Raqs Sharqi, (literally, ‘Eastern Dance’) is the classical, popular and folk dance of Egypt. It is rooted in pre Islamic times and its traditions have been passed on over the centuries. It is taught within the family as a social grace, and ornaments many celebrations. It has always survived in its folk form, but there have been periods in the history of Egypt when the classical dance has been exalted and refined, particularly in the Islamic courts of the 10th and 11th centuries, and in the 18th century courts of the Ottoman rulers of Egypt.
Egyptian dance and music have had a close link and a rich relationship throughout history. Much Egyptian music consists of “aghani”, or songs, which are constructed on strong rhythmic patterns, and lend themselves easily to dance. The “Takht” ensemble, comprising Oud, Qanun, Nay, Kamanga, and Req plays pure classical music, often referred to as “Tarab”, or enchantment. Music in this category is either purely instrumental, or encompasses the art song. Today Tarab music has expanded into the Sharqi orchestra which uses modern as well as traditional instruments. Some composers have been influenced by the west, with widely varied results. The famous singer and composer Farid Al Atrash is one who successfully synthesised Western influences with the Tarab and art song tradition. He worked with the much loved dancer Samia Gamal in many popular films during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, creating classics such as, Kharamana, ‘Rabia and Raqs El Gama. Samia Gamal was also influenced by Western dance forms, and introduced an expansive use of space and her own lyrical embellishments in her interpretation of these pieces and influenced many generations of dancers to the present time.
The art song reached a high point during the life of the legendary singer Um Koulthum, who inspired compositions by Riad Sombati, Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Balikh Hamdi, to name a few of the many great composers that Egypt has produced. In arranging such pieces for dance, the kamanga (violin) or other solo instrument declaims the verses with the characteristic sinuous modulations of the oriental vocal style. For Egyptians, sensitivity to the “colour” and feel of the music and to the meaning of the lyrics, even when they are not vocalised, is of the essence, and this sensitivity is expected of a dancer.
The soloists of the Layali El Sharq Ensemble, kamanga Amin Aziz and Emile Bassili, nay Bashir Abdel Aal, and qanun Abdel Aziz El Sayed are steeped in the classical music of Egypt, and master tablah player Ibrahim El Minyawi, req Sami Bin ya Amin and contrabass Hamid Mustapha support and structure the musical phrases with flawless sensitivity.
Among the various forms of Raqs Sharqi Baladi holds a special position. Baladi means “of the country”, and it is uniquely Egyptian. It is the urban form derived from folk tradition. Baladi music and dance developed together, when country people migrated to the cities in the early years of the twentieth century. The arts flourished, and folk tunes, songs and rhythms took on new colour, new shapes and sophistication. What had begun as a simple folk song or dance became more refined and complex.
Baladi is a form which is comparable in social and musical resonances to that of ghetto music, soul, and rhythm and blues. The accordion, well assimilated into Egyptian music with its strength and earthy qualities, is the leading instrument in baladi, and the tablah punctuates and embellishes its melodic phrases. From the basis of improvisation within a structure, new music emerged and crystallised, and Baladi remains a living tradition which is responsive to social change and contemporary influences. Powerful and dynamic, subtle and sensitive, Baladi demands emotional attunement and skill from the dancer, and musicians who are masters of their art.
The music presented on “Egyptian Baladi Live” was recorded during concert performances by the Egyptian dancer Suraya Hilal and Company between 1989 and 1992. Already considered a classic of the genre, it is a feast of Baladi, full of the rhythms and flavours of Egypt, created for dance by masters of their art. Baladi reached a high point in Egypt between 1940 and 1970, but in subsequent years with accelerated social change and the influence of electronic instrumentation, good Baladi became increasingly hard to find. This unique collection demonstrates strong traditional roots and brilliant improvisations from accordionists “Sheikh” Taha, and Farouq Mohammed Hassan, sax player Mostapha “Sax” and nay player Bashir Abdel Aal.
The heart-beat of the music is driven by virtuoso tabla player Ibrahim El Minyawi, arguably the best dancer’s drummer of his generation and beyond. “Sheikh” Taha, who has played accordion from the early days of its introduction to Egypt was a teacher of the famous Hassan Ab El Seoud and exerted a seminal influence on Baladi music between 1950 and 1980. Farouq Mohammed Hassan, one of the few accordionists of present times to truly express the soul of Baladi, recreated for Suraya Hilal his brilliant “Taqasim Nelli”. As is evident in his playing, Mostapha “Sax” is a true son of the country, and Bashir Abdel Aal is known all over the Arab world for his lyrical nay. The musicians relished the unique opportunity to perform in excellent theatre venues, and this is evident throughout the tracks which showcase these master musicians working together at the top of their form.
Amongst the various forms of Raqs Sharqi Baladi holds a special position. It is the uniquely Egyptian urban form derived from folk tradition, and baladi music and dance developed together. Its complex and diverse expressions are comparatively new. At the turn of the century, during British rule, country people migrated to the cities and found security in employment and a new prosperity. The arts flourished, and folk tunes, songs, and rhythms took on new colour, shapes and sophistication. What had begun as a simple folk song or dance became more refined and complex. Baladi is a form which is comparable in social and musical resonances to that of black ghetto music, soul, or rhythm and blues. The accordion, well assimilated into Egyptian music with its strength and earthy qualities, is the leading instrument in baladi, and the tablah punctuates and embellishes its melodic phrases. From the basis of improvisation within a structure new music emerged and solidified, but baladi remains a living form which is responsive to social change and contemporary influences.
"Divine Rites" at Sadlers Wells flyer
Classical Egyptian dancing
Layali El Sharq musicians
"Rhythms of Cairo" at the Purcell Room flyer
Farouq Mohammed Hassan