Posted on 04/10/2021 by Kay Taylor
Yasminas Top 5 Songs
By Yasmina of Cairo
The first Arabic music that ever impacted on my consciousness was a lush, melodious song by Farid el Attrache, ‘El Rabeih’ (Spring), which I heard, not in Egypt, but Morocco, when I was on holiday there as a photography student in the 1980’s. Wandering through the market place of Marrakesh, or listening to the radio while traveling by car, Egyptian music and songs formed the soundtrack to that holiday. Why not Moroccan music? Because Egypt has been exporting music across the Arab world from the earliest days of recording, and all Arab-speaking countries, from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf and the Levant, have absorbed Egypt’s musical legacy. Before leaving Morocco, I stocked up on a whole bag of audio cassettes and took them back to London, where I played them non-stop while driving, at home, and in my photographic studio with bemused fashion models wondering why I wasn’t listening to Depeche Mode or the Human League instead.
Of course at the time I had no idea of the origin of the music. Farid el Attrache meant nothing to me, nor Oum Kulthoum, nor Abdel Halim Hafez. My education began when I started taking belly dance classes and began to learn movements to interpret the music I was already in love with. Early on I was also directed to the world of early Egyptian cinema, which I instantly adored. Already a Hollywood classic movie buff, it was a joy to me to discover a parallel film world with so many of the same elements, but accompanied by all these wonderful new sounds.
Listening to ‘El Rabeih’ now, I still get a flash of that original feeling, and in hindsight I can analyze what it was that drew me. Farid el Attrache was a prolific composer and wrote his own songs, as well as those of other artists that performed in the films he starred in. The 1949 ‘Afrita Hanem’, which features ‘El Rabieh’ as a lavish set piece with Samia Gamal and a chorus of back-up dancers, was one of the most iconic musicals of the period. The closing theme is a waltz, something easily accessible to the Western ear. But also that lilting melody, the lushness of the violins – it all carried me away in a swooping wave towards the ‘otherness’ of this new world I was being seduced by.
Many dancers I know have spoken of their first musical crushes in their journey into Egyptian dance. I strongly believe that if you don’t truly love the music, you will never achieve your potential as a dancer. Because belly dance is also basically a solo dance (group numbers not withstanding), that fortunately means you can indulge in your own personal tastes on stage. You can make your own choices – even when dancing to live music – and let that passion for the song bring strength and emotion to your performance. Also, since Egyptian music covers such a wide range of styles, different aspects of your personality and technical abilities can be explored by using contrasting choices. Feeling soulful? A classic piece by Oum Kulthoum, or something quiet and moody by Sherine, will help you express it. Feeling earthy and a bit exhibitionist? A shaabi or maharaganat song could be just the thing. Or if you are wanting to go deep into a complex range of technique, show off with a spectacular mejancee!
Exploring and internalizing different styles of Egyptian music takes time, and trying to negotiate your way through lists of names without being able to put them in any context can be bewildering. Physically living within the culture of the music – in Egypt – obviously made this process easier for me, and in fact my education was organic, in that I learned about songs, singers and musical history, through performing to live music. I let my band suggest things to me. I’d listen to them rehearse, then go away and find the original source of that music, in a movie, or on a cassette, to gain some context. Often the movie clip would influence how I would perform it. I learned which songs were considered good choices for dancers to use on stage, and which were avoided. I remember getting my musicians to rehearse Oum Kulthoum’s ‘Leylet Hob’ (Night of Love) which they did without their normal enthusiasm, and then performing it, only to be told disparagingly by another dancer that ‘it’s just one of those songs that doesn’t work for the audience.’ Until this day I haven’t been able to figure out why; perhaps it is just down to trends.
It is worth noting that since the 1990’s when I first began performing in Cairo, those choices have really changed a lot. A song such as ‘Befaker fe el Nasini’ (I Remember Those that Forgot Me), by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, was considered a singer’s song, not a dancer’s. Yet ten or fifteen years later it was seized upon as a party piece by a new generation, and I myself recorded it on a dance album (‘El Warda’). Anything with a waltz in it (such as my first inspiration ‘El Rabieh’) was a non-starter – and to be honest even now, the waltz is not considered a dancer’s rhythm in Egypt. But nowadays these ‘rules’ or trends have largely been tossed aside, partly due to more and more dancers trawling through back catalogues of lesser-used songs for something different. Even I was quite surprised when Safaa Farid (who has sung on the albums of numerous dancers producing dance versions of classics) recorded ‘Rissela min Taht el Maya’ (Message from Under the Sea), for Karim Gad, an Egyptian dancer living in France. It’s an Abdel Halim Hafez classic never used by dancers until now.
