Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Arabic Music: An Intro

Like many Western dancers who discover Arabic music and dance in their 20s, 30s, and beyond, I didn't have much exposure to Middle Eastern music growing up. It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s and started taking belly dance classes that I began to regularly hear and learn about this rich, beautiful musical tradition.

Growing up, I was a classically trained violinist and studied Western musical theory for around a decade, and as such I was very familiar with Western scales and octaves. I thought this was the only "organizational" format that music could exist in. Ha! Turns out that was definitely wrong. In fact, it rather blew my mind learning that Arabic music employs its own tone system. (That U.S. education, or at least mine, isn't more culturally encompassing is a topic for a whole other blog post...) I certainly won't claim to be an expert on this topic, nor is this post going to dive into a full blown discussion of Arabic musical theory, but here's a brief introductory explanation.

To start with, let's do a quick review of Western scales for comparison purposes. In Western music theory, octaves are divided into a series of 12 tones, which comprises a chromatic scale. Each interval or movement up the scale is a half-step or semitone. When music is played, it is played in a certain pitch, or key signature, to indicate which eight notes will comprise the scale. An eight octave scale has a pattern of whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. If that's not making sense, think about singing Doe a Deer from the Sound of Music in your head.

Classical Arabic music, as well as Ottoman, Persian, and Indian music, take this one step farther. Instead of only dividing down to just a semitone, these musical traditions make use of quarter tones. Just like the name sounds, a quarter tone is half the size of a semitone. And thus in the Arab tone system an octave divides down into 24 divisions, instead of just 12. From those 24 tones, seven are selected to produce a scale. From there, the specific notes used in a piece will come from one or more of 70 modes or maqam. A maqam, which translates as location or position, is a system of melodic modes that is built on a scale, which in turn, defines the pitches and patterns of a piece of music. This ultimately sets the structure for a musician to be able to improvise music. Whew! Interesting and complicated stuff!

Moving away from musical theory, it's also important to note that Arabic music utilizes many instruments not frequently, if ever, seen in Western music. The most common of these include the oud which a form of lute, the qanun which is a zither, the ney which is a type of flute, and the riq and dumbek which are types of drums. This is not any way an exhaustive list, as there are many more types of instruments, especially as one gets into folkloric styles of music.

And lastly to say a word about rhythms. Rhythms are an important part of Arabic music and dance. Rhythms can commonly be associated with certain geographic locations and cultures. For example the Sa'idi rhythm originating from an area in Egypt that runs along the Nile of the same name. Rhythms that you will hear commonly danced to by belly dancers include masmoudi, ayub, malfouf, maqsum, beledi, sa'idi, and chiftetelli. A well-trained, well-versed, and well-educated dancer should be familiar with all of these rhythms.

There is of course, so much more to be said and to learn about this topic, but that is your very quick intro and I hope it inspires you to learn more!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Don't Forget Your Mask!

It's the new thing, the new normal. When you feel your house you have to don a mask or face covering.

Wearing a mask might not be the most enjoyable thing ever: it can make you feel overheated on warm days, lead to undesirable breakouts ("maskne"), fog up your reading glasses, and generally be a pain trying to remember when you leave your house. But hey, if you got to do it, might as well try to make it a bit more agreeable.

So here's my nod to having a bit of fun with our new mask couture. Photos by Fred Dimaano.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Find Your Big Magic

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, and here's what I thought of it:

Absolutely wonderful inspirational advice.

If you are pursuing any kind of creative passion, at any kind of level, read this book. It's such a refreshing take on the creative process.

In short, Big Magic is the ideology of freeing artistic endeavors from labeling or valuing them by external quantifiers, such as money, fame, awards, recognition, status, and the like, and admonishes to instead purse creativity for creativity sake. For the joy that it brings. Let the ego go, and let the heart take over. Stop worrying about what others think and how they see your artistic expression, and allow yourself to fall in love with your personal passion all over again.

I know there have been times in my belly dance career where I definitely felt this way. I felt pressured to land a new restaurant gig, make a troupe audition cut, or win a competition. I was valuing my art and my enjoyment in it based on what other people thought, based on what external value was being assigned to it. And you know what? It was a sure fire way straight to a dead end for enjoying what I was doing. It was killing my art, my creativity, my soul, and my spark. 

Gilbert is also a big proponent of keeping your day job, so that you can take the pressure off your art form as a means of paying your bills. I completely agree with this. There was a time when I wanted to be a full-time artist, but not anymore. By letting my day job cover my expenses, I have the freedom to selectively choose which people and projects I want to work with, and which I don't. The projects that light me up get the green light, and the rest get left behind without causing any financial anxiety. 

Gilbert also introduces this incredibly cute, but also incredibly resonate idea that creative ideas are these sentient forms of energy, floating around in space, just waiting to find the right human being so that a magical collaboration can be entered into. What is the trick to catch one of these magic ideas? You have to be listening. You have to be open with your receiving antennae on and tuned into the creativity vortex. That's how you find your magic.

If you are feeling stale, stuck, bored, or uninspired by the things that used to bring you joy, this is the book for you. If you feel shot down by rejection, pride wounded by criticism, this is the book for you. If you just need more magic in your life, this is the book for you. I highly recommend that all artists and creatives add this to their reading list.

I will leave you with this powerful quote from the book. "I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it's merely my ego that wants revenge, or to win the biggest prize. It is merely my ego that wants to start a Twitter war against a hater, or to sulk at an insult, or to quit in righteous indignation because I didn't get the outcome I wanted. At such times, I can always steady my life once more by returning to my soul. I ask it, "And what is it that you want, dear one?" The answer is always the same: "More wonder, please."

Yes, more wonder. Free yourself. Free your art. Embrace wonder.