various artists,
The Rough Guide to Bellydance
(World Music Network, 2002)

There are two things that need to be made clear at the beginning. First of all, there is actually no such thing as "bellydance." In the Middle East it is called either raqs sharki (Eastern dance) or raqs baladi (folk or popular dance). It is probably the word "baladi" that was misunderstood and rendered as "belly," an obvious reference to the characteristic gyrating movements of abdomen and hips in oriental dance styles. Secondly, there is also no bellydance music as such; some Middle Eastern music is just more suitable for dancing.

The title of the compilation CD under review must therefore be considered as more of a catch phrase than an accurate description of the featured music. That being said, however, the people involved in producing The Rough Guide to Bellydance have done an outstanding job with this selection of Middle Eastern music. The album contains a sleeve with highly informative notes by Algerian-born "renaissance woman" Amel Tafsout: anthropologist, language teacher, dancer, choreographer and professional storyteller, currently writing a doctoral dissertation on Sufism and the healing qualities of dance. The CD's 15 tracks bring together musicians from Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, some of whom are now resident in America or Europe.

The album contains three tracks by Jalilah (stage name of Lorraine Zamora Chamas), the driving force behind the Piranha label -- a prominent promoter of Eastern dance music. For the samples on this CD she has worked together with conductors like Ihsan al-Mounzer and Mokhtar al-Said. The opening number is a composition by unarguably the greatest composer of 20th-century Arabic music, Muhammad Abdel Wahab (1907-1991). It was written as a tribute to moviestar/dancer Tahia Carioca (or Abla Muhammad Karim 1915-1999). For many years Tahia was famous on Cairo's nightclub circuit and a much sought-after performer in Egyptian movies. Fusing western and oriental dancing styles she stood for a unique personal performance.

Underscoring the fact that there is no "specific" bellydance music is the cover of "Enta Omri." This is another classic by Mohammad Abdel Wahab, which he originally composed for the grande dame of Egyptian music, the legendary Umm Kulthum (1904(?)-1975), the "Star of the Middle East."

Ahmad Fouad Hasan's arrangement of "Dimashq" is the next impression of that typical Middle Eastern show music, which became famous in the 1940s and was performed by large orchestras. The track celebrates the reputation of Damascus as a center of culture. This Syrian city was the capital of the Arab-Islamic empire during the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), generally considered the "Golden Age" of the classical Arabic arts. Incidentally, Ahmed Fouad Hasan, an Egyptian musician, composer, conductor and producer of stage shows, was instrumental in launching the career of Nagua Fouad, the most popular bellydancer of the 1970s and '80s (they were even married for six years).

"Aament Bellah" is at the other end of the spectrum. This 12-minute composition features Mahmoud Fadl, a drummer of Nubian extraction. The Nubians are an ethnic group living in the border area between Egypt and Sudan; in their music, Africa and the Arab world meet. This is a sample of a more basic, simpler, even stern type of music, devoid of the "baroque dedadence" of great city orchestra music. It is music for on the banks of the Nile rather than the seraglio, primordial and sacred (the title translates as "under the protection of God"). On this CD Fadl plays also another Mohammad Abdel Wahab cover. Tango-like "Ana Wehabibi" is again signature Abdel Wahab, a merger between western-inspired harmony and Middle Eastern instrumentation rendered with great panache.

My personal favorite of this album is a Turkish number by the ensemble Kemani Cemal Cinarli. Titled "Kirkpinar Ciftetelli," it draws its inspiration from the musical scene in Istanbul's Sulukule district. This neighborhood in the old Ottoman capital was known for its Gypsies and bellydancing. On this particular track the two seem to have merged and the result is a melancholic, plaintive sound with an intricate eight-beat rhythm.

The Rough Guide to Bellydance further features Lebanese-Armenian Setrak Sarkissian on tabla, Lebanese buzuq player Mohamed Matar, two pieces by the Egyptian percussionist Reda Darwish, daringly innovative compositions of Armando El Mafuf and Rabih Abou-Khalil, and a subdued spiritual performance by Turkish flutist Omar Faruk Tekbilek.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 8 March 2003

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