In my opinion, use of some of these highly complex but not always obvious choices of songs by dancers today, reflects an increasingly sophisticated embracing of dance technique. To interpret a musically complex song with multiple rhythm structures and lyrical content, you need a lot of experience and great confidence in your ability! Across the globe, dancers from many disciplines who have fallen in love with Egyptian style, are bringing their own strengths to bear in this regard. Performing to sophisticated and challenging music is an exhilarating way to show off your talent.
Of course the advantage of re-recording classic songs with dance in mind is producing them accordingly – for example adding a tabla when there was once only a req, and making the tabla more prominent generally. Or shortening really long classics with different sections into manageable lengths with just the sections you want. BUT – and I say this as someone who has produced seven full CD’s, including many original commissioned tracks, for belly dancers – it is also really important that dancers wanting to know their way around Egyptian singers and composers, listen to the originals. As belly dance music producers, most of us have a limited budget, and producing the kind of full orchestral sound that was used to record most of the classics is way too expensive. This is not so important when you re-record a baladi track, but it makes a huge difference when you try to recreate a piece by Baligh Hamdi or Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
The ‘Singers and Composers for Belly Dance’ course on the JWAAD Teachable site is designed specifically for dancers to learn their way around a contextual understanding of the kind of original music used in belly dance. It covers a broad range of styles, and attempts to put them in structural framework chronologically, and laterally, so you can see the progression in classical, shaabi and folkloric over the last century.
As a bit of a teaser to give an insight into the course, I’ve chosen five of my all-time favourite tracks (in no particular order) that have had an impact on my personal belly dance journey. All of them feature singers and/or composers that are listed in our compilation. Of course when I was coming up with the list I realized there are bound to be other peoples’ personal favourites that slipped between the cracks. So the list is not definitive, but one thing is sure: any dancer acquainted with the majority of these artists named in the course, will be able to consider themselves knowledgeable about the range, history and influence of music from the Arab world on belly dancers.
YASMINA’S TOP FIVE
1) Es-el Rouhak (Ask Your Soul) Composed by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, sung by Oum Kulsoum
When I first came to Egypt, I believed myself somewhat acquainted with the most famous songs of Oum Kulthoum. I had performed versions of some of them (Leylet Hob as mentioned above, Inta Omri, Ana Fintizarek and others) on CD and with house bands in different countries for years. But this one, Eshel Ruhak, seemed new to me, and I was blown away by the sheer drama of it. Perhaps it arrived to my ears at a time that I was responding emotionally to the whole experience of where I was and who I was with, and the heart-stopping weeping of the violin solo gave me goose-bumps. To me this song carves a direct route to some of the most emotive aspects of Egyptian music. It is composed mostly in the hogaz maqam (or key), which is famous in Egypt as it is also the maqam of the Adan, or call to prayer. Rising from a low note, it conjures a feeling of building dread somehow. And when I learned the meaning of the lyrics I began the process of integrating the emotion of the music with something tangible in the emotion of the words.
Your betrayal of me affected me
And I changed bit by bit
I changed, and it wasn’t in my hands (i.e. I had no control over it)
And I began to bury my tenderness for you
And hate my weakness and patience for you
And I chose to go far (from you), and became stubborn
I was even able to desert you
And you, oh my darling
If you were in my place,
What would you have done differently?
Ask your soul
2) Ahwaak (I Adore You) Composed by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, sung by Abdel Halim Hafez
This is the ultimate dreamy love song that begins in classic movie mode at a grand piano, wafts you away on a melting cushion of oriental rumba, before lifting sharply into a dramatic rhythm shift and a soar of violins. A classic composition of Mohamed Abdel Wahab (you can learn more about his important contribution to Egyptian music in the course), it switches from the western to the Arabic scale halfway through, and is a great example of Abdel Wahab’s embracing of western orchestral music. The second half of the song builds slowly, gaining tension until it gives again, returning to the western scale and easing back into a soft ending. This is a wonderful song to just listen to, though when the oriental rhythms begin I defy you to stay still in your seat!
I loved this song so much I not only re-recorded it, but also featured it in a stage show (Spirit of Egypt) in both the UK and South Africa (2013), with a group of ballroom dancers paring up to interpret the rumba.
3) Kitab Hayati (The Book of My Life) Composed by Yousef Taaha, Sung by Hassan Asmar
Picture the scene: four am in a Cairo cabaret, the air dense with shisha smoke and customers waving their whisky glasses in time to the slow beat of the mazhab – some of them moved to step onto the stage and sway, others letting themselves fall into the sentiment of the lyrics, a charged mix of tragedy and excitement.
