Filler
Photo of Shira

 

 

PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Genres of Middle Eastern Music Used in Belly Dancing

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

This article provides a starting point for learning about types of music often used in belly dance performances. It's a vast topic, and I realize the article barely scratches the surface. I'm hoping you'll find the descriptions and sound samples helpful in discovering musical styles or artists you'd like to learn more about. From there, you can do more investigation on your own to continue learning.

The flavors of Middle Eastern music that are usually used to accompany belly dancers usually fall into the following categories:

  • Folk music
  • Modern Egyptian classical music
  • Pop music
  • Muwashahat ("art music")

The term "traditional music" can often refer to either folk music or classical music, depending on the context, but would not refer to current pop music.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

Other styles of Middle Eastern music exist beyond the ones discussed in this article. However, because this article focuses on music used for raqs sharqi (belly dance), the other styles won't be discussed here.

Note Throughout this article, this "note" icon will indicate a brief sound file is available in MP3 format. Titles of albums and musician contact information appear at the end of this article for those who would like to purchase the full-length song.
Shira

 

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Folk Music

Folk music refers to music that arose out of the day-to-day lives of people living in rural village areas. It was played on traditional instruments crafted from whatever materials were available in the village, and generally consisted of simple melody lines that ordinary people with ordinary voices could sing.

Folk music varies widely from one region to another. For example, the folk music of the Amazigh people in Morocco is very different from that of the Saidi people in Egypt, but all of it qualifies as "folk".

Often, no one really knows who composed a given folk song. Examples of this would be the debka song "Ala Dalouna" from the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region), or the Saidi song "Ya Baheya" from Egypt.

However, some popular music has also been written in the folk style. In these cases, the music is still often used for folk dancing even though its composer is known. Examples of such music would be the debka-style music written by the Rahbani Brothers in Lebanon, and the Saidi style music written by Metqal Qenawi in Egypt.

For purposes of raqs sharqi (belly dance), performers usually opt for folk music from Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. However, some performers may incorporate music from other regions, depending on their tastes, their audiences, and their dance experience.

Some raqs sharqi artists are also highly educated in folkloric dance styles from throughout the Middle East and North Africa such as Moroccan schikhatt, Iraqi kawliya, Egyptian Ghawazee, Khaliji raqs al-nasha'at, Tunisian shaaba, and others. These dancers usually wouldn't perform regular belly dance (raqs sharqi) to such music, but they might opt to create a folkloric performance consisting of such music teamed with ethnically appropriate dance technique and costume.

The word shaabi, which may also be spelled chaabi or shaaba, is often used to apply to folk music. However, this word is also frequently used in connection with modern-day pop music produced by the slick mass media industry, so it can be confusing.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Musicians from the Luxor-based Musicians of the Nile play mizmars in a performance. Photo taken by Shira, in Egypt.

Mizmars

Egyptian Baladi

A major category of Egyptian folkloric music is often referred to as baladi. This term, which is not specific to music, translates as "country", and is widely used to refer to anything typical of the traditional lifestyle and its values.

Baladi music is typically played on traditional acoustic instruments, such as the ney (a type of flute), the mizmar (which resembles an oboe), and the rebaba (a stringed instrument). However, a particular genre of Egyptian baladi music known as tet baladi, ashra baladi, or accordion baladi is frequently played on accordion.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Well-known baladi singer Hoda Sombati performs as part of the dancer Soraya Zaied's show in February 2016. Photo taken by Shira, in Egypt.

Note

Tahtil Shibbak

Fatme Serhan's version

Oriental Fantasy version

Laura in Balady version

The song "Tahtil Shibbak" is a very popular example of a song played in the baladi style. Although it was actually composed in the 1940's by Aziz Osman, it captures the flavor of the Egyptian baladi musical style, and is much beloved by the Egyptian people.

Translation

Note

Balady

From the album titled On Fire

The word baladi is often used to refer to an improvised solo piece of instrumental music known as the tet baladi. Other terms that people use to refer to this are baladi taqsim, ashra baladi, accordion baladi, or baladi progression. Today, this style of music is often played on an accordion or a violin. The term "progression" refers to the fact that the music opens with slow, introspective improvisation, then gradually builds in speed and intensity, finishing with a joyful climax.

This clip contains the final 30 seconds of a tet baladi.

Hoda Sombati and Soraya

Saidi

Saidi music is a variation on baladi that is specific to Upper Egypt, also known as The Said. This is the rural part of Egypt south of Cairo, located around Luxor, Assuit, Minya, and Aswan.

