Saturday, July 2, 2011

Let me google that for you

Not so long ago I saw a tribal performance, a perfectly nice one. Refreshingly, the dancers had chosen the sort of mizmar-heavy music that tribal dancers used to use all the time. The MC proudly announced that it was "traditional Egyptian folklore", and it was entitled Siret el Hob.


That was rude, but I couldn't help myself. And as the taqsim resolved itself into those first familiar notes, the validity of my snerk was confirmed.

For those of you who didn't bother to google, Siret el Hob was made famous by the legendary Egyptian singer Om Khalsoum, and it was written by Baligh Hamdi in about 1964. Which makes it as old as me, namely old, but not that old. Not folkloric, not traditional, not any of those things bar Egyptian.

Now, only a few years ago, this kind of mistake wasn't uncommon where I live. We had no live bands, no long tradition of Arabic music and performance, and very few resources. Dancers far more experienced than me and with all the good will in the world might have listened to that piece and assumed it was "traditional folklore". It has mizmars and it's played by the Upper Egypt Ensemble (Mazamar Sahara, an awesome album by the way). But I'd about guarantee the dancers downloaded that album from iTunes, just like I did, and if you can buy music from iTunes you can also use a search engine.

I appreciate that tribal dancers today, especially those who propagate the divisions between Them and Us, are unlikely to know who Om Khalsoum is, but maybe they should at least find out. Especially if they're participating in shows aimed outside the tribal bubble.

We do have a genuine issue with the term "traditional" in our bellydance world. In general the term "traditional", when applied to a song, means one that is very old, or at least old enough that we don't know who wrote it. For bellydancers, though, while there are many famous songs to which it's traditional to dance, the songs themselves are mid-20th century songs with known composers, made famous by known singers. Sure, Baligh Hamdi drew on folkloric traditions and Om Khalsoum's songs are so well known in the Middle East that they are kind of like Humpty Dumpty in their pervasiveness, but they're not "traditional" in the usual music sense