Ihsan Al-Mounzer &
Jalilah's Raks Sharki 6,
In a Beirut Mood:
Pure Delight of Oriental Dance

(Piranha, 2003)

Despite what you may have heard from the Taliban, Middle Eastern dance music has a long and honorable history. Its use in temples, at royal courts, at weddings and as popular entertainment goes back at least a few thousand years. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks wrote of body movements suspiciously like those of modern bellydancing -- as the West has inelegantly come to call it. Serious modern practitioners are more likely to call it Raks Sharki, or Oriental Dance. Whatever you call it, it is based on exotic and sensual music, filled with complex rhythms and catchy melodies. The Middle Eastern feel and instrumentation take some getting used to for listeners weaned on rock or rap, but it's worth the effort and the series of six Piranha Raks Sharki disks is a better place to start than most.

Ihsan Al-Mounzer arranged all and wrote most of the music for the eight tracks on the latest release. He has chosen a wonderful variety of instruments to play lead melodies from one selection to the next. The most immediately attractive pieces feature a swirling seven-piece string section. The sinuous sounding nay, or Arabic flute, is also a delight. (You'll need one if you ever find yourself in front of a cobra.) The mizmar adds color, appropriately less often, for it has an aggressive sound, along the lines of a steam-powered oboe. (I just calls 'em like I hears 'em.) The accordion is played in the style with great skill, but the track that features a duet for accordion and tabla (a small drum) goes on too long.

The Middle Eastern percussion is terrific on all tracks. Meters change frequently and are often more complex than the standard three- and four-beat rhythms of popular Western music. The sudden switches from faster to slower tempos are especially evocative as they make it easy to picture the dancer's gyrations becoming more deliberate and suggestive.

Raks Sharki is now a part of the heritage of various countries, many of which have added something of their own to the tradition. Each thoughtfully produced Piranha CD highlights particular countries and styles. The current release features music of Beirut and Cairo, the most influential of today's dance centers. The Jalilah of the release's title is a well-known Raks Sharki dancer and teacher who has lent her name to the series. Though she has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East, she was born in California. Perhaps Oriental Dance will begin competing with pilates and yoga at the Golden State's exercise centers -- not as farfetched an idea as you might think. The album notes include a quote from the Lebanese prophet, Kalil Gibran: "The philosopher's soul dwells within his head, the poet's soul dwells within his heart, the singer's soul dwells about his throat, but the soul of the dancer abides in all her body." Give this CD a try and beat Deepra Chopak to the punch.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 29 May 2004

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