by Amina Goodyear
posted May 19, 2011
"Step right up, folks,
And see Little Egypt do her
Famous dance of the Pyramids.
She walks, she talks,
She crawls on her belly
Like a reptile!
Just one thin dime,
One tenth of a dollar,
Step right up, folks." *
Ever since the turn of the 20th century we, in the US, have been fascinated by all things Egyptian. There was the Chicago World’s Fair, featuring Little Egypt in 1893 and Tut-mania in the 1920s. More recently in my lifetime, songs like "Little Egypt" and "Walk like an Egyptian" became popular.
Before I learned to "walk like an Egyptian", I wanted to drum like an African! Since my early teens, I had been collecting African drum LPs (as well as conga and bongo drums) and was either dancing like a possessed child or trying to make rhythms happen on drum skins.
Much later in life, after having bought a record by Mohamed el Bakkar called "The African Arab", I discovered a new passion: Arabic music, Arabic drums, and Arabic dance. My new passion did not happen in that order, as the music, the drums, and the dance to me existed as one entity. From this passion, I focused ultimately my energy to one facet of the music, drum rhythms, and dance, and specifically, that was the music, drums and dance of Egypt!
While working at the Bagdad Cabaret as a Belly dancer in San Francisco in the 1970s, a tourist hired the entire Bagdad crew to tour various Mexican cities. He was a Lebanese Mexican and wanted to recreate the Bagdad’s show in Mexico for the various chapters of their Club Libanes. (Did you know that the world’s richest man is a Lebanese Mexican who lives in Mexico) For me, this was to be a fun vacation as well as an opportunity to bond with the musicians with whom I worked in San Francisco.
One of the musicians was a well-known Latin and jazz drummer, Vince Delgado. Well, he wasn’t Arabic, but he was an Arabic drummer who spoke a little Spanish. He was Mexican-American and had been born and raised in San Francisco. Between my high school Spanish and his Mexican accent, we got to know each other better and managed to become the group’s translators for the Bagdad tour. I discovered that, besides Arabic drumming, Vince also played congas and bongos. This clinched it for me! We decided that when we returned to San Francisco, he would teach drumming in my studio, and I would begin studying drum with him.
I loved it! I was finally learning how to play the drum. Vince was my very first music teacher. He was my enabler, and I was the music enthusiast who wanted to share and pass my addiction on to others. I must confess, although I loved the drum and learning to play it, I really liked dancing to music with drumming in it better than sitting alone, practicing. It was lonely and worse than that, I really wanted to dance to it, rather than play it by myself. I felt bad that I wasn’t progressing in class as quickly as I should and decided that I needed drum-practice buddies. I realized that I had three potential drum buddies living with me.
They were my three pre-teen children, Cathy, Susu, and Vinny. "OK," I told them, "You need to start taking music lessons, and I will be your teacher." So, I lined them up and taught them Beledi and Ayoub rhythms.
Two of my children weren’t much interested, but Susu (my obedient middle child) took to it like only an addict could. She became hooked on the rhythms and couldn’t seem to get enough. Although I had been studying for a year or more, I realized after a couple of lessons that she needed a competent music teacher. Consequently, she started accompanying me to Vince’s class. Now, I had my drumming partner.
However, after only a couple of lessons with Vince, I had a little epiphany that there was a drummer in our house, and it wasn’t me. That was okay with me! I could take drum lessons and learn about rhythms and music, and then I would have a drummer who would beat out the rhythms, and I could do what I liked doing most: I could dance to the drums.
Although I had been dancing and performing Middle Eastern dance since the mid ’60s, having Vince teach in my studio opened doors that only continue to open wider for me, and they never close! In San Francisco at that time, Belly dance was a mixture of everything from the Middle East because that is what we could access. We knew songs from Turkey that had travelled all the way to Morocco, with a few stops on the way, to pick up the sounds of Greece, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. What we had accomplished might be termed “Americanized Middle Eastern” music and dance, since America has been a melting pot of all nations and cultures.
