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Magicians of Music

Collage of 3 CDs reviewed by Tracy Benton for the Gilded Serpent

Three Excellent New Music CDs

by Tracy Benton
posted March 17, 2010

Sometimes what makes music reach real heights is a particular superior element… a magic ingredient that irresistibly draws in the listener. Three new music CDs use the magic of excellent musicianship to catch our attention:

Cafe BellydanceCafe Bellydance by Bellydance Superstars
Cafe Bellydance by Cairo Cairo, a Bellydance Superstars production, starts off pleasantly enough with the short "Kalam El Ney," pairing a pretty ney taxim over notes from an electric bass. The listener’s curiosity is jostled by this combination: what else might be coming?  After a few sassy vocal tracks, here comes "Helou Ou Kaddab" with the usual pop-style backing rhythms, but a violin soloist who catches your ear and won’t let go. The violinist sounds involved in the melody, not refined or remote, and while the vocals are there, they back the violin! A few tracks later, and suddenly a saxophone meanders through, explaining: "Ala Hesb Wedad." The saxophone is back in "Hawa Hewaya," singing the classic tune much as Abdel Halim Hafez did, simply and soulfully. All the saxophone solos on this album are breathy and mellow, providing a great basis for dance interpretation.

Not every part of this album is to my taste. For example, a mostly-mizmar version of "Gana El Hawa" doesn’t do much for me, especially when it appears to be a synthesized mizmar; the "chorus" of mizmars in the background is jarring. The standard pop rhythms also seem over-used on the album, too similar from track to track. But where Cairo Cairo’s Ahmed Sarhan trusts his soloists with the melody, the album really satifies. (Unfortunately the musicians are not listed on the album, or I’d name them here.) I suggest you stop by the Cafe Bellydance and order selectively from their menu.
Available for purchase at BDSS store here

Zil Rating: 3
Zil Rating: 3 zils

Play your CymbalsPlay Your Cymbals by Studio Askin
When I began listening to Play Your Cymbals from Studio Askin, I hadn’t looked very closely at the liner notes. As I listened, I slowly became more and more impressed. Crisp percussion… dreamy ney… I was utterly entranced. I seized the CD cover and flipped it open to find Ibrahim Turmen, Askin Serbetci, and Omar Faruk Tekbilek listed as the artists: members of The Sultans! If you aren’t familiar with The Sultans, they became well known in the 1970s and 1980s for their blend of Middle Eastern music. Unfortunately their albums are difficult to find, though "The Best of the Sultans" is still around. Play Your Cymbals is wonderful news if you like classics played by virtuoso musicians, because these artists are indeed experts.

The sound is not as small as their number would imply; use of keyboards and production methods make the trio seem like a larger group, so the result is layered and rich.

The first half of the album is a bellydance routine, six tracks: intro, veil number, fast section, ney taxim, drum solo, and finale adding up to around 15 minutes. The fast section, "Olmaz Olmaz," is swingy and joyful, but although the melody is simple, the dynamic changes keep it from being too repetitious. There are many tracks to like on this album, all ranging from 2 to 6 minutes for easy use by dancers. One of my favorites is the slower "Butun Meyhaneler," which features  delicate qanoun notes. Only the original song "Play Your Cymbals" fell flat for me — I found it startling to suddenly hear English lyrics on an otherwise-instrumental CD. But overall, this is definitely an album to add to your collection: an echo of a great dancer’s band from decades ago as well as an album full of excellent tracks for your classes and performances.
Available for purchase at Studio Askin here

Zil Rating: 4
Zil Rating: 4 zils

Ruby by HossanRuby by Hossam Ramzy and Ossama El-Hendy
In the last example, the standout musicians are… the composer/arrangers! Hossam Ramzy and Ossama El-Hendy‘s Ruby is a retro-styled album that was clearly composed with dancers in mind. (Even if the liner notes hadn’t come right out and said it, I think we could have figured it out.) If you aren’t familiar with Ramzy’s long string of fine bellydance CDs… well, an pleasant shopping trip awaits you. This is an artist who has been producing albums with dancers in mind for years, and whether you are looking for folkloric music, old classics revisited, or drum solos, you will find something to appreciate in his catalog.

Ruby is a collection of original tunes by Ramzy and collaborator Ossama El Hendy created in order to evoke the feeling of 1970s – 1980s Egyptian-style dance, and they succeeded magnificently.

The ten tracks on this album, which average five minutes in length, are each little gems in and of themselves–pun intended.  Each is named after a precious stone, but gems they are. Each contains a shift in mood through changes in tempo, instrumentation, or rhythm — each is a powerhouse of dance possibilities despite its short length. The arrangements are sweetened with lush strings, and vintage synthesizer sounds set the scene, but the mizmar, accordion, and nay ground the compositions and stave off any saccharine feel. It’s hard for me to single out a particular track for notice on this album, they are all of such high quality. If you like unusual rhythms, look into "Tigers’ Eyes," with the curious 7/8 waltz section. For lightness and grace, gaze at "The Pearl in My Heart" and let the kuwala spiral around you. Or visit "The Aquamarine of the South" to enjoy the saidi feel. No matter your choice, if you are mining your CD collection for shorter instrumental classics to add to your sets, you will find a treasure in Ruby.
Available for purchase by Hossam Ramzy here

Zil Rating: 4
Zil Rating: 4 zils

Luckily for dancers, there are many very good albums of danceable music being released these days. Only a few, however, have a real touch of magic — melodies you want to listen to over and over, rhythms that insist you get up and move. Dancers owe a huge debt to the artists who produce music of the very highest quality, music that isn’t merely a background for dancing but a star of the performance in its own right. Consider the albums listed here as potential classics that you may treasure for years.


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