The Value of Internalizing Your Dance Music
by Amina Goodyear
posted September 2011
In 1965, there were no San Francisco stores devoted to selling Arabic music. In the grungy Tenderloin neighborhood downtown there was one very small and disheveled shop that sold 78 rpm vinyl recordings, vinyl 45s, and even the latest format known as LPs which played 33s! This record store was known to sell ethnic music, but the store was gated and locked due to the nature of the street: there were “winos” sleeping in doorways, drug addicts aimlessly wandering about, and heavily made-up prostitutes offering their services, attired in the skimpiest of skimpy, providing the local color and entertainment while the criminals, such as dealers, overdressed pimps and other riffraff kept you ultra-wary as you walked ever faster, wishing you had eyes in the back of your head! If you were fortunate enough to not be (or resemble) one of the above, the owner would let you into his shop. I was one of the blessed few allowed entrance and got to rummage through the dust and disorganization of the boxes and bins.
Rooting through the shop, I eventually found two records that were very promising. One even had a photo of a Belly dancer on the cover. The music listed was: Chiftetelli, Taqsim and Karsilamas. All this was good! This would provide music for practicing dance. Since there were no other ethnic records from Arabic countries in the store, these two records with the music of Turkey and Greece were a gold mine. These two records were superior to the music I had been using for practice because they were more correct and authentic culturally. I had been practicing with James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and whatever and whoever else happened to be on “American Bandstand”. At least it was foreign music nearer to the Arab countries.
By the end of 1965, I was able to land a job at the Bagdad Cabaret, in spite of the music I had been using for my practice sessions. The Bagdad musicians played Arabic music almost exclusively. Since my job consisted of three shows a night (45 minute sets), seven nights a week, immediately, I felt that I didn’t need to practice anymore…
Why, (I thought) I could just practice on stage!
All the music and songs played were exotic and new to me, and they conjured up many, many stories and mysteries in my imagination, in my mind and in my soul. The music mixed with the colors of the lights (everything from the passion of red to the coolness of the blue, to the eeriness of the "glow in the dark" emitted by the black light, with the steady twinkling of the golden flames given off by the candles set in their translucent red vases, added to the perfumes and incense that danced in the night creating a magic that remains with me today–almost 1/2 a century later!
If there was a heaven on earth, this was it! It was just a little garden, an oasis, away from the humdrum of ordinary life, and I was paid to dance there!
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I was certain that the musicians and my fellow dancers felt that way too. We all showed up every night, without fail, like the pony express–through rain and sleet and snow–and like marriage vows, through sickness and health, we were there. It couldn’t have been just for the money; it was a different time that had a very different work ethic.
In this garden, we also had our audience. They wanted to hear music from their homelands. They wanted to hear their language spoken and sung. They wanted to be in the garden also enjoying the magic without the pain and anguish or sadness of having left their homes for the "promised" land in America.
They would ask the musicians to sing certain nostalgic songs for them, and the musicians would comply. One exception was Fatma Akef who had a set dance routine with specified songs. For the most part, we dancers were on stage to provide additional visual magic as the musicians played the music and sang the songs that had been requested. Many of these songs are the ones still played and requested today. To know what the music sounded like in those days, you can search YouTube for Salateen al Tarab and you will get an idea of the songs and how they were delivered. There was a lot of "ya leily-ing" as well as "ya aini-ing" and almost a caterwauling of a general "mawaal", accompanying the lyrical agony:
- ya leil = oh night
- ya ain = pity me
- mawaal = non-rhythmic poetic vocal improvisation of a melancholy nature.
The first time I heard Salateen al Tarab (The Sultans of Tarab) it was on an audio cassette (even though they had a 7-volume album) and it was 1989. 1989 was the year I bought my red car that had a great sound system that could completely envelope me in sounds and memories. As I experienced deja vu listening to the Sultans, I physically felt the tarab, (the ecstasy) inside and outside my body while my heart rate climbed. I recalled the memories of the music and the dance at the Bagdad. I cannot truly imagine how a lonely, displaced Arab could have felt at the Bagdad requesting songs of his home and youth, but it must have been the same as I felt in my car that day with the Sultans–but a thousand-fold.
Perhaps, I’m getting ahead of myself… Meanwhile, back at the Bagdad:
The customers were requesting songs; They were favorite songs, old songs, new hit songs and recently-released songs. Some of those just-released songs were “Enta Omri”, “Fakkarooni”, “El Hob Kulu” and “Daret el Ayam” by Om Kalthoum and “Sawah”, and “Gan al Hawa” by Abdel Halim Hafez. Those were the days! It was a very exciting time to be hearing new music almost as soon as it was released in its homeland! Lucky were we, who knew people who actually brought the music here in their suitcases. (Many weren’t that lucky to hear the music that soon and would have to wait.)
We heard of a man, Samir Khoury, who had a Middle Eastern grocery store at 23rd and Valencia St. in San Francisco, who sold Arabic records. So, I decided to shop for groceries, and see what I could find. I went to his store, told the shopkeeper that I heard he sold music records, and asked if I could buy any. He proceeded to lock up his store and take me two doors down 23rd Street to a storefront storage room. It was full of boxes of supplies for his grocery store and a few records.
"What kind of music?" he asked.
I told him “I want something by Umm Kalthoum."
"Are you a hippie?" he asked.
I said, "No! Why?"
"Only hippies who have gone to Morocco know who Umm Kalthoum is."
"Well," I told him, "I’m a belly dancer at the Bagdad Cabaret, and I want to know more about the music they play for my dance."
