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Gilded Serpent presents...
Fresh Old Sounds
by Charmaine Ortega Getz

Seeking fresh sounds in belly dance music? Consider a trip back to the 1950s up to the groovy ‘70s when a new style of music was bringing the East to the West.

Back in the day, if you couldn’t patronize a nightclub called “El Morocco” or “the Averof” or, if you wanted to relive your visit,you could buy records from a music store’s Easy Listening section that had titles such as “Dream of Scheherazade” and “Cairo by Night.”

Aside from the sometimes cheesy covers featuring scantily clad babes, the vinyl inside the cover has seriously good music. The highly skilled performers were immigrants and sons of immigrants from Armenia, Turkey, Greece, and all over the Middle East such as Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak, George Abdo, Fred Elias, Gus Valli, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Hakkim Obadia and Mohammed El-Bakkar.

Whatever musical heritage they may have had originally, these musicians quickly learned that versatility was the key to paying gigs.

“Keep in mind: improvisation was already a highly developed art in Middle Eastern music,” says Anne Rasmussen, associate professor of music and ethnomusicology at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she also directs the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble.

Adapting the music to American tastes was part of “the natural processes of assimilation. These groups had musicians of diverse ethnicities and languages who brought their various styles together for American audiences,” who may or may not have shared similar ethnic heritages. The need to adapt resulted in music arrangements that started with “taking the quarter tones or neutral tones out of Arabic music,” that sounded so alien to Western ears used to the diatonic half-tone scale, says Rasmussen.

A blend of traditional ethnic and more familiar Western musical instruments was often used, giving the music an updated yet pleasantly “exotic” sound. Singers such as the legendary George Abdo prided themselves on being able to croon in a variety of languages.

This new music was admirably suited for the supper clubs that first sprang up in ethnic enclaves and then caught the attention of other Americans looking for a different experience. Nightclubs across the country were soon offering “an evening in the Orient,” complete with dancing girls, shish kabob and Arabian Nights decor.

Album covers for the recordings of this period reflect the same alluring Orientalist images. Sometimes the album’s impresario is featured such as Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak with a dumbek surrounded by a bevy of beauties in nothing much, or Muhammed El-Bakkar in full “sultan” garb playing an oud at the feet of a couple of dancers.

“This is the way America imagined the Middle East,” says Rasmussen. Fantasy, sure, but also a way for immigrants “to own the stereotype."

The albums reflect what was a golden age for professional Bellydancers, says Barbara Cargill, AKA Natasha, artistic director of the Silk Road Middle Eastern Dance Theater based in Boulder, Colorado.

The more than 30 belly dance albums Natasha collected (which she has since given to her musician husband) not only hold fond memories but are a reminder of things lost.

“Those musicians really knew how to work with dancers,” she said. “They composed music that was excellent, with different pieces put together for the entrance, removal of the veil, and floor work. I have trouble finding music today like that. The old music was more lyrical, had more depth and fewer synthesized instruments.”

Natasha studied under Dahlena in Chicago and spent 23 years as the artistic director and choreographer for the Chicago-based Near East Heritage Dance Theater during an era when good dancers were in high demand.

“Chicago actually had two ‘Greektowns’,” she says. “There were Greek, Armenian, Turkish clubs there with regular dancers who performed twice a day, and all kinds of restaurants would hold ‘Greek Nights’ with Bellydancers.

When live musicians aren’t available, a Bellydancer’s best friend can be a good recording. Natasha recalls choreographing a dramatic number to the music of George Abdo when his Flames of Araby Orchestra played a gig in Chicago. Abdo might have had international renown and five albums, but improvisation was still a given for musicians and dancers. “I had to ask him, ‘Are you going to play this number exactly the way you have it on your album? Because we really like it that way,’” Natasha recalls. As it happened, “He was surprised and pleased we actually choreographed one of his songs.”

George Abdo died in 2002, long after nightclubs gave in to rock ‘n’ roll, long after sleaze and strippers overwhelmed the demand for real Oriental dance.

Diversely made-up musical ensembles faded away as ethnic enclaves melted and politics became more polarized.

But Abdo lived long enough to see a compilation of his music produced in a CD by no less than the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: “Belly Dance! The Best of George Abdo and His Flames of Araby Orchestra” with commentary by Rasmussen in the cover notes.

Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak is alive and well and living in Brooklyn. He still performs and teaches percussion, selling CD reissues of his “Strictly Belly Dancing” series from his web site:

Other names popular in Bellydance music have yet to be reissued which is why it’s worth acquiring a record player and seeking out the old albums on Ebay and in vintage record stores. Prices are generally low, and as long as the vinyl is in good condition, all it will need is a gentle cleaning before play. Some people like to collect the wilder covers for wall art, but in the end, it’s all about great music and what it represents.

As it says on the back of Mohammed El-Bakkar’s “Port Said” album, “Here, for western consumption, is embodied all the strange and titillating allure of the exotic Middle East.”

As well as a unique era forever enshrined in popular American culture.

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