When modern-day bands play this music, the band members typically wear the traditional full-length Egyptian robe known as a gallabeya, often with Egyptian-style white turbans on their heads.

Raqs sharqi performers will often wear a gallabeya made of either tulle bitalli (assuit) or striped fabric when performing to Saidi music. This style of music is appropriate for Egyptian-style raqs al-assaya (stick dance).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Some members of the Luxor-based group Musicians of the Nile play rebabas.

Instruments particularly associated with Saidi music include a stringed instrument known as a rebaba, an oboelike wind instrument known as a mizmar, and frame drums with a deep sound known as tabla baladi. Saidi rhythms are pervasive in Egyptian music, including even much of the Egyptian pop music today.

The photo to the right shows the Musicians of the Nile playing rebabas. They are a Luxor-based group.

Note

Dyati Mali (also known as Binti Beida)

Metqal Qenawi's Version

This clip features the song, "Dyati Mali", which is one of my favorite Saidi songs. This song is sometimes known by the title "Binti Beida". The band, Metqal Qenawi and the Musicians of the Nile, are the most famous of the artists who play this style of music. I've heard Metqal Qenawi identified as the composer.

Note

Tfarrak al-Halawa

Metkal Qenawi's Version

This clip features the song "Tfarrak al-Halawa", another song characteristic of the Saidi sound. This clip is also played by Metqal Qenawi and the Musicians of the Nile. I've heard Metqal Qenawi identified as the composer.

Translation

Rebaba

Debka

In Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, the prevailing style of folk music is the debka, which is typically used for line dancing.

A raqs sharqi artist might incorporate a debka section near the end of her show if she knows there will be a large number of audience members from the Levant who would enjoy getting up for audience participation. Or, she might perform Lebanese-style raqs al-assaya (cane or stick dance) in a folkloric costume to debka music.

In the Vintage American style of belly dance, bands in some communities would often play debka for the belly dancer as one of the medium or fast songs in her set, to be performed in her sparkly bedleh (bra/belt/skirt costume).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shira models a thobe, which is a traditional style of dress from Palestine. Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

Note

A Nada

Sabah's version

George Abdo's version

Brothers of the Baladi version

This song is a debka, sometimes alternatively known as "Al Nadda", "Al Nedda", or "To Nadda" (a woman's name). The original artist, Sabah, was not only a famous vocalist, but also a movie star. It was composed by the legendary duo, the Rahbani Brothers.

Translation

Note

Haddouni

Nasri's version

George Abdo's version

This song, another debka, is known as "Haddouni". The original artist was Nasri Shamseddine. It was composed by the legendary duo, the Rahbani Brothers.
Shira

Turkish Folk Music

Rhythms common in Turkish folk music include a fast chiftetelli, a 9/8, and ayyoub.

There is a certain slow, bluesy version of 9/8 called Roma oyun havasi that is closely associated with the Roma (Gypsies) who traditionally lived in the part of Istanbul known as Sulukule. A famous virtuoso Turkish Romany musician was clarinetist Selim Sesler.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shira wears a Turkish costume for Oryantal dans (the Turkish name for belly dance), which was purchased in Istanbul. Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Note

Şişeler

Omar Faruk Tekbilek's version

John Bilezikjian's version

This song, "Şişeler", is a traditional Turkish drinking song. The title means "Bottles".

Translation

Note

Rampi Rampi

John Bilezikjian version

Omar Faruk Tekbilek version

Mediterranean Raqs Band (Saqra) version

This 9/8 song is sometimes called "Rampi Rampi" because those words appear in the chorus, and it is sometimes called "Çadırımın Üstüne Şıp Dedi" because those words appear at the beginning of the first verse. It is a very well-known Turkish folk song, and people associate it with the Turkish Rom (Gypsies).

Translation

Note

Istemem Babacım

John Bilezikjian version

Omar Faruk Tekbilek version

This Turkish folk song contains a comic dialogue between a man and his marriageable daughter.

Translation

Note

Dere

Brothers of the Baladi version

Sultans version

"Dere" (which means "River") is an old, traditional Turkish folk song in the 9/8 rhythm.

Translation

Note

Bir Demet Yasemen

Mediterranean Raqs Band (Saqra) version

John Bilezikjian version

Brothers of the Baladi version

"Bir Demet Yasemen" (which means "one bunch of jasmine") is a traditional Turkish folk song. It is often used by North American Oryantal dans performers in connection with dancing with a veil.

Translation

Shira

 

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20th Century Orchestral Music

This is the style of music most typically used to accompany modern day raqs sharqi as seen in Egypt and the Levant.

