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.
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
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.
musical heritage they may have had originally, these musicians
quickly learned that versatility was the key to paying gigs.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
is the way America imagined the Middle East,” says Rasmussen.
Fantasy, sure, but also a way for immigrants “to own the stereotype."
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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’
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.”
Abdo died in 2002, long after nightclubs gave in to rock ‘n’ roll,
long after sleaze and strippers overwhelmed the demand for real
made-up musical ensembles faded away as ethnic enclaves melted
and politics became more polarized.
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.
“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: http://www.eddiekochak.com/.
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.
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.”
well as a unique era forever enshrined in popular American culture.
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Traveling to Tizi Ouzou by Linda
When I was in high school, I was fascinated by some of the names
I read about when studying world geography.
P.U.R.E. Dance by Dhyanis
A collective of dancers and drummers plan to take music
and dance out into the streets this summer on July 15 in cities
across the nation and globe.
Bellydance in Iceland by
Recently, I was able to witness first hand how truly global the
world of bellydance has become. Dances of the Middle East and
North Africa are no longer a mystery and unknown “exotic”
style of dance.
Back in the
Bay Area #11
...my zils flew off into the audience, and George stopped playing,
went down into the audience...Was I embarrassed!
On the Road
She was the fiery “Bedouin” who argued with the
band in apparent Arabic and seemed so real and dramatic.