Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Five Songs Every Belly Dancer Should Know

If you want to be a Middle Eastern dancer, you need to be familiar with Middle Eastern music.  Thus this week we are going to explore five classic songs every belly dancer should know.  This post isn’t intended to be a list of the five most important songs per se, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but we are sticking with five for purposes of simplicity.  If are you just getting your feet wet with Middle Eastern music, these five songs will be a good jumping off point for you to start discovering more on your own.

There's a couple names that you'll hear repeatedly over and over again below, so I want to say a few words about those individuals before we go any further. The first is the composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Wahab was born in 1902 in Cairo and indelibly left his mark on Egyptian music.  During his lifetime, he was not only a composer, but also a singer, poet, and oud player.  He was known for, and even at times criticized for, incorporating western rhythms into his music.  Wahab worked closely with and composed 10 songs specifically for our second artist of importance, the legendary Oum Kolthum. 

Kolthum is quite arguably the greatest Arabic female singer of all time.  She was born in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra, and it's uncertain as to whether she was born in 1898 or 1904.  The 1940s and 1950s are known as her golden eras of singing.  During this time, Kolthum had a monthly radio concert.  These concerts were epic events lasting hours at a time, and they could clear the streets of bustling cities as residents rushed home to hear her broadcast. Kolthum is known for her exacting vocal control and emotive vocal impact, and her songs frequently touched the universal emotions of love, loss, and longing.

Alright, let's see how these individuals, as well as others, collaborated to produce our five songs of the week. Hundreds of versions by various musicians have been produced over time for each of these pieces.  To help newer listeners navigate, I've also included a suggested version that I've enjoyed using in my classes, performing to, or both.

One of the most recognizable Middle Eastern tunes of all time.  This song was composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and made famous in the 1955 movie of the same name, when it was first performed to by Naima Akef. You can check out the video clip from the movie below.

Version to Try: Aziza (Arabic Popular Music Instrumental) from the album Oriental Guitar - Turkish & Arabic Music Instrumentals by Rashed el Youssef

Alf Leyla Wey Leyla
Another instantly recognizable melody.  This piece was composed by Baligh Hamdi and sung by the legendary Oum Kolthum.  The original song is over 40 minutes long, with the singing starting shortly after eight minutes in.

Version to Try: Alf Leyla, Wa Leyla from the album A Tribute to Om Kalsoum by The Cairo Orchestra

Leylet Hob
Another one by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, written especially for Oum Kolthum. The clip below shows the famous Soheir Zaki dancing to the piece.  Listen closely and you'll hear that Wahab specialty of mixing Western rhythms into the piece as well.

Version to Try: Leylet Hob from the album 10 Songs Every Belly Dancer Should Know by Andelus Ensemble

Enta Omri
A hauntingly beautiful song by again the same dynamic duo team of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Oum Kolthum.  This was another song that was a long one, originally about 40 minutes.  Entra omri means "you are my life" and the lyrics are a soulful love song. Shira's website includes an extensive translation.  The clip below is just a piece of the original, but I like that it displays the translation as she's singing.

Version to Try: Enta Omri from the album The Rough Guide to Bellydance by Jalilah and featuring Mokhtar Al Said

Give you one guess on who composed this one? Yup, it's another Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Zeinah means "the beautiful", and it shot to popularity when it was danced to by the beautiful Samia Gamal in the 1956 movie Zanouba.

Version to Try: Zeinah from the album House of Tarab by House of Tarab

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I Took My First Class, Now What?

I took my first belly dance class, now what?

In addition to the obvious - that you should sign up for your next class! - here are a few recommendations that I would make to new students looking to continue their exploration of Middle Eastern dance.

Invest in a quality pair of zills.  Zills in Turkish, zagat in Arabic, or finger cymbals in English, a well-rounded belly dancer should learn to play these.  I played on my crappy beginner zills for far too long, and when I finally purchased a nice pair, it was like night and day.  Playing a quality musical instrument with proper tone and balance will help ease the learning curve. I highly recommend Saroyan zills. They do sell student zills which are a bit smaller and lighter, but I say just go ahead and get the normal-sized pro ones now.

Go see a live show. Live shows are great for inspiration and education.  Seeing how the pros do it will not only motivate you to practice harder, but it's a great learning tool for seeing first-hand the different segments of a show, as well as how the dancer interprets the music and interacts with the musicians. One of my favorite places to take in a show is at the monthly House of Tarab House Concert, held in the home of legendary dancer, Delilah, in Fremont. It's an intimate setting, where you are up close and personal with the band and dancers. Every time I've been, the performances have been phenomenal.  Next show is on April 18th and you can find the Facebook invite and details here.  There is also live music and dance starting at 8pm on both Friday and Saturday nights at Harissa Mediterranean Cuisine in Ravenna. On Friday nights, the music is played by George Sadak and friends, and on Saturdays it's the MB Orchestra. I highly recommend either night.

Study up on YouTube.  Can't make it to a live show right now? Then take some time to do the next best thing and watch dancing on YouTube. With so much material posted onto YouTube these days, it can be a very valuable learning tool for comparing and contrasting different styles of the dance, as well as the added treat of being able to see videos of Egyptian stars of former decades.  Not sure where to start? I keep a Pinterest board of some of my favorite YouTube clips.

Pick up a practice DVD. Even if you are signed up for a class, I still recommend this. Most students only have the time and money to take one class per week. But if you really want to make progress, you'll need to practice on your own as well. When you are first starting out, it can be difficult to know what to practice on your own. This is where a DVD can be really helpful. I wrote a blog post about some of my favorite DVDs awhile back in case you'd like to see my recommendations.

Buy a silk veil.  In addition to zills, veil is the other staple prop of belly dance. I whole-heartedly support silk as the way to go. I have seen veils of other materials, including tricot, chiffon, or satin/sateen sold, often coming as part of a set with a matching skirt. But none of these fabrics have the beautiful, lighweight mesmerizing float of a silk veil. Two of my favorite retailers for silk veils are Fairy Cove and Amiras Belly.