Even in the early 1970s, Middle Eastern music had extremely limited availablility in the remarkably few record stores that carried ethnic music, and it was usually limited to Greek, Armenian, and Anatolian music. Arabic music did not seem to exist in our part of the world at all, except music that was imported by a very few Arabic men who seemed to have personally hand-carried Arabic vinyl LPs and 45s from the Arab world. I think I owned every single album available and can quite honestly say that they could all have been carried in a single shopping bag with space available for more. Because I worked with musicians rather than their recordings, I wasn’t concerned with using records for performing, but I did memorize and use every track on the records while teaching my dance classes.
It was quite an exciting moment to hear that our Arabic music source had received a shipment from Egypt! When I would place my orders, I would just order everything without knowing what I was going to receive. I only knew that it would be Arabic (and not Turkish or Greek). Already, I had begun to discriminate and be discerning about music.
What the term “Arabic” meant to me at that time was either Bedouin folk music, Debke dance music, or songs of Feiruz, Abdel Halim, and the legendary Om Kalsoum. It was an exciting time in my personal relationship to Arabic music. I was learning first hand that I preferred Abdel Halim and Om Kalsoum, and it was exciting to know that while they were still cranking out new songs,I would be the "first kid on the block" to hear and own them! It was truly an experience to know that Om K. had just recorded a new song or that we could hear the pain and anguish in Abdel Halim’s latest song, knowing that he was suffering from the debilitating parasitic disease called Bilharzia.
I memorized every passage in all the songs on my recordings, and Susu had to memorize them too. We learned them together. At that time, I think I taught 8 classes a week, and she drummed for all of them. (I want to believe that she wanted to drum in order to practice and to please herself and not just to please me. However, I may never know.) I do know that she and I spent many hours together working on breaking down the rhythms and music Vince had taught us as well as those rhythms taught us by our next drum teacher, George Dabai.
George Dabai, the drummer at the Bagdad, decided that all the dancers needed to learn more about the music to which they danced. He opened a class specifically to teach this subject and Susu and I became his devoted students. I can say, honestly, that his classes introduced me to fully understanding how the dancer should connect with the music. Besides teaching us how to drum and play the cymbals musically, he made us listen to and analyze various pieces of music. In particular, he broke down many Abdel Wehab pieces and taught us how to play along with them and other Egyptian songs. This, for me, transferred into my learning how and what to do with various pieces of music. My heightened awareness exceeded any dance class I had attended, and eventually, I was able to know how to translate the music emotionally and with my body through the instrumentation, rhythm, maqam and musical phrasing. Susu, his star student, would become the substitute drummer at the Bagdad. (The Bagdad had a cabaret license that allowed minors to enter.)
By the mid 1970s, San Francisco and the rest of the country had discovered and become saturated with “Belly dance fever”. Belly dance workshops and vendors selling costumes (You mean, we don’t have to make them anymore?), magazines, festivals, haflas, and competitions began appearing all over the US.
Finally, the music had become readily available. The music from the Middle East was primarily Arabic and Egyptian, not only Turkish, and some was produced in the USA. Arabic musicians living in this country and western musicians who had discovered recently Arabic music, were recording either long-playing vinyl recordings (LPs) or had joined the new audio tape cassette culture.
By the 1980s, video had also become accessible by way of VHS video cassettes and for the first time, we were able to see the dancers and musicians from the Arab world in the comfort of our own living rooms. Imagine that! We didn’t have to wait for the monthly Arabic movie to be shown in a rented theater with hopes that there might be an obligatory 3-5 minute dance or singing scene.
Also, in the late 1970s, the Egyptians came to town and we were amazed to see them and work with them in clubs such as the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco’s Broadway.
However, when I was leaving work one evening at the Bagdad and saying goodnight to my boss, Jad Elias, as usual, I remember thinking we had hit a low point. We had been down-sized to only two musicians; Jad, who managed the Bagdad for his brother, George Elias, would casually sing and play the oud and a drummer who always seemed to have a cigarette between his fingers while playing the drum. It was just another night at work. Of course, it was still enjoyable because we danced to live music and singing, but then again, enjoyable and comfortable did not always mean that it was memorable.
