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Why Is Arabic Music So Confusing?

By Arabella


If you have a collection of belly dance music, it might seem to you that Arabic music can be confusing. And you'd be right! There are several reasons for this, and some of them have nothing to do with how much you know about the subject.

Here are some of the things that I've learned, garnered over nearly two decades of collecting belly dance music. Some are personal observations, and some others have been acquired by pestering my instructors. What follows may raise more questions than it answers, but I really hope that at least one of these ideas will shed some light.

Let's begin by saying that it is difficult to learn about Arabic music. I've heard that it is largely an oral tradition, and that little is actually written down. If this is true, that would help to explain why I have only been able to find one book on the subject in the Toronto library system - and it's in French. Some books about belly dance touch on the subject of music, but a comprehensive discussion merits a separate volume, and lies outside the scope of such books. And wouldn't that be wonderful - a book all about Arabic music, written specifically for dancers, in layman's terms - ideally, it would include a recording, which demonstrates the different musical instruments and rhythms.

Undoubtably, a large stumbling block is the language barrier. Arabic is a difficult language to learn for several reasons that I won't discuss here. However, you can decrease the size of this hurdle significantly by learning the Arabic alphabet. It's easier than you might think, and can be done cheaply - for about $30 - and you don't even need to leave home to do it - you can learn it from a book. Two books, actually, because each one covers some aspects that the other omits. Click here for information on the titles of these books and how to order them.

Arabic is written phonetically - that is, it is written exactly the way it sounds with no extra letters. So if you know the alphabet, you will find that different transliterations won't confuse you as much. If you are wondering, it took me about a month to learn the Arabic alphabet, and I find that it is easier to remember song titles now, even if I don't know what they mean. And nothing comes close to the exhilaration of being able to read the words raqs a sharqi (belly dance) in Arabic!

Enough proseltyzing, let's discuss some specifics now.

Sometimes the same song has a different name on another album. Song titles can differ on different albums. I don't have an explanation for this in most instances, except for this: on some belly dance recordings, music is arranged for a specific dancer, and the piece is named after her - for example, Rakset Zeyna - the dancer Zeyna. But if you were to ask an Arabic musician to play Raqset Zayne for you, he would have no idea what you meant!

I find it helpful to cross-reference songs on different albums by using post-its - for example, "Song X" on this album is called "Song Y" on that album.

It might help to know that, broadly speaking, most belly dance music falls into three categories:

  • Hits by the great singers, such as Oum Kalthoum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid Al Atrache, and Fairuz. These can be instrumental or vocal versions. A contemporary example is Amr Diab.
  • Traditional or folk songs.
  • Music composed specifically for the dance, or a particular dancer; usually played by the composer himself. Examples: Emad Sayyah, Mostafa Sax, Ramal Lamarr.

Sometimes there are different covers for the same album. I'm thinking especially of the recordings by Setrak Sarkissian. Some were originally released on the Pe-ko label and have been re-issued on the Hollywood Music Center label. This is an improvement, since some of the Pe-ko covers were only in Arabic, and the Hollywood Music Center versions have transliterated titles. However, sometimes the picture is different on the two versions. I've also noticed that, in the Hollywood Music Center recordings, the CD's usually have more song titles listed than the tapes, even though the music is the same.

Most Setrak albums have a volume number. As far as I know, this begins with Volume 7 and there are no Volumes 1-6. However, some of the older releases (neither Pe-Ko nor Hollywood Music Center) do not have a volume number. Last year in Morocco, I came across a Volume 3, but fortunately, the shopkeeper let me hear it before purchasing it, and I realized that I already had it (Volume 17) - and proved it to him by dancing to it! If you are interested in the albums by Setrak, see my separate article Setrak: Song Titles from CD Covers to help you determine which CD's have the same music as which tapes.

Album covers can be misleading. Sometimes an album title bears the words "belly dance", but the music is not - any excuse to put a half-naked woman on the cover, right?

However, there are too many of these to discuss here. My instructor tells me that if she had had a list of albums to avoid when she started buying music, she would have saved the price of an elaborate costume!

It's rare, but on occasion album titles are similar. There is The Magic of Belly Dancing by George Abdo, and The Magic of Belly Dance by that most prolific of artists, Unknown.

Occasionally, different versions of the same song will sound very different. I have something specific in mind. After finding three different instrumental versions of the song "Laylet Hob" ("Night of Love"), I realized that I loved it, and knowing that it was originally recorded by Oum Kalthoum, I was anxious to hear the "real" version. The instrumental introduction was very familiar, but as soon as the great lady started to sing, the song sounded nothing like the instrumental versions I'd heard. My instructor, fortunately, was familiar with this song, and told me that this is often the case with Oum Kalthoum songs.

Finally, there are the flukes - the "one-offs" that can really make you crazy. I have several tapes where the sides are reversed. The tape case says "Side A", but it's really Side B!

Belly Dance! Spectacular Rhythms from the Middle East is one such album. I adore this album, but it's really annoying - on Side 1, only six track titles are listed on the cover, but there are actually nine tracks. Side 2 opens with a song listed as "Farhat Shabab", its composer Setrak Sarkissian, but I know this song as an Egyptian folk song, "Ya Mahla Noura" (Where are those post-its?) and I have serious doubts that an Armenian derbakke player (ie, Setrak) wrote a traditional Egyptian folk song!

And, on a tape whose title is simply "Dabke", which is a Lebanese line dance, I recognize one track as being a Turkish karsilama. Both are dances, true, but they are as different as chalk and cheese.

All in all, even if you happen to know something about Arabic music, sometimes that isn't enough to make satisfying choices when buying CD's. Whenever possible, it's best to listen to the music before spending the money to verify that it's what you expect, and to ensure that you don't already have the exact same music under a different cover.


About the Author

Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:

  • Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
  • Costume ideas
  • Essays and opinion pieces
  • Understanding Middle Eastern music
  • Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography

Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.

Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.

Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.

Photo of Arabella



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