In the early 20th century, a new form of orchestral music arose in Egypt. This music was based on the Arab style of music often referred to as tarab music because of its classical composition techniques. However, the new flavor of orchestral music added influence from Europe.

One of these influences was addition of European musical instruments. In a 1966 interview, legendary nightclub owner Badia Masabni said, "I'm the one who mixed Arabic music with foreign music.... We added the piano and the contrabass, and the flute, the clarinet and the accordion, all together."

What Badia meant is that she was the first to create orchestras which consisted of both traditional Middle Eastern instruments (oud, qanoun) and foreign instruments. Composers such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab became known for creating music suitable for these new-style orchestras.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Badia Masabni, the legendary nightclub owner who provided the environment in which modern-day Egyptian orchestral music was born and flourished.

In addition to incorporating foreign instruments into the band, composers experimented with foreign rhythms. For example, Farid al-Atrache used the waltz rhythm in some of his compositions.

The fledgling Egyptian motion picture industry featured orchestral music in the movie musicals of the 1940's and 1950's. These movies rapidly spread the orchestral music style throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

Vocalists associated with 20th century classical Egyptian music include Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Warda, and Farid al-Atrache.

Some of Egypt's famous composers of this era included:

  • Mohammed Abdel Wahab. His compositions included "Enta Omri", "Zeina", and "Cleopatra".
  • Baligh Hamdi. His compositions included "El Hob Kulu" and "Alf Leyla wa Leyla".
  • Farid al-Atrache. His compositions included "Gamil Gamal", "Habena", and "Me Alli we Oltelu". He originally was from Syria, but built his fame as a singer, movie star, and composer while residing in Egypt.

Egyptian classical music typically follows this format:

  • Instrumental overture at the beginning
  • Vocal segment to a different melody
  • Instrumental interlude, which is often different from the melody of the opening overture
  • Vocal segment
  • Repeat iterations of the above, which can last from 15 minutes to an hour
Badia Masabni

Note

Enta Omri

Oum Kalthoum's version

The song in this clip is "Enta Omri", which was composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and sung by Egypt's legendary vocalist Oum Kalthoum. This clip comes from the opening instrumental overture. The very first raqs sharqi artist to use music by Oum Kalthoum as part of her nightclub set was Soheir Zaki, and the song she used for this performance was "Enta Omri".

Translation

Note

Alf Leyla wa Leyla

Oum Kalthoum's version

The song in this clip is "Alf Leyla wa Leyla", which was composed by Baligh Hamdi and sung by Egypt's legendary vocalist Oum Kalthoum. This clip comes from the opening instrumental segment.

Translation

Note

Gana el Hawa

Abdel Halim Hafez's version

The song in this clip is "Gana el Hawa," which was composed by Baligh Hamdi and sung by Abdel Halim Hafez. This song's popularity is due in part to its association with the blockbuster Egyptian movie, Abi Foq al-Shagara (My Father is up a Tree).

Translation

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Oum Kalthoum, the leading Egyptian vocalist of the 20th century, whose career took flight at the same time the new genre of classical music was taking shape. This photo of her appears in the Oum Kalthoum museum in Cairo.

Oum Kalthoum

 

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Pop Music

Today's flavor of pop music is a recent offshoot of modern music, written to appeal in particular to the younger generation.

Egyptian & Lebanese Pop

Pop music (i.e., music for the masses) has existed in every generation. In the 1990's, the term al jeel arose to describe a specific genre of pop music.

Some well-known recording artists whose work was considered the al jeel genre in the 1990's are Amr Diab, Sherin, and Nancy Ajram.

The term shaabi originally referred to organic folk music. Around the 1970's, people started using the term to refer to pop music composed for the recording industry whose lyrics referenced the everyday lives and concerns of the working class. Often the lyrics contained sexual innuendo other gritty themes.

Some well-known recording artists whose work was considered shaabi in the 1970's include Ahmed Adaweya and Shaaban Abdel Rahim (sometimes nicknamed Shaabola). More recent shaabi pop music artists include Saad al-Soghayar and Hakim.

The musical style of modern pop music consists of a steady rhythm, often played on electronic instruments such as keyboards. While previous pop music (the 20th century classical described above) was designed for sitting still and listening, the modern pop is crafted for young people who want to get up and dance with their friends in the discos.

Today, the term al jeel has mostly been abandoned, and you're more likely to hear the term shaabi referring to all the modern pop.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a photo of Amr Diab, the best-selling Middle Eastern artist of all time.

