A music review by Gill Warnell
The Layali El Sharq (Nights of the East) Ensemble were formed in 1985 to provide a programme of music for Egyptian dance for Suraya Hilal and Company under the musical direction of Abdel Aziz Sayed. This double CD set features a selection of live recordings recorded between 1985 - 1990.
This CD owes much to the creative eye and judgement of Jennifer Carmen, who not only conceived of the idea of this CD project but put together arguably, the finest group of Arab musicians ever assembled in the UK.
From her experience of working as a dancer in Arab night clubs, she had the opportunity to watch and study the playing of all of the featured music maestros working. She began a labour of love as she put together a band of virtuoso musicians transforming them from individual musicians into a musical ensemble.
This CD is digitally remastered from the original tapes while retaining all of the vitality of a live concert recording. Significantly, this CD differs from many other contemporary Arabic music releases in that most of the featured instrumentation is traditional without the heavy electronic gadgetry and studio production techniques that have dominated, and in my opinion ruined, a lot of modern Arabic music. It has been my experience of listening to many different arrangements of the Arab classics that many have not stood the test of time very well and have developed, through the passage to time, a sound that dates them to one specific era. The arrangements on this CD have a wonderful dressed-up and elegant sound, making them eminently suitable for use in performing Arabic dance or even just for listening to.
This CD set has a total playing time of over two hours and the featured tracks represent some of the most well loved and popular pieces of music from Egypt. Indeed, in the Arab world these pieces of music are seen as being timeless classics whose appeal never diminishes. Unique in its representation, of course there are other recorded versions available of these songs, but none recorded live specifically for a programme of Egyptian dance.
More than just a CD set these recordings exist as a historical document and testament to the fine, high quality music that was being played nightly, for singers and dancers alike, in many of the great Arab nightclubs that London played host to during its 'golden age' of the 1970s and 1980s. It was during that era that London became a creative epicentre for Arabic music and dance, where all of the featured musicians graced nightclubs and concert halls with their playing. They play together on this CD as an ensemble and we witness them playing at the very peak of their respective careers. The music featured is representative of the kind that would be equally at home in a concert hall or in the nightclub of a five-star hotel in the Middle East. The CD demonstrates their ability to play as a collective and poetic whole or as accomplished soloists during the various taqsims featured here.
Of the 14 tracks for me among the highlights of this CD set are a glorious version of 'Nahr El Khalid', literally 'The eternal river' with its obvious reference to the river Nile. Composed by the great Egyptian composer and musical innovator, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, this classic piece is regarded as having been one of the composer's greatest 'romantic' works. It enjoyed enormous popularity after its premiere in Egypt during the 1940s and went on to be loved and acclaimed in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
There is also a version of Riad al Sunbati's 'Rubayat El Khayam'. This song was written for the Egyptian Diva, Um Kulthum, in 1949 and marks one of the many high spots of a creative and extraordinary partnership between the composer and the artist that spawned a third of Um Kulthum's enormous and legendary repertoire.
'Variations on songs' is a medley of five of the most famous and acclaimed songs of Farid El Atrache. I heard a medley of all but one of these songs quite recently given the pumped-up Beirut nightclub treatment, during a showcase for up and coming young Lebanese dance stars of LBC, the Lebanese TV channel. Far from being outdated or just sentimental this music brings the classic sound of an older era into the modern age. I marvelled as I watched a young star performing modern Arabic dance to the accompaniment of sounds from a bygone era, and reflected upon the worlds of the dancer and pioneer of Arabic Dance in the West, Jamila Salimpour that indeed 'Tradition is not static'.
I would have liked to have seen a CD booklet with more information about the music in it. For many listeners his may well be their first contact with these pieces of music and I feel that some explanation is needed about their history and background, beyond the basic information given here.
I have found myself being transported and my spirits have been lifted, as I have listened to this beautiful music, to the hushed reverence of an audience in a packed concert hall. I have been entertained and educated by this and I believe that it will prove to be a very worthwhile investment for any dancer, or lover of Arabic music, who is searching for a very versatile collection of classic Arabic music.
These recordings are the outcome o many years of work both for the featured artists and the creative director. Finally, years later, it is my privilege to be involved in this project, even in a tiny way, as I sit and write about it and remember why it is that I love Arabic music and dance.
For more information contact:
Layali El Sharq Music, UK
19 Cranley Gardens
Nabil Azzam, Ph.D.
Mohammed Abdel Wahab in modern Egyptian music. Dissertation, University of California, L.A. 1990.
The Voice of Egypt: Um Kulthum, Arabic song and Egyptian society in the twentieth century. University of Chicago Press 1997.
Speech presented by Jamila Salimpour at the International Conference on Middle Eastern dance. Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA. May 16-18 1997.