The next evening, though, was memorable! It was an evening I will never forget. I walked into the Bagdad, expecting another evening with Jad singing a song written for Om Kalsoum in epic form from beginning to end (40 + minutes) as the middle section of a show.
Instead, I walked into a club with 4 men on the stage who were wearing tuxedoes! The first man, Abdel Khalik, the drummer, was standing and supporting his tabla (drum) on his knee while that foot rested on top of a chair-seat. (He looked rather stork-like to me.) The other musicians playing accordion, sax, and riq looked rather squished on the musicians’ bench that usually just held one other musician among full and empty glasses of drinks.
What happened next was also quite memorable. I was the first dancer that evening, and I started my show with my finger cymbals clanging and my veil wrapped over my costume. Instead of the usual entrance song, (I usually entered with “Sawah”, “Ala Hesbi”, “Gamil Gamal”, or “Ya Gameel”.) I was introduced to something less old-fashioned like “Mashaal”. This was unusual; Jad never played pieces like that! We had used those pieces in class but never at the Bagdad for performance.
Okay, so although I knew the piece and didn’t much like it, but at least I knew all the changes in it. Next, they played a taqsim. In the usual Bagdad format, the second piece would be a slow bolero-type song so the dancer could unveil slowly . Even before I was completely unveiled, the taqsim was over and they were on to the next part. What it was, I don’t remember, but this was usually the heart of our set! This was the part when Jad would sing his almost hour-long Om or Abdel Halim song. Nonetheless, these musicians played a short little piece and indicated that I was to refrain from playing my cymbals. In fact, I was to remove them from my fingers forever. (Granted, I didn’t much like playing cymbals anyway.) Next came another taqsim. In the Bagdad language of the night before, that meant time to dance the “floor-work” section. So, down to my knees I went. Well, the musicians were aghast and motioned for me to get up off the floor. Okay, there would be no floor-work either.
No veil, no cymbals, no floor, and hardly any singing. Fine! What next? Another taqsim and then, finally, something really nice. A beledy taqsim with drum. After this section, it was time to go off-stage and "collect" tips. I am sure they wanted to object to this also, but since they must have been told that they would get their share, they allowed this part to happen.
It would have been nice, Jad, if someone had told me, the first dancer of that evening, that our regular 5-part dance format was to become history rather than find out the hard and embarrassing way! Perhaps that would have been too easy?
These musicians lasted a while before breaking up and moving on to various other parts of the US. They were only a preview of other Egyptian musicians who passed through San Francisco and some who eventually ended up making San Francisco their home. (Yousef Mustafa, Fouad Marzouk, and Reda Darwish are some who came and stayed.) With the coming of "the Egyptians", the music and the dance in the clubs changed. Although the other musicians were of various Arab and Middle Eastern nationalities, the general format of the shows became increasingly Egyptian influenced. With the Egyptian show formula and music, it was only natural for the dancer to also become more Egyptian in styling until we all learned how to "walk like an Egyptian."
Besides the many dance teachers I have had, I especially thank Vince and George, as well as other drum and Egyptian language and singing teachers, for all the doors they have opened for me and others in this area. The music of Egypt beckons through those doors and I must follow.
I am forever addicted to this music that makes me dance and want to drum and am ceaselessly searching for more music to collect and learn. Along the way through this music, I have met and become friends with many people who dance and play music. We have collaborated, worked together and even started up bands together.
It was while one of the bands was sponsoring a dancers’ nights that I became aware that not all dance instructors, dancers, and dance students are as keenly interested in pursuing the music, its history, and its culture as I am. Some dancers perform without first doing their homework –without learning first how to analyze a song, know its cultural roots, or even learn the titles. To these dancers I say: Consider that you may owe it to yourself and your audiences to reach for a little more education, so that you, too, can "walk like an Egyptian."
* "Little Egypt" by Ray Stevens
Ready for more?
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