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Gilded Serpent presents...
Leila Haddad & the Gypsy Musicians of Upper Egypt
"In the Trail of the Ghawazee"
March 2008 US Tour, sponsored by the World Music Institute
by Amy Bonham

Franco-Tunisian dancer and producer Leila Haddad has been touring her full-length stage shows in Europe and Asia for some time, but this year was the first time she brought a full theatrical touring production for the general public to the United States. Haddad, whose influences are as diverse as Bert Balladine and Sarah Petronio, has been teaching and performing internationally for several decades. Introduced to the American workshop circuit by Balladine, she has been a popular teacher of North African folkloric dances and raqs sharqi at such festivals as the Rakkasah East and West and Spirit of the Tribes in Florida. Throughout her career, she has fought for the acceptance of our dance as a respected art form worthy of the best concert stages.

Her production of "Zikrayat", her choreographic tribute to Egyptian singer Um Khoulthoum, has appeared in Paris and Hong Kong. This production, "On the Trail of the Ghawazee" has toured extensively as well. The US tour was my first opportunity to see one of her productions with live music. Tour venues included large concert halls in New York City; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Ann Arbor, Michigin; Seattle, Washington; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, California. I attended the Los Angeles concert, the last stop on the tour.

I admit that I was a little apprehensive about her reception going in. I’ve enjoyed her classes and performances for years and certainly endorse her mission, and as a result I was personally invested in her success. It’s not that I had any doubts about her artistry, rather the contrary. But in my experience the preconceived notions of American audiences and critics bring a great deal of negative cultural baggage to the viewing of this art form. I had seen some reviews from the first part of the tour, and one in particular made me despair of ever reading a Western critic that can accept our art on its own merits.

Claudia La Rocco, a stringer for the New York Times, wrote:

"The Tunisian dancer Leila Haddad must have fearsome abdominal muscles. But it’s possible they are outstripped by the muscles that kept a suggestive smile plastered on her face for much of "In the Trail of the Ghawazee", the 90-minute show she performed with the Gypsy Musicians of Upper Egypt at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday.” 1

The reviewer plainly had no frame of reference for Middle Eastern dance and was clearly uncomfortable with it and the expression of emotion that is often missing from classical Western dance.

The tour was sponsored by the World Music Institute2, a New York based non-profit dedicated to the dissemination of music and dance from around the world. They produce concerts in the New York metropolitan area and tour a limited number of productions of the best of world music and dance. Past acts have included Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Gypsy Caravan Tours (I & II), and the Whirling Dervishes of Syria, so this production was joining a rarefied and prestigious tradition.

Six master musicians from Upper Egypt accompanied the dancer on this tour. Mohamed Mourad, Youssef Moubarak, El Kinawy, Ramadan Atta, El Hamy Mohamed, and Abdallah Farah were joined by Gamal Gomaa, the popular Egyptian American percussionist who now resides in Los Angeles. These musicians come from a long tradition that could be as old as the pyramids.3

Musicians listed in the program the night the author attended: Mohamed Mourad, Youssef Moubarak, El Kinawy, Ramadan Atta, El Hamy Mohamed, Abdallah Farah, Gamal Gomaa. From Leila- photo " taken in the Antique Theater during the International Arles Festival (South of France) with the Musicians of the Nile (here we can see only half of the musicians)"

I believe that several members of the Haddad band, in particular Mohamed Mourad, have played with "The Musicians of the Nile" at various times. Many of these living treasures are related and live near each other in the environs of Luxor, and there seems to be a lot of crossover among the musicians when they tour and perform. Haddad has been working with musicians of this tradition and presenting them in Europe and Asia since at least 1993.

It is often written that the Egyptian Ghawazee probably have roots in Roma migrations from Rajasthan in India. I remember reading long ago about some interesting linguistic clues in that regard. 4 Haddad’s show was to trace the trail of those roots in dance and music. I got the impression that this was not to be done in the strict ethnographic sense, but rather as a thoroughly researched homage to those cultures and a validation of their art, so often mutated beyond recognition in the West. I had some regrets about the constraints of the theme leaving no logical place for her extensive repertoire of folkloric dances from the Maghreb. But those were immediately forgotten as the performers set the stage for the beautiful tableau that followed.

The musicians, dressed in turbans and galabeyas, were seated on the stage on special folk-art benches brought from Egypt. The gorgeous lighting, evocative of a desert twilight, was the result, I learned later, of an eight-hour lighting and tech rehearsal. The lighting was created by Paris-based designer Patrick Riou, who has had on ongoing association with Ballet Preljocaj and has designed lighting for the Paris Opera.