I ended up buying some music, including a 45-rpm copy of “Sawah”. That was the beginning of my friendship with Samir who eventually closed his grocery store to open Samiramis, San Francisco’s first and only Arabic music store, and this was the beginning of my desire (unfulfilled) to own every record in his store.
At the Bagdad, the musicians would continually play new music as different customers would make their special requests. Each week I made a list of my new current favorite songs with words that I couldn’t pronounce and music that I couldn’t hum. I would then faithfully and persistently trek to Samir’s to hang out. I am sure he thought I was nuts, but he listened to my bumbling mispronunciations and my out-of-key humming and sometimes hours later he would find or decipher what I had been searching.
After the Bagdad and the musicians, he was my music teacher and my mentor. He never lost patience with my endless questions about words and music and introduced me to his favorite songs, singers and composers.
Having Samir as an ally was a fortunate asset. If I was looking for music with a certain theme or feel for creating a choreography (especially with a folkloric theme) he would endlessly and relentlessly search through stacks and stacks of records in order to find just the perfect musical interludes for my dance projects. If he didn’t have the music I needed or wanted to study, he would order it for me.
Quite often customers at the Bagdad would ask the musicians to play a favorite Umm Kalthoum or Abdel Halim Hafez song. These songs were usually both sides of a record or at least 45 minutes long. The musicians would save this for the third part of our five part routine. The five part routine consisted of:
Various Spellings of
- entrance song,
- veil work
- dance part of show,
- floor work and
- the finale, including a drum solo and collecting tips that were shared equally with the band.
Therefore, if someone asked for a song like “Alf Leila wa Leila”, we did not dance to a seven-minute instrumental piece; we danced to the complete song. This would be the approximately 45 minute epic, which would be used in the third or middle part of our show, or if it were “Enta Omri”, we would get the instrumental opening in our second section (the veil set) and then the singing section would mark the beginning of our third part.
We dancers sometimes were allowed to choose the music for our sets, but it was always preempted when a customer requested something else. "The customer is always right!" or possibly we dancers were only there to provide a little "eye candy".
The club had to compete with the dancers on "the street" who performed topless, bottomless–and then some–in the other clubs along Broadway.
Performing as a second-rate citizen such as this, was not always fun, but it did provide a great musical education in a perfect learning situation. The dancer would learn to dance to just about anything while being the consummate entertainer, simultaneously being introduced to many songs she otherwise might never have discovered otherwise.
As I previously mentioned, many of these songs are still the ones played and requested today.
When the "Big Three Singers” died in the middle seventies (Umm Kalthoum, Farid el Attrache, and Abdel Halim Hafez), we were left with a great emptiness over the airwaves, and after the demise in the ‘80s and the ‘90s of Riyad al Sombati, Abdel Wehab and Baligh Hamdi, (composers for Umm Kalthoum as well as Abdel Halim and Warda among others) there was yet another tremendous musical void. It is no small wonder that the songs I danced at the Bagdad decades ago are still the ones most requested and played today. We can’t seem to replace those musical giants. Do we even want to replace them?
Today, when I go to a dance competition or Belly dance festival, if I am not hearing pop, fusion, or that now-all-too-often non-Arabic music with English lyrics, chances are that I am hearing music written for Abdel Halim Hafez, Umm Kalthoum and Warda (who was married to Baligh Hamdi). Recently I was at a dance festival with non-stop dancing on stage from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Aside from the aforementioned other types of music, I believe that music written by the three above composers for Om Kalthoum was played so often that I doubt if anyone could keep track. Talking to my friend, Debbie Smith, who was stage manager for the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival, I heard pretty much the same thing. Songs for Om Kalthoum, Warda and Abdel Halim Hafez were in highest demand.
It would be nice for the dancer to know all the different sections of the epic song in order to know to request possibly an alternate or additional section for her dance. Besides the lyrics there are many other musical interludes within the long song that are incredibly beautiful, interesting and rhythmically or emotionally challenging. However, in the end, it is the poetry that is truly magnificent and poignant.
Many times it is the singing after the introductory instrumental that is so meaningful and expressive. This is usually not what is offered in many Belly dance CDs. Fortunately, there are some fine exceptions. My favorite exception is the CD produced by Mahmoud Fadl called "Umm Kalthum 7000", sung by Selma Abou Greisha. If I were to be stranded on a desert island, this surely would be a CD I would need to have for my survival!
Today if a dancer asks for “Alf Leila wa Leila”, the musician may ask her which part she wishes to dance. If the dancer doesn’t specify which part, she may get a part that she doesn’t know or may not even know that it is part of the same song. The big difference between now and then is that then the dancer would usually dance to (and get passionately involved with) the entire hour-long song. Now if a dancer dances to the same song, unless she specifies to the musician the section she wants, she may only get the first musical section. This means she dances to about 6 or 7 minutes of a 40 to 60 minute piece.
Today, it seems that all the best and favorite Belly dance songs are actually hit songs of the singers, composers and lyricists from days long past. In the Arab world, the songs of bygone days are kept alive because they are covered by all genres of singers from the traditional singers such as the Salateen al Tarab, to the popular singers from Nour Mhana to Nancy Ajram and even the singers of Shaabi and the DJs who create quite unique vocal loops.
These songs are still the ones played and requested today. Arabic classics are here to stay!
We need not be "a hippie who went to Morocco" to know and love this music. We may not have a Middle Eastern club owner, musician, or shopkeeper to help us understand and find the music we buy. However, through the Internet, we can learn about and find the origins of the music we use and learn the translated lyrics of the songs. I believe this will make us better dancers.
Thanks to the Internet, and because of it, we dancers no longer have an excuse for ignorance. We owe it to ourselves to do a little research.
Stay tuned for more about dancing to Umm Kalthoum!
Ready for more?
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