Review: Jalilah’s Raks Sharki 3 – Journey of the Gipsy Dancer

Title: Jalilah’s Raks Sharki 3 – Journey of the Gipsy Dancer (Rihlat el Ghawziya/رحلة الغازية)

Artist: Various, arranged and directed by Hossam Shaker

Year: 1997

Category: Music for Raqs Sharqi

The third in the series of bellydance albums produced by Jalilah, this collection of songs for Raqs Sharqi was inspired by the Saiidi music and dance of Upper Egypt, the ghawazee traditional dancers, and in particular, the ‘golden era’ dancer Naima Akef and her starring role as a ghaziyah in the classic Egyptian film ‘Tamr Henna’.

The sound

To create a Saiidi-inspired sound, Jalilah brought together a classical Egyptian ensemble led by Hossam Shaker with folk musicians from the famous ‘Musicians of the Nile’, and the Egyptian national folklore ensemble. The result is a distinctive sound blending cosmopolitan and rural styles.

This album’s great strength is its orchestration. The liner notes list 20 musicians who worked on it, including a full string section, and this large ensemble creates a depth and richness that is rare on dance recordings today. There are no synths or drum machines filling in the gaps; every instrument is present in its real form, in the hands of a skilled musician. The contrast and interplay between melodic voices and layers, from the deep and contemplative oud to soaring strings and the sighs of the ney, makes these arrangements especially rewarding for dance interpretation.

There are certain subtleties here which distinguish good Egyptian music, and which can make a piece truly interesting for dancer and audience alike – melody variations played in subtly different ways by contrasting instruments, nuances of timing which create an unhurried and ‘in the moment’ feeling with moments of anticipation, rhythmic textures and embellishments which build tension and excitement… And of course, there is the rousing sound of the Saiidi folk instruments – mizmar, rebaba and arghoul, and the resonant tabla baladi drum – bringing an organic, earthy power where they appear.

Recording  quality: This is a clean and professional studio recording, with nicely balanced volume levels. Although it’s an older recording, the sound quality is totally stage-worthy.

The music selection

Like most albums recorded for raqs sharqi, the opening number is a specially-composed magency (orchestral dance entrance piece), the eponymous Rihlat el Ghawziya. This piece is on the longer side, and includes a heavy and authentic-sounding saiidi section as its centrepiece, as well as a khaleeji section, and a variety of classic dance rhythms.

What follows is a mixture of classic Egyptian songs, leaning towards vintage pieces with a saiidi/baladi feel, and two percussion solos.

The second and third tracks are instrumental arrangements of perennial oriental dance favourites Alf Leyla wi Leyla (‘one thousand and one nights’, originally sung by Oum Kalthoum) and Fi Yom wi Leyla (‘in a day and a night’, originally sung by Warda). I’m particularly fond of this version of Alf Leyla because although it is an instrumental, it includes the first verse and chorus, rather than just the overture (as an Oum Kalthoum fan, I find it terribly frustrating to dance only to the overture and have to stop just as things are getting going!).

For me, an outstanding track is the instrumental version of the muwashshah Lamma Bada Yatathanna. You will most likely have heard this piece of music played in a slow and stately, very serious style – but in this version, it becomes fast, flowing and inexorably powerful, with the classical takht instrumentation joined by the folkloric rebaba fiddle, giving a haunting and slightly anachronistic sound quality. Jalilah has mentioned in online discussions that she didn’t originally plan for this song to be on the album, but the musicians recorded it whilst jamming together in the studio, and it sounded so good that she decided to include it! You can tell that the musicians were relaxed and enjoying themselves together, and it gives the recording a wonderful vitality.

Following this are two songs from the film Tamra Henna, both slightly confusingly titled Tamra Henna (part I and part II). The first is a sad song reproaching the main character, Tamra Henna, for leaving her baladi village and family behind, and is sung here by Hoda Sombati. This song isn’t accompanied by a dance scene in the film, and I think it would be quite difficult to find a place for it in a normal bellydance set, but I can imagine it working well for a staged group tableau. The second is the song most of us are thinking of when we hear the name ‘Tamra Henna’ – the upbeat and cheeky classic instrumental from Naima Akef’s iconic dance scene.

The final part of the album takes a turn towards baladi, with Hobak Ala Feyn (where did your love go?), the traditional wedding song Dokku el Mazahir (strike the tambourines), and baladi-styled Oum Kalthoum classic Ghanili Shwaye Shwaye (sing to me a little).

The CD liner notes

Because Jalilah’s albums are relseased on a ‘world music’ label, the liner notes are aimed at world music fans, rather than specifically at dancers. There are several introductory paragraphs about the background and social context of Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Baladi (Egyptian stage and social dance), and some history of the dance in the 20th century. Jalilah also provides a short description of each song, often including facts like the names of the original singer and composer (useful if you want to look up other versions), and the film the song originally appeared in. Song lyrics are not included.

Since this album is now almost 20 years old (!), some of the information is a little out of date, or based on the less-complete historical information that was available at the time. Some of the spellings of Arabic words and names are non-standard transliterations, meaning you may see dancers or musicians mentioned under an unfamiliar version of their name.

Overall, these notes are a helpful companion to the CD, but they may not be worth going out of your way to obtain if you have the choice between a hard copy and an MP3 download.

What is good about it?

At the risk of repeating myself, the instrumentation is very good, with a full ensemble of traditional acoustic instruments and outstanding musicianship. In terms of overall ‘sound’, this is one of the best ‘for dancers’ CDs in my collection. The inclusion of saiidi instruments also makes it unique amongst otherwise similar orchestral bellydance CDs.

What could be better?

From a performer’s perspective, several of the songs that would otherwise be the most versatile are too long to use in many of the performance situations available to us today (for example, Alf Leyla wi Leyla comes to almost 10 minutes, and Rihlat el Ghawziya is 11 minutes long). You can find a shortened version of Rihlat el Ghawziya on Jalilah’s recent ‘Stage Cuts’ album (although disappointlingly, it doesn’t include the saiidi section), but if you want to dance to some of the others, you will probably need to edit them yourself.

Who is this suitable for?

Dance performers: If you’re a professional dancer or a solo performer, this album is an excellent choice, especially if you enjoy a classic  Egyptian dance style, or if you like to create vintage ‘golden era’ set pieces.

Dance teachers and students: This music is ideal for more advanced dance students looking for complex music to get their teeth into.  So if you are teaching a higher-level class including choreography or improvisation, or if you are an intermediate/advanced student looking to practise improvisation and musical interpretation at home, I would definitely recommend it. However, if you’re a beginner-level student just starting your bellydance music collection, or if you’re looking for music to use in a beginner’s class, this may not fit your needs – most of these pieces don’t really lend themselves to drilling moves or simple combinations, and they may be difficult to follow for students who haven’t yet developed an ear for Arabic musical structure.

Music lovers: This is definitely worthy of listening to  for its own sake – especially if you enjoy folkloric music, and older classic  Egyptian music.

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