Haddad came softly out onto the dimly lit stage carrying a lantern. I’ve noticed previously that she knows how to claim her space on the stage and draw the viewer in, and this was a prime example of that skill. She slowly circled the musicians to acknowledge them before setting down the lantern and sitting with her back to the audience, rippling her arms and fingers to a mystical flute taqsim. The costume consisted of a red choli with vibrant yellow and hot pink silky draperies and the tassels on the sleeves moved with the music.

Starting a performance by sitting down with your back to the people takes a lot of confidence in the ability to project and command attention from that angle. The effect it had on me was to quiet me and cause me to focus on every little finger ripple. The Kabelya style of dance, as I understand it, is generally subtle and refined, so this was a good strategy. The whole tableau was magically reminiscent of nomads resting by their campfire under a Thar desert sky.

After she rose, the music segued to a song with percussive accents, and she floated across the stage leading with one hip in a trajectory that choreographer-writer Doris Humphrey referred to as the “path of power”, the Via Triumphalis of choreographic blocking. When the band broke into "Ghannili Shwaya", her playful head slides and beaming smile got the audience clapping with the drummers. I felt the infectious pull of attraction to a beloved folk tradition grounded in seamless stagecraft.

The next set began with the rababa and the mijwiz, those quintessentially Upper Egyptian sounds. They set up a call and response session with vocals from various singers with the duff driving the numerous verses. When Haddad joined them onstage after a costume change, it seemed as if they had been irresistibly calling her to appear. The golden discs on her bodice glittered, surrounding her with dancing points of light, and the flowing sleeves acted as an extension of her arm movements. She wore an overbelt of wide hanging strips decorated with shiny discs in the style of the Maazins circa mid-70s that floated up and created a radiant whirlpool as she spun. A rababa taqsim showcased tiny shimmies. When the Saidi rhythm kicked in, the flirty dallae side of her personality emerged. She danced with the singer accompanied by sagat. The drummer knelt before her and played to urge her on. I recognized some of the signature Ghawazee footwork in which the foot swings down from the knee with a gentle stomp. It was delightful to hear the repertoire from the old recordings in medley like that. “Habib ya dallae dallae”, and was that “Bambi”? It was as though they were having a relaxed conversation using music and movement instead of words and were inviting us to be a part of it.

A long vocal interlude with rababa and riq set up the next set, with two singers taking turns and riffing off each other. In fact, most of the pieces began with beautiful taqsims that showcased one or another of the instruments or voices. Haddad made her entrance in a black beaded melaya over a stunning red dress of sheer material over tulle bi telli (also called assiute after the region in Egypt). As she did some undulations at the left side the stage, I reflected on another thing that I’ve noticed about her in the past: that she makes use of the entire stage, practically every inch of it sometimes. This time her shimmies were mesmerizingly extended and when the band shifted into a Saidi beat, the audience went wild. The next song they sang to her was apparently enumerating the dallae girl’s charms and she responded to it with coquettish hand gestures, miming showing off the beauty of her braids, hands, etc. The fun and the sweetness of a teasing flirtation were conveyed with joy. The riq player started teasing her during “Salamat, salamat”, kneeling beside her and trying to trick her with unexpected percussion stops.

As they cranked up the Saidi beat, one of the musicians started handling his rababa like a tahtib, brandishing it and playing it backward over his head. Haddad and he gently leaned against the backs of each other’s shoulders to dance together while he fiddled above their heads. Then he turned and playfully brought the rababa over her chest and bowed it there, giving us a moment when it seemed like the music was pouring from both of them. Wild spinning segued into an extended percussion segment. Unlike the danced drum solos you see so often these days, this one was relaxed, which to me is characteristically Egyptian. It was exciting and passionate, but not forced or busy. Airplane spins spun her long braids free, and she dropped to the floor for a dramatic hair-tossing zar-like segment.

In the final set the mizmars and tabl beledi began a medley with a familiar song that had "ya aini, ya aini" in the refrain. Haddad brought a shiny cane with her at her final entrance. She wore a red galabeya over a full gold-trimmed skirt. A black glittery head wrap was set off by large “Ghawazee-style” earrings. She played off the musicians using timeless Upper Egyptian folkloric cane dance movements. I doubt that much of this interaction is scripted. These masters have been working together for so long that they can be spontaneous and go where the music takes them. I got the feeling that the nuances of this music are as familiar to Haddad as her own breath. When she balanced the cane on her head and continued to dance, the mizmars went berserk. She did a playful backbend over the tabl beledi as the drummer played it, in the dance called "Asharat al-Tabl". 5 The deep dum sound of that larger drum upped the pace, driving the drama to its conclusion. As the music came to a crescendo, she wrapped herself up in her melaya, picked up her lantern and left the stage.