‘The book of my life, I’ve never seen a book like it. There are two lines of joy, and the rest is suffering!’ To deliver this brilliant shaabi lyric requires a classic shaabi voice: rough, powerful and with a break and a catch in it that heaps on the pathos.
This song for me captures the feel of live shaabi at its best, and Hassan Asmar, like Ahmed Adaweya, was a king of shaabi, but rightly or wrongly it was my impression that while Adaweya was a showman, Hassan Asmar had more gravitas. In contemporary Cairo, Ahmed Sheba, singer of the recent hit ‘Law La-ebt el Zahr’ (What if the Dice were Rolled ) is a natural descendent of this style of shaabi, and it is interesting to compare the two. ‘Kitab Hayati’ has been covered by many shaabi singers, but also by Lebanese star Georges Wasoof, whose gravelly voice (roughened, some say, by cocaine) was a perfect match.
Structurally I love the way the song begins with a killer vocal mawal, moves into a deep masmoodi, and then suddenly, just when you are immersed in that mesmeric rhythm, stops and kicks into a really fast maksoum, upping not just the tempo but the whole feel of the song, like a car that shifts gear and shoots down a race track. This is shaabi at its best for me; dark, melodically bluesy but exciting at the same time.
4) Maoula Di (Is this Possible?) sung by Shafika.
A new documentary that came out in early 2021 looks at the legacy of Shafika, referred to as the Oum Kulthoum of the Delta. Yet she is relatively unknown by the belly dance community, and even by many younger Egyptians. Very much a star in the rural shaabi communities of towns like Tanta and Mounira, she dominated the world of provincial baladi weddings until her death in 2011. When I first heard the song Maoula Di I was amazed at its rich musical arrangement – nothing like the kind of shaabi I’d been aware of until then. And that was when I began to understand that shaabi music could be complex, layered and sophisticated. I decided to record Ma-oula Di on my last CD, which was aptly named ‘Hayati’ (My Life) because I put on it many of the songs I’d most loved during my time on stage in Egypt. But actually it was a song I wish I’d used in my shows but never did. The original has such rich instrumentation that many workshop students have not identified it as shaabi at all. But you really only need to hear one note of Shafika’s voice (one that was hard to replicate with another singer) to identify its pure shaabi roots.
I also love the unequivocal lyrics which express disbelief at the fact that a lover has betrayed you and gone off with someone else. Its sense of outrage and hurt is so well expressed.
5) Fi Yum w’Leyla (In a Day and One Night) Composed by Beligh Hamdi, sung by Warda
Although some might cite Batwan Nasbeek as their favourite Warda track to dance to, Fi Yum w’Leyla is my choice. I listened to it quite indifferently for a long time when played by various bands, perhaps because it was over-used. And then, late in the day, I decided to play the whole of the original, the second and third parts of which are often missed out by dancers on stage. I was in love, and have recently used it – insisting on including those parts, which some musicians need to reacquaint themselves with. One thing I love about the old Warda classics is the seventies orchestration with its now vintage guitar sound. While during the eighties and nineties it seemed dated, to me it’s moved to the ‘classic’ stage. I think it would be quite difficult to recreate that sound now – certainly with a pared down oriental orchestra. But I particularly like the way you can shimmy to the electric guitar!
6) Tamally Ma-aak (I Am Always With You) Released 2000, Composed by Sherif Teg, Sung by Amr Diab
I am adding this as a postscript to my favourites list, even though is really isn’t a belly dance track. One of the biggest hits of the Arab world from arguably still its biggest pop star, it stands the test of time as a pop classic. It has a gorgeous melody and irresistible Spanish guitar – at the time a relatively new feature in Egyptian pop introduced by music composer and producer, Hamid el Shaeri (someone you can learn more about in the Course).This song was actually produced though by another star-making name in Egypt, Tarek Madkour. And of course it features the honeyed tones of Amr Diab, whose name and standing still towers above many newer successful singers in Egypt. Tamally Ma-aak uses a western scale, which makes it accessible to international audiences. A borderless crowd-pleaser, it’s a track for relaxing and unwinding – also great to play while driving in a warm climate with the wind in your hair!
You can subscribe to this course individually – or to our bellydance bundle ‘Bellydance Music Explored’. An in depth and fascinating musical journey.
Yasmina is not only one of our directors but has worked professionally as a dancer in Cairo for many years and understands the context of the dance and music. She teaches workshops on the international circuit and has a dancers BnB in Cairo. Yasmina brings a depth of knowledge to all her work.