Middle Eastern Dance Music
The sounds that charm our ears
Derive they melody from rolling spheres,
But Faith surpasses the boundaries of doubt,
And see what sweetens everything.
When life began its early times,
We heard the angles sing.
Our memory, though dull and sad, retains
Some echo still of heaven.
Music is the meat of all who love,
Music uplifts the soul to realms above.
The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:
We listen and are fed with joy and peace.
RUMI, in "The illustrated Rumi"
In the nineteenth century the West has been fascinated by the Orient. Through accounts of European travellers, North Africa (Algeria) and the Middle East (Egypt, and Turkey) reflected the fashionable orientalism of that time and became a realm of exotic sensuality and eroticism.
Western writers and artists found relief from their own society's moral austerity in what the French colonials referred to as la Danse du ventre, which was the name given to the female dance form of North Africa and the Middle East; whereas Americans called it the Abdomen dance or the Stomach dance before settling on the term Belly dance.
In Arabic raks means "dance", raks al baladi can be translated as "the dance of the people" or "country dance". Egyptian people call it raks ash sharki (Oriental or Middle Eastern dance). The English term Belly dance is supposed to have been a misunderstanding of the word baladi (country).
Unfamiliar with this kind of dance, Westerners focused their attention on the performer's pelvic movements, although the dance is seen in the Middle East more as sensually evocative than provocative. On the trip up the Nile in 1850, The French writer Flaubert was fascinated by a dancer called Kutchuk Hanem (meaning in Turkish "little princess"). He describes her as "... A regal-looking creature, large breasted, fleshy (...)"
An American journalist saw the same dancer's performance, he writes :" A curious wonderful gymnastic" in which every limb was animated with "the soul of passion... (...) She slowly turned upon herself (...) Marvellously convulsing all the muscles of her body ...
In time with the music ... Kutchuk fell upon her knees and writhed, with body, arms and head upon the floor, still in measure ... ".
In 1893, a World's Fair took place in the industrial Chicago. The Worlds Columbian Exposition, commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World was the first international exposition to feature a separate area of entertainment. The most popular attraction were Dancing girls in colourful traditional costumes from North Africa and the Middle East ( Algeria, Syria, Turkey Egypt and Palestine). The dancer called Little Egypt performed there. She has been a dance star who caused sensation and saved the financially troubled exposition from ruin. She is said to have shocked and scandalized the audiences in Chicago. She inspired a host of imitators, who introduced the dance into burlesque shows.
In the first decade of the twentieth century a new entertainment for developed in North Africa and the Middle East. Night clubs and variety shows imitated their Western counterparts and sprang up to meet the demands of the colonial rulers and Western tourists. The "Oriental" shows, featuring the Danse du centre contained many show elements from the West. By the 1920 Egypt established itself as the centre of the film, exporting films to the whole Arab World. Cabaret dancing especially performed by the Egyptian dancing stars, such as Tahia Cariocca, Samia Gamal and later Nagua Fouad, Mona Said, Fifi 'Abou,etc ...
The development of the Western cabaret costume brought a big change to the more traditional dance costume which became more "orientalized" and inspired by Hollywood Films, with glitter, beads and pearls. This orientalized version, introduced into Egypt by dancers and early American movies greatly influenced the Egyptian film industry in the 1930 and gradually was introduced into Egyptian nightlife. Several music halls and theatres flourished in Cairo; dancers performed in restaurants and night clubs to attract more tourism.
In the West women discovered the female ancient dance form, which helped them to accept themselves. The healing energy of this dance enabled to every woman to enjoy her body and still be connected to her soul. In the 70s the USA saw the blossoming of belly dance schools and shows all over the country. Since the 80s this dance spread to the many American countries, Asia (Japan) and Europe. In Germany there is a dance studio in every town and village. Westerns women learned the skills of this sensual dance and made of it their own.
Furthermore an important still existing circuit has always bee wedding in the Middle East and Africa, where dance is a celebration of happiness. A shawl tied around their hips Arabic women share the joy of dancing together.
It is still not clear how to call this dance as many dancers do not agree with the term "Belly dance" as the various reasons of dancing gave birth to different styles. For some dancers "Belly dance" is limiting it to a sexual connotation and does not include the healing part of it such as for pregnancy, or the spiritual quality, such as the Goddess aspect.
"Belly - Baladi - Oriental - Raks as sharki - Middle Eastern - Arabic - Bedouin - Tribal - What ever its name, this dance will always be important for the communication between the dancer and the drummer . The dance can only be expressed through music, it is how the dancer can feel already connected and uplifted. In Arabic dance there is a very strong dialogue between the dancer and the drumming, as if the dancer creates the rhythm and the rhythm itself the movements. The drumbeat: this cosmic vibration, like the heart beat, makes the power of the drum; it makes it possible for us to integrate the spiritual with the physical. Originally, all rituals were danced; body and mind were set in motion as a unity.
Music is made of sound and rhythm which create the melody. Arabic music is based on scales (maqaam, pl. maqamaat) and on improvisation (taqsim, pl.taqasim). This enable each musician to have the free space in that frame to improvise in having an instrumental solo.
However Contemporary Middle Eastern music has been inspired by Western music which has been brought to the east through the colonisation. The traditional music group of four musicians developed to an orchestra integrating Western instruments such as, the violin, the piano, the electric organ and nowadays the keyboard, the electric guitar, the bass, accordion, Drum kit, the brass (saxophone, trumpet, Western flute) and even Scottish bagpipes.
Since the sixties many Western musicians, such as Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, and recently Sting discovered Arabic music, this gave the opportunity to Western ears to enjoy this soulful music but also to Middle Eastern singers and musicians to be worldly known and appreciated. A new collaboration, encouraged by the "World music" wave, gave birth to a new fusion of East -Western music.
By Amel TAFSOUT, London Dec.2002
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