The show ran for over an hour-and-a-half without interruption, which must have demanded a lot of stamina from a soloist. It left me wanting more and from the size of the ovation I deduced that I wasn't alone. The Egyptian proverb that they printed in the program notes was an appropriate coda to the concert.

"Life is like the Ghawazee, the Gypsy dancers from Upper Egypt, who dance but an instant for each and all."

After the show, the musicians were selling Egyptian products to the exhilarated audience members out in the lobby, including pretty crocheted beaded scarves and their own instruments! The Los Angeles dance community was out in full support. It occurred to me how nice it would be to see some of them given the opportunity to be staged with such professionalism. Perhaps now that Haddad has opened the door a little wider it will become easier.

There was an after-party for the performers hosted by a gracious Egyptian ex-pat. It didn’t take long for the musicians to start playing again. We felt fortunate to experience Egyptian hospitality and see the Egyptian Americans reveling in their music. The percussionists had not brought their drums along, but they made do wonderfully with what was on hand, including toys and tray tops from the buffet. UCLA ethnomusicology professor Ali Jihad Racy played along while wife Barbara, another dance ethnologist, watched. And what a thrill to see Aisha Ali dance to the music that she was responsible for introducing to the Western dance community years ago. Her dancing is completely relaxed and free and exudes a comfortable naturalness with the music; a result, I’m sure, of lifelong friendships with these artists and their music.

A review of the concert was published in the Los Angeles Times. Lewis Segal, at that time the dance critic for the paper, wrote:

"Moving across a darkened stage in layers of gleaming fabric, she embodied all the glamour and fantasy that traveling performers have brought to rural societies through the ages – the escape from everyday life that we still seek in nearly every kind of entertainment.

Some people might call Haddad a belly dancer, but the term would not only degrade what she performs by linking it to cheap cabaret exhibitionism but also fail to account for the amazing expansions and contractions of the upper torso and chest that she displayed in one solo or those liquid arms in her opening invocation ritual or her intricate articulations of the neck. ...

Call her instead a woman of the world, one who moved to France in her teens but eventually defined herself as an artist who belongs to many cultures and ages, assimilating their beauties and sharing them with us as our own world darkens and needs all the escape it can get.” 6

Aisha Ali dances with E l Hamy Mohamed, one of the musicians at the after party

It’s unfortunate that Segal’s job was a casualty of a recent round of layoffs at the LA Times. It would have been interesting to read any future reviews of Middle Eastern dance forms. I found that this one was at least informative and felt that it gave a sense of what it was like to be in his seat in that theater. I didn’t agree with some of it, notably a reference to a "forced smile", but it was descriptive rather than hostile. And the idea that the dancer can show with his or her face what it is like to experience the movements in the body is not presented often in ballet and other Western dance genres.

The review also gives us as a dance community fodder for discussion regarding the "cheap cabaret exhibitionism" comment. We shouldn't decry what some might call journalistic misconceptions without honestly scrutinizing what gives rise to them.

The warm reception the world has given a concert presentation of our art in the context of its genesis makes this an opportune time to pursue some self-examination.

Notes & Resources
1 New York Times review by Claudia La Rocco (May require log in) -- This review is even more offensive than the quote intimates.
3 Ethnomusicologists Fumio Koizumi (Japan) and Hans Hickmann (Germany) documented Egyptian folkloric music during the middle of the 20th century, but the first recordings I ever heard were done in the field by dance ethnographer Aisha Ali around 1973-74. She performed with the Maazin family of Ghawazee and recorded the Abu Kherage band live on a boat on the Nile. Those field recordings became the basis of the album Music of the Ghawazee. Then in 1975 French ethnomusicologist Alain Weber became the director of an Egyptian group called "The Musicians of the Nile" (Les Musiciens du Nil) and helped them to achieve success on the world music circuit, including the WOMAD festival. They were in the movie Latcho Drom which, somewhat like this production, draws a thematic road through the Gypsy traditions of various regions from India to Spain.
4"Sirat-Al Ghawazee"-Part 1. Gilded Serpent. 2005 by Edwina Nearing
As described to Edwina Nearing by Ghawazee patriarch Yusef Maazin. "Sirat-Al Ghawazee"-Part 7. Gilded Serpent. 2005.
6- LA Time review by Lewis Segal

Leila with Rais Kinawy

Leila and Gadelrab

Rais Mohamed Mourad, El Hami Mohamed, Youssef Moubarak, Abdallah Farrah and Mohamed Atta

Rais Mohamed Mourad watches Ali Jihad Racy, ethnomusicology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, on the rababa

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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