Dance: Arabia, Turkey and Beyond

AAJ Staff By

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Maybe it's all the bellydancing, maybe it's the European immigrants, maybe it's just plain easier access to recordings... but Arabic and Middle Eastern music has seen a dramatic rise in popularity in the last few years in North America and Europe. Of course, the music of over twenty countries can never be distilled to any single essence, which is partly why this trend is so interesting. The main centers seem to be Turkey, Egypt and various ex-European colonies, all blessed with a variety of indigenous instruments and styles.

These three albums focus on music from Arabia and beyond that's perfectly suited to dance, from mambo and salsa to so-called "global fusion"—and yes, a whole lot of bellydance as well. The Rough Guide To Latin-Arabia collects a variety of Afro-Caribbean fusions with North African music, Think Global: Bellydance focuses on the latest dance trend, and Oojami's third record, Boom Shinga Ling, busts more than one nut in a quest for the perfect jam.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide To Latin-Arabia
Rough Guides

Even after the invaders from the south were mostly chased out of Iberia centuries ago, they left a stamp on Spanish music, especially in Andalusia. And because of geography and shared culture, plenty of connections between Africa and Spain have remained intact since then. So after the colonization of the New World, echoes of Afro-Latin music (most notably from the Caribbean and Cuba, but also from Mexico and Colombia) almost inevitably had to wash ashore in Arabia.

Much has been said about the inherent logic of New World music returning to Africa, seeing as how its black component was the product of African slave exports in the first place. But that line of thinking breaks down pretty quickly north of the Sahara, which is outside of black Africa and never was a source for those slaves in the first place. So the Latin hybrids of North Africa may better reflect the Spanish influence, both at home and via the New World, as well as the mass influx of recorded music (eg. Buena Vista Social Club).

One of the best recent examples of this sort of fusion is Sephardic Algerian pianist Maurice El Medioni, whose 2006 record Descarga Oriental dug particularly deep into the Afro-Cuban tradition. His appearance on this well-chosen, balanced collection of Latin-Arabian grooves—a representative track from that most invigorating recording—is a high point, but certainly not the only one.

This Rough Guide bundles Latin-Arabic music from all over North Africa, including mambo, salsa, cumbia, son and less readily identifiable influences, plus flamenco and Gypsy music. Certain features stand out: simmering grooves driven by congas, frame drums and darbukas alike; minor-key melodies and melismatic singing; and a serious call to get on the floor and dance.

Old-school mambo dancers can get started right away with Salamat's Nubian orchestral version of Perez Prado's "Mambo Number 5" (which exploded in Mexico in 1949, then oddly enough hit the UK charts exactly fifty years later). The next track, Egyptian singer Amr Diab's "Ya Nour El Ein" (aka "Habibi"), grooves hard with cumbia-ish guitars and accordion.

Prominent appearances by flamenco singers Benjamin Escoriza (one third of the excellent Spanish band Radio Tarifa) and Enrique Morente (an invited guest on another track) inject a couple of potent reminders of the lingering Spanish influence south and east of Cape Tarifa.

Overall, this is a very strong collection and a wonderful introduction to a virtual storm of hybrid invention (and reinvention) in Arabia.

Various Artists
Think Global: Bellydance
World Music Network

Right on time! It seems that bellydancing has sprouted like a weed all over the world, spurred on by the establishment of schools in Europe, the US, Latin America and Japan—and of most recent note, widespread touring of the popular (and incredibly hyped) Bellydance Superstars, whose 2007 schedule already includes over a hundred dates on four continents.

This sampler, mostly drawing from Egypt and Turkey, aims to stoke that fire by providing fifteen tracks of traditional and contemporary music which is ideally suited for bellydance. Whether or not you have mastered fully independent motor control of your hips, neck, shoulders, arms and legs, it's an enjoyable set without a single dud—though perhaps a bit on the slow side overall.

First, some background. Bellydancing is known in Arabic as "raqs sharki," meaning "dance of the Orient." (The English term was invented for the 1893 performance of Little Egypt at the Chicago World's Fair.) Its roots stretch back to pre-Islamic times, though eventually it became a specialized dance form practiced in harems, centered around feminine identity and fertility. As recorded music, radio, television and film have taken over the market and (some) Muslim cultures have become more open, bellydancing has seen its exposure rise, driven in no small part by the spread and development of the "Oriental" music which drives every shake of the shoulders and shimmy of the hips.

The performers chosen for this compilation span a wide geographical range from Morocco to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, especially Egypt (the site of a major renaissance in orchestral music). Of the Egyptian performers, the most notable are the Cairo Orchestra (whose nearly three-minute track packs in a strapping amount of percussion), Fatme Serhan (whose raw vocal style and call-and-response choruses oddly complement the ney flute introduction and interludes), and Gamal Goma (whose polyrhythmic tabla-driven pulse is nearly irresistible). Look to the Turkish drumming group known (not so subtly) as Harem for more sparkling beats in a different style.

