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Dr. George Sawa:Egyptian Music Appreciation & Practice for Bellydancers

CD Review by Zumarrad
posted September 9, 2010

Many Belly dancers are lucky to live in areas with vibrant Arabic music scenes, where they can experience first-hand the instruments and musical forms that shape our dancing. However, many more of us are not. George Sawa’s CD set is an ideal resource for anyone in this situation, and should become a favourite of dance teachers and serious students.

This is not going to become your favourite listening or dancing CD set, but that is not the point. The selections are there to put theory into practice; they’re simple, short, and straightforward and their purpose seems to be to train your ear, not to induce tarab!

The idea is to listen, learn, and use the clips to get the rhythms, in particular, into your body through free dance practice. If used to the fullest, this resource will give you a wonderful grounding in Egyptian music.

It contains examples of 21 rhythms and eight maqams: short clips demonstrating the sounds of the non-Western percussive and melodic instruments that we can expect to hear on our Egyptian musical journeys, and musical excerpts, incorporating all of these things. The CDs are packaged in a sturdy, attractive and usable booklet – this is a resource you can carry easily to class with you.

The booklet really makes the resource valuable because it’s extensively and meticulously cross-referenced. The rhythms are written out in Western-style notation, which is very useful if you have that kind of musical training, syllabic notation (dum rest takk takk) and in traditional Arabic circle form. This last type of notation is really helpful. The idea is to listen to the rhythm track and tap the rhythm around the circle. It’s a very different way to learn and a lot of fun. The maqams are written as letter scales and in Western-style notation, which makes it very easy to determine which ones might work on Western instruments and which are impossible without retuning. (Ajam is C major. Who knew?) This approach is very good for someone like me who learns best with a combination of audio and visual information.

A chapter on musical instruments, which includes colour photographic illustrations, is also invaluable to the more isolated dancer. Many of these instruments are ones we will never see played in real life locally. I feel a bit like an eight year old using it, but it’s really helpful looking at the picture of the instrument as it plays!

Because almost all of CD1 is comfortably set out with straight rhythm clips followed by examples of the rhythm being used in a song – excellent for drilling, though it would be even better if they were all roughly the same length; the lack of similar examples following each maqam on CD2 feels a little disconcerting. However, each maqam is represented in song on the set; you just have to find it, usually on the other CD.

I like spoon-feeding, and in an ideal world, I’d love to hear the maqam also played as a scale, followed by the song clip. I figure the ear connection would be made more quickly that way, but I can also see that this would not be practical. In fact, it is best not to think of this as a two-CD set but rather a singular musical study course that (unfortunately) doesn’t fit on one CD. It seems pretty clear that the only reason this resource comes on two CDs is because you can’t get a single CD readily that will fit 110 minutes of music.

I would also have liked it if the maqam descriptions were a little deeper because there’s no information about how they traditionally connect to particular emotions, or why they are named the way they are.

Dr. Sawa was classically trained in Egypt, but I’m also sure there are musicians who will follow other naming conventions, and some Belly dancers may not like his assertion that dancers should stick with two simple zill patterns and leave the rhythmic flash to the drummer. I like the way Dr. Sawa recommends other CDs, DVDs, and websites where you can learn more, and these sources are not all his own output, either.

Rating: 3 1/2 zils
Zil Rating- 3

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  1. Nepenthe

    Sep 25, 2010 - 07:09:40

    Great review – I just bought this today at workshop thanks to your review (well, that and Bozenka’s recommendation as well.)

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