Raks Sharki literally means Oriental Dance, what Americans know as “belly dance”, a misnomer carried on down from colonial days in the Middle East. Since the 1960s, “belly dance” has become tremendously popular in the U.S. with schools, workshops, festivals, new “tribal” offshoots, and performance gatherings. This phenomenon has been well covered by social scholars who also examine, for instance, the search for cultural identity among white salsa dancers and those of American bands playing Balkan music. While still in high school Jalilah, a woman of German and Mexican descent raised in California, was attracted to the sound of the mizmar (the double-reed instrument). That launched a lifelong career devoted to the study and practice of Raks Sharki involving research and much foreign travel, performance, and teaching others what she has learned. During this process, Jalilah gathered a band of musicians around her to perform while she danced. Is she popular? While it might be considered somewhat unusual for a dancer to put out a record, this is her second collaboration with Lebanese composer Ihsan Al-Mounzer and the sixth full-length album of the music created for her dance productions.
First off, this is the music of Raks Sharki, not the music of the form commercialized as nightclub “belly dance”. The long running opening piece is traditional to the dance performance, an introduction of the dancer to the audience. “Tales of the Sahara” caps out at 11 minutes, and exhibits many of the motifs expected of most opening dance numbers, which means heavy on the strings, expansive instrumentation which brings in elements of popular tunes, and unusually energetic to entice the interest of the crowd. These long presentations are also designed to show off a little bit of what the dancer can do, and so the music is broken into distinct movements. A third of the way through, there’s a particularly charming and mesmerizing interlude that mimics the sway of camels walking and the tinkle of their bells. Then the mizmar drops in with a hypnotic riff (the “snake charmer” sound popularized in film) and you’ll keep an eye on the lid of that basket in the corner in spite of yourself. Soon, the rhythm excites into a hip-shaking shimmying mode. These long musical introductions also acquaint the musicians to the audience, so each instrument is allowed a prolonged phrase for accent—which means an oud break as well as a tabla solo. The dramatic “Tales of the Sahara” was actually composed for a theatre play (starring the late Lebanese dancer Dani Boustros), but the structure naturally lends itself to being incorporated into dance performance.
What’s so endearing about In a Beirut Mood is that the music selection, rather than the nightclubby coin-jingling or the glitz and flash fare popularized throughout the U.S., honors the traditional forms that are still popular everywhere in Lebanon and Egypt. The drums and flutes (tabla, mizmar, and ney) are each accorded its own track, again to introduce the musicians and sound of their instruments. “Beirut Rhythms”, is devoted to showing the percussive skills of drummer Bassem Yazbek. Just hearing this long rhythmic groove, one which likely took years of time-consuming and devoted practice to carry off effectively, brings a completely different image of Beirut to mind other than the bullet riddled buildings once so popular on American news broadcasts. The high-pitched mizmar sounds a bit lonely on “Mizmar Jabali”, as if it is calling for other instruments to come play with it (which they soon do—who can ignore the mizmar for long?). Then the slow slap of tabla before a long soulful breathy excursion into the sounds of the nay on “Ali’s Nay”. Traditionally, this wood flute is associated with the fluid snake-like movements in dance.
When everybody gets together on the next track, it’s party time. “Lebanese Bouquet”, which contains the traditional folklore that might be found at a Lebanese wedding, is announced by the wail of the mizmar, a sound that always gets attention. Violins, drums, the sparkling rattle of finger cymbals, and voices sliding together in song soon unite before an oud adds accent to the vocal chorus. The song slips through four distinct movements, some so irresistibly happy and appealing that you’ll imagine the dancers as they spin. All the melodies were re-arranged by Ihsan Al-Mounzer so they can be danced to Raks Sharki style, and his are very complex arrangements.
“Rakset Banat Baladi” (“Dance of the Country Girls”) is described as a “conversation between the accordion and tabla”. The accordion hits minor and modal notes and ascends in stuttered climb in an undeniably Arabic sounding progression. This piece starts out slow and stately for the Egyptian baladi dance, then after six minutes the rhythm really picks up pace for the concluding two minutes. The opportunity to dance in another style is soon offered with “Kanoun Mood”, played entirely by the kanoun—a metal stringed instrument that sometimes sounds like a zither, other times like a dulcimer. The sustain and echo of the instrument and the long sounding brushes of the strings seems the perfect accompaniment for dancing in the kanoun style, which has many trembling and quivering movements.
Everybody gets down for “Al-Houriyah” (“The Fairy”), a 14-minute extravaganza that tells about those beautiful heavenly beings that live in Paradise. There is fascinating use of accordion here, as all the other pieces that feature Mohammed Haidar’s playing on this record. His work, though often in ensemble setting, is so stand out it can’t be ignored. Which makes me realize that I’ve never before been so conscious of accordion associated with the music of Raks Sharki.
Aside from the call for prayer from minarets and the sound of the oud growing more popular in the ‘60s, the most distinctly and recognizably “Arab sounding” music to the American ear is that made for Raks Sharki. The music on In a Beirut Mood is quite fantastic, providing a good cross section of styles and a learning experience that eases recognition of individual idiom. More than that, it’s a lot of fun. If there’s only one record devoted to Raks Sharki music in your collection, you’ll be happy with this, but it will always make you want to see Jalilah dance.
// Notes from the Road
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