Both Egyptian and Lebanese artists have achieved success throughout Egypt and the Levant with their danceable pop music. This style of pop music is less suitable for raqs sharqi performances than the 20th century classical music due to the composition style. This disco music lacks the varied rhythms, dynamics, and emotional maqamat that allow dancers to create engaging shows with a range of moods. However, many performers opt to incorporate pop music into their sets for use in audience participation.

More recently, since 2011, another genre of Egyptian pop music has appeared, which is known as mahragan. This music could be thought of as Egypt's own variation on hiphop, and it has its own dance style associated with it.

Amr Diab

Note

Habibi Ya Nour el Ain

By Amr Diab

This song was released by vocalist Amr Diab in 1996, and won the prize for best Arabic song of 1996. It was the hit that propelled Diab to stardom. At the time, it was thought of as al jeel music. Today, it's simply thought of as pop music, due to the term al jeel being mostly discontinued now.

Translation

Note

Amarain

By Amr Diab

This release by Amr Diab followed "Nour el Ain", and achieved hit status in its own right.

Translation

Note

Sobry Alil

By Sherin

Sherin's music has been popular among teen-age girls. This song, "Sobry Alil", was popular in 2004. Both this and another song "Boussi Ba'a" contain lyrics in which a young woman scolds the man in her life for failing to pay enough attention to her, paying too much attention to other women, etc.

Translation

Note

Shamandora

By Mohammed Mounir

Mohammed Mounir is Nubian, so some of his pop songs contain a Nubian flavor that gives him a distinctive sound. "Shamandora" is one that incorporates some Nubian influence.

Translation

Note

Akhasmak, Ah

By Nancy Ajram

In 2003, when Nancy Ajram released this song, the Egyptian parliament released an official decree banning the airing of its music video due to "decency issues".

Translation

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The singer in the photo is Nancy Ajram. She is an immensely popular Lebanese singer, ranking as the third most popular female singer in Lebanese history.

Nancy Ajram

Well-known recording artists of the grittier modern shaabi music include Hakim and Saad al-Soghayar. Belly dancers who wish to use shaabi music would be well-advised to take care. Well-educated older upper-class Arab audiences often consider shaabi music to be beneath them, due to its origins with the poorer working classes or the content of its lyrics, and therefore such audiences would have less appreciation for a dancer who uses shaabi than they would for one who uses classical music. Younger audiences may embrace modern shaabi music for its edginess. For this reason, it is wise to research the audience's tastes before using modern shaabi music in a raqs sharqi performance.

Although some modern shaabi songs may contain innocuous lyrics about love, others may speak of murder, social injustice, political themes, or other topics that could be offensive to audiences. For this reason, it is wise to research what shaabi songs are about before using them in a raqs sharqi performance.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows popular shaabi style singer, Hakim.

Note

Bint el-Sultan

by Ahmed Adaweya

 

Ahmed Adaweya, the singer of "Ayeela Tayeha", was an early shaabi artist. He rose to fame in the 1970's. "Bint el-Sultan" is one of Ahmed Adaweya's most enduring hits.

Translation

Note

Efred Masalan

by Hakim

 

The song "Efred Masalan", is one of Hakim's many hits.

Translation

Note

Talakik

by Hakim

 

Another one of Hakim's popular songs is "Talakik".

Translation

Hakim

Turkish Pop

Turkey enjoys its own pop music scene, led by its mass media music industry. As with Egyptian pop, modern Turkish pop music tends to be performed by electronic instruments such as keyboard rather than traditional acoustic ones.

The Turkish pop music artist best-known in the U.S. is Tarkan, who rose to fame with his hit song "Simarik". Another popular Turkish artist is Sezen Aksu. She has been successful as both a singer and a songwriter.

Note

Simarik

by Tarkan

 

The song "Simarik" has been translated and re-recorded in a number of other languages, including an English version titled "Kiss Kiss" sung by Holly Valance. It was composed by Sezen Aksu and recorded in Turkish by Tarkan.

Translation

Note

Simarik

by Tarkan

 

The song "Kil Oldum" is another popular hit by Tarkan.

Translation

Tarkan

 

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Traditional Art Music
(Muwashahat & Others)

In the Arab world, art music has enjoyed a long history in the courts of royalty and wealthy patrons. The forms that most raqs sharqi artists have heard of are muwashahat and taqasim. Others, which are part of much of the music used for dance even today, include dulab, samai, dawr, and the tahmilla, but these terms aren't known to most dancers.