The Syrian Salatin El Tarab Orchestra slows things down a few notches with a violin-driven melody that lasts less than two minutes; an episodic Nubian piece by Mahmoud Fadl also takes its time, over twelve minutes of it, to be precise. Various multinational and Western hybrids pop up here and there, including an upbeat, contemporary-sounding piece by Nourhan and a wildly hybridized, gypsy-ish 1930s New York retrospective by Richard Hagopian and Ormar Faruk Tekbilek.

Sales of this release (packaged in all-recycled paper) benefit Oxfam, an international activist organization devoted to ending poverty.

Boom Shinga Ling

There's precious little background information packaged with this release, which is decorated on the front and tray with a mysterious tattooed figure in a hoodie and dark glasses. The liner notes claim that "Oojami have always created a fabulous party vibe wherever they play," and based on the evidence presented here, I do not doubt that whatsoever.

In case you didn't guess from the title, Boom Shinga Ling is a collection of funky, beat-driven pieces designed to move hips, feet and heads. (A few other hints surface in the track listing: the opening piece is titled "Wicked And Wild," later ones "Shake That Belly" and "Hip Shaker.")

Once you take a step inside the inner sanctum at Oojami's web site, you learn that the hooded figure behind the group is one Necmi Cavli, a Turkish-born, London-based DJ who runs the North London Hubble Bubble club, from which the BBC apparently has broadcasted live; the CIA label is run by Miles Copeland, whose Bellydance Superstars have been storming the globe of late (no surprise there, really). And Oojami's live shows, at least as apparent from the photodocumentation, are dizzy, extravagant affairs with dervishes and bellydancers all over the place.

On record, however, Oojami's music is rooted in electronic production (by Cavli, of course), eclectic and international in style and instrumentation, and fully beat and riff-driven—whether based on traditional acoustic instruments, mostly in a saucy Arabic mode, or rapped vocals which draw heavily from the bounce and delivery of Jamaican toasting. As the title track interlude puts it, "we have to keep on skankin'!... Freedom, justice on to each and everybody!" Aktar Ahmed, the MC who raps on top of a third of the pieces, has a commanding presence—just like Simon Twitchin, who follows—as in: I command you to dance now, and forget tomorrow.

What makes this record so remarkable is the way it incorporates traditional elements from so many different cultures into a focused, danceworthy mix, which is evident once you sort out the different instruments blended together—and probably devastatingly so in live performance. Those international influences are mostly Arabic and Middle Eastern, but also, oddly enough, there's also a piece with Irish fiddle music (fused to the above), which is a little frightening on first spin but makes a lot more sense when you return to it.

Fine, fun, fabulously indulgent dance music!

Tracks and Personnel

The Rough Guide To Latin-Arabia

Salamat: Mambo El Soudani; Amr Diab: Ya Nour El Ein; Cheb Sahraoui: Je Suis Naïf; Rhany: Chan Chan; Ishtar & Los Niños De Sara: Alabina; Omar Faruk Tekbilek feat Enrique Morente: Ole Aman ; Alfredo De La Fé: Macondo ; Benjamin Escoriza: Paquita La Guapa; Maurice El Médioni feat. Roberto Rodriguez: Oran Oran; Emil Zrihan: Mahani-zin; Reines De Saba: Ah Ghanilek (Et Je Chante, Yolé Canto).

Think Global: Bellydance

Hossam Ramzy: Aziza; Smadar Levi: Ghali Ya Bouy; Cairo Orchestra: Ghannili Shwayyi, Shwayii; Salatin El Tarab Orchestra: Ya Nawal (Violin Taksim); Harem: Solo; Richard A. Hagopian & Omar Faruk Tekbilek: Kadife; Fatme Serhan: Ala Warag Il Foul (Balady); Omar Faruk Tekbilek: Re-Shashkin; Mahmoud Fadl: Siret El Hobb; Salatin El Tarab Orchestra: Ala Baladi Il Mahboob; Nourhan: Ebn'l Hallal; Salatin El Tarab Orchestra: Lamma Bada Yetasanna (Mosavo Edit); Mohammad Al Hasan Abo Abid: Kasbah 3am; Gamal Goma: Sahra Saidi; Sami Nossair Orchestra: Ebn'l Hallal.

Boom Shinga Ling

Tracks: Wicked And Wild; Boom Shinga Ling; Wake Me Up; What Kind Of World; Propaganda; Shake That Belly; U And Me; Hey Yo; Some Like It Hot; Hip Shaker; Like That; Dark Ages; Zaman; Zor; Chicky (remix by Friends, Family and Lover).

Personnel: Necmi Cavli: production; Eser Ebcin, Tim Whelan: keyboard; Aktar Ahmed, Simon Twitchin, Lord Camacho, Michael Madden, Spect-Afgal Miah: MC; Nicola Cavli: violin, keyboard; Erke Erokay, Simon Grant, Chris Bestwick: guitar; Tigran Alexsanyar: duduk; Marilyn Gentle: vocals; Ozkan Gezen: clarinet; Joanna Grant: violin; Serkan Cakmak: ney; Ed Rieband: trombone; Larry Lash: remix; Nick Simms: drums; Tony Marrison: bass; Aly Abdel: percussion; Farid Nainia: lootar.


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