[16 April 2007]
I was in Adelaide on Sunday night, walking to the Womad exit gate after the last show of the festival (it was Huun-Huur Tu, quacking like the kind of Tuvan deer that quack) when I came across a small circle of drummers. If you’ve ever been to Womad in Adelaide then you’ll know that circles of drummers are nothing unusual. It’s one of those places where people whip out their djembes at the drop of a hat. If they don’t have a drum handy then they bang on a cup, or on the ground, or they clap.
Anyway, there was a drum circle. Standing close to this drum circle was a woman who had begun belly dancing in time to the drums. She was in an ordinary black t-shirt and jeans but she had a belt of coins attached to metal loops around her waist and this belt would twitch and jingle as she moved her hips. The overlapping coins jumped against one another: little, light circles, frail-looking. Her hip-bone jerked, the coins jumped, and so on. If I’d had The Belly and the Beat in my hands then I might have recommended it to her. It would make a good bellydancer’s album.
I suppose that isn’t a surprise. The row of women’s silhouettes dancing on the front cover gives it away. Once you flip open the case it becomes even less surprising. The label releasing The Belly and the Beat, Copeland International, spends a lot of time promoting a group called Bellydance Superstars, and the interior of Belly‘s packaging is given over to ads for DVDs titled American Bellydancer and Instructional Bellydance with Jillina: Level 3 next to a picture of Turbo Tabla’s last album, Bellydance Overdrive. Belly isn’t an intimate part of the Bellydance Superstars experience, but it’s a relevant adjunct.
Turbo Tabla itself is an Egyptian-born American named Karim Nagi. Nagi is chiefly a percussionist. On this album he plays the Egyptian tabla, the riqq, the bendir sagat, the dhola, the santur dulcimer, and the buzuq lute. He loops, he arranges, he remixes, he produces, he programs, he sequences. He does almost everything except sing, but there is not a lot of singing. Aboud Agha sings a traditional Egyptian song on “Ashoof Jamal”, and a traditional Andalusian one on “Imlal Ilaqdah”, while “Irrouh” is a remix of a song taken from an album by the Maryem Toller Ensemble, with Toller singing. That’s the end of the voices.
“Irrouh” is the only track on the album that seems anonymous, as if anyone had done it. It’s a taste of what Belly might have been if somebody other than the drummer himself had been in charge of his own remixing, looping, sequencing, etc. “Irrouh” is the sound of someone taking a tune that is already tidily complete and pulling it apart again. It sounds as if the original song has been imposed upon; it sounds lightweight and unnecessary.
For the rest of the disc Nagi seems to be working with his own raw material and the result is tight and natural. Much better. The light jingle of the sagat in “Stonecutter” bounces back against the deeper note of the tabla and the even deeper note of the club-backbeat. Nagi uses his knowledge of the traditional repertoire to give his tunes their shape. This is what makes the album interesting to bellydancers. It keeps the rhythms they need and updates the way the music is being performed. “Multiple East”, with its clap-and-switch electronic rattling and the sound of Alan Shavarsh Bardzebanian’s oud ringing profoundly in the depths of some beautiful pond, draws on the Turkish classical traditional of taksim improvisations. The tahteeb in the title of “Tahteeb Diesel” is a form of ceremonial battle performed by Egyptian men armed with long canes; these dance-fights are accompanied by drums and the noise of sharp piping. “Tahteeb Diesel” accordingly uses the drums and pipes and a rolling, ritualistic rhythm.
“Sanadi”, which has Nikolai Ruskin on a sinuous ney flute and very little non-acoustic input (aside from a low backbeat which is difficult to notice unless you stop and listen for it) is described as a “traditional Syrian” tune. “Samai Aryan” is “a juiced-up classic” that brings a clubby background squelch into a well-known maqam. Anyone who looks at the cover and wonders if they’re in for a set of club tunes with a vaguely Middle Eastern, but essentially uninformed flavour (from the “enriching” place that one of Copeland International’s other discs describes as “the Mystic East”) is in for happiness as their expectations are dashed, their worries undone.
I think my impromptu Womad bellydancer would enjoy The Belly and the Beat. It would give her opportunities to roll her hips horizontally and twitch them to the side, making the fragile coins jingle. The drummers in the drumming circle might take to it as well. Nagi likes the kind of call-and-response drumming that drumming circles thrive on. In “Banaat Turbo”, one drum rattles off a few notes, a different drum with a different tone rattles it back, and then the rhythm is picked up by a jingle. And the song, which is the last song on the album, ends with a drum-roll and a final slap, closing the thing off, very much how a circle of drummers might end their playing. Slap—that’s it—we’re finished—let’s go home—because it’s past midnight now and we have other things to do.