Muwashahat are based on poetry composed in an ancient Andalusian format. Many muwashahat have been composed in modern times, following the traditional format. Musicians who are particularly well known for their performances of muwashahat include Fairouz from Lebanon and Sabah Fakhri from Syria.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows a row of ouds in a shop on Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo, waiting to be sold. Photo taken by Shira, in Egypt.

Note

Lamma Bada Yata Thana

John Bilezikjian's version

Brothers of the Baladi version

Mediterranean Raqs Band version

The song in this genre that is the most famiiar to belly dancers is probably "Lamma Bada Yata Thanna", whose lyrics can be traced back to a poem that was written in the 10th century.

The melody line is much more recent, composed by Selim el-Masri in the 19th century. It is a fascinating piece of music done in the samai thaqil rhythm, which is written in 10/8.

The lyrics are based on a classical Arabic love poem: "When she began to sway, her beauty amazed me. She imprisoned me with a glance. She was a swaying branch that consumed me."

Translation

Comments by George Sawa about this song

Note

El Bulbul Nagha

Sabah Fakhri's version

Sabah Fakhri is a Syrian vocalist who has been prominent in recording muwashahat. One of these songs is "El Bulbul Nagha".

The lyrics speak of looking for his beloved between the jasmine and the basil as the nightingale sings.

Translation

Typical instruments that historically would have been used to play this genre of music include oud and qanoun. Today, however, this music is often performed by full Arab orchestras.

Muwashahat are not used very often for raqs sharqi (the Arabic name for belly dance) performances, though they could be. Raqs sharqi performers are most likely to use this style of music in artistic dance concerts, rather than nightclubs or parties, but exceptions can exist.

Mahmoud Reda used muwashahat for a series of Reda Troupe choreographed dances in his theatricalized Egyptian folk style. He also taught workshops on how to dance in his style to this music. Consequently, many raqs sharqi artists choose to use his format when dancing to this music. However, Egyptian cinema offers many examples of people dancing in regular raqs sharqi style to muwashahat.

Ouds

 

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Obtaining the Recordings

This article has included short clips of several Middle Eastern songs. The following albums contain the full-length songs that were featured above:

Mediterranean Raqs Band

Music Saqra Likes by Mediterranean Raqs Band contains:

  • "Bir Demet Yasemen"
Magic of John Bilezikjian

The "Magic" of John Bilezikjian contains:

  • "Lamma Bada Yata Thana"
  • "Istemem Babacim"

Can be ordered at www.dantzrecords.com

Sirocco

Sirocco (co-produced by John Bilezikjian and Var Daghdevirian) contains:

  • "Rampi Rampi"
  • "Şişeler"
  • "Bir Demet Yasemen"

Can be ordered at www.dantzrecords.com

Metkal Kenawe

Sahra Seada contains Saidi music by Metqal Qenawi, including:

  • "Dyati Mali" (also known as 'Binti Beida")
  • "Tfarrak al-Halawa"

Can be ordered from most sources of belly dance music and Arabic music.

Eye on the World

Eye of the World by Brothers of the Baladi contains:

  • "Lamma Bada Yata Thanna"
  • "Dere Dere"
Hope

Hope by Brothers of the Baladi contains a variety of world music, including:

  • "A Nada"
  • "Habibi Ya Nour el Ain"
Heart of the Beast

Heart of the Beast by Brothers of the Baladi contains a variety of world music, including:

  • "Bir Demet Yasemen"
Best of Saidi

Beware of the misleading title, Best of Saidi. Although this album contains some good music, it does not contain any Saidi music! It does contain:

  • "Tahtill Shibbak"

Can be ordered from most sources of bellydance music and Arabic music.

On Fire

On Fire: The Hottest Bellydance Music contains:

  • "Balady" [Egyptian Accordion Balady]
Gypsy Fire

Gypsy Fire by Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Richard Hagopian contains:

  • "Şişeler"
  • "Rampi Rampi"
  • "Istemem Babacim"
Enta Omri

Enta Omri by Oum Kalthoum. The song is an hour in length, and fills the entire CD:

  • "Enta Omri"
Tarkan

This was Tarkan's first hit album. Others have followed.

  • "Simarik"
Garh Tani

Garh Tani was Sherin's first hit release. (Her name is sometimes spelled Sherine or Shareen.) This album contains:

  • "Sobry Alil"
Very Best of Amr Diab

The Very Best of Amr Diab contains several of his hits, including:

  • "Habibi Ya Nour el Ain"
  • "Amarain"
Best of the Sultans

Best of the Sultans by the Sultans includes a variety of Middle Eastern music, including:

  • "Dere Geliyor"
  • "Tfarrak al-Halawa"

 

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Related Articles

 

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