everyone gets where they are going without too much stress.

Dance too, at its core, is organic. Its roots are steeped in folklore – the country, the land, the communication between people. It’s the feeling that carries the dancer, and in the tempest of music and tabla, the dancer finds balance and structure of the most organic nature.

Dance and music has always been a kind of carrier of sentiment between people in Egypt. These arts in Cairo, in a way, grew like its cousin 'the blues' in the west – Baladi rhythms – maqsoum, saiidi, bambi - became the syntax of urban Egyptian music in the same way the 12-bar blues defined the gospel-inspired style. Since the earlier days of industrialization in Egypt, when farmers moved to cities that promised work but couldn't offer support to the worker's growing families, the music changed from the simple farming 'celebration of home' songs to the 'memory of home' ballads. Sahar Hamdy in 91Lost love, an allegory for ‘lost home, lost heart’ is a familiar theme in baladi songs. In Egypt, people are rarely isolated; they gather at mosques, meet at community celebrations and invite neighbors regularly to their homes. There is a sharing that takes place at this community level, through food, conversation, music, song and dance.  All these interactions contain a rhythmic quality that is unhurried and open-ended – from their language, to their music. Conversations start slowly, become jovial, sometimes grow heated, and resume into laughter before building up again – much like the style of dance in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and their surrounding villages. Egyptian people even interact with strangers as though they were old friends, and the gestures imply feeling rather than thought.

Gospel and Baladi styles of music run parallel. Inspired by religious devotion (one of the most sincere communions with the higher source) each has a purity and simplicity that is both naive and worldly at the same time. Om Kothsoum, Egypt's diva of soulful ballads, began as a singer in an Islamic worship group. When the people release their grievances to God, there is no room for the superfluous. Vocal tones are rich and textured, but this richness comes from the heart, unlike the trained voice that presents rehearsed, perfected modulation, aware of an audience's judgment.

The heart in Baladi, like the quavering crying and jubilation of gospel, rests within its sincerity.

Baladi dance is by nature an organic, communicative, sincere expression. Gestures tell stories and the eyes of the dancer light up as she sways. The earthy tabla beating a steady pulse brings the body into a rhythm, creating a natural form and structure. This structure grows from the ground up. Being receptive to the nuance of music - and often live music - the dancer's feet and hips feel the rhythm. The oud and qanoon's vibrations and sensual quarter tones bring their movement and mystery to her belly and hips. Arms surrender and ride on the airwave of the flutes. The dancer is absorbed into the music, and the music into her.

Iman Hamdi in 91When watching an Egyptian dancer move to baladi music, it is difficult to separate the two. The melody sings of love, heartfelt surrender, heartache, hearty humor...and the dancer brings her own heart into this story. Heart, not mind. Feeling, not analysis. Her feet have known these rhythms for a lifetime, and hence know exactly when to help her turn, pivot or walk to the stealthy bass. The rhythm is played in even, relaxed and predictable order - no rush, no trickery, just perfect harmony between dancer and pulse. The rhythm says "walk forward, now move back, this way with me, that way with me...let me follow you while you follow me". The rhythm is a friend and a support for the dancer - it manifests in her feet and hips.

Story and gesture are also qualities of baladi music and dance that give them more meaning – a deeper kind of knowing. Coquettish lyrics sung in a teasing sing-song rhythm extrapolated directly from everyday life form the basis of a myriad of songs. Since the days of Egyptian heartthrob Abdel Halim Hafez’s romantic movie roles depicting a lovesick dreamer crooning to baladi music, talking rhythmically, rather than singing, has become the foundation of lyrical communication in music. The many baladi rhythms by design reflect the actual nature of Egyptian languages in terms of assonance, punctuation and the rhythmic style that defines local colloquial ‘street language.’ Egyptian language marries rhythm and births a holistic dance expression that manifests via complete cultural immersion. The dancer becomes not only the music, but also the tonality of the voice; the subtlety of her native language, delivered with coded nuance reveals itself. This is the reason the Egyptian dancer dances with her entirety – there is absolutely no trepidation because there are no grey areas. Everything about communication is in the very core of her being as a part of a rhythmic society that communicates with depth, passion and at the same time, an incredible subtlety. Om Kolthsoum once sang “Habibi” one hundred times to her audience, in one hundred ways – each conveying a completely different emotive context.

In Egypt the dancer becomes her language, her music, her rhythms, her country – baladi, literally “from the native”. Have you ever watched a really authentic Egyptian dancer? What did she articulate through dance that even we, as dancers, find it difficult to find words for?

Perhaps it is her most subtle gesture that stays with you – a quick sweep up and down of the dancer’s lashes – and then the “look” – lasting a split second, but languid. Her eyes dance, her lips are relaxed and mouth the lyrics once in a while. Her hands are confident - they express the questioning in the music or lyrics with an open palm. Or they flow and float with the suggestion of love. They often cover the face with a coy modesty, knowing that it is hard to cover the luminous beauty of the amar arbatasher - the full moon. The hands, the eyes, the body all suggest they have known this music since its creation. To the observer, the dance is organic and balanced, soulful and feisty; it rides on the pulse of the music and the music somehow becomes the dancer.

The Egyptian dancer harnesses the multitude of rhythms that create the soundscape of her homeland. Deeply attuned, she moves with a simplicity that has been likened to assel - flowing honey. She is as Egyptian as the streets of Cairo, where amidst the chaos the traffic merges into one.

Experience Keti in her coming workshops in New York! See ad top right.
Keti will return in Aug '06 with a USA AstroBelly tour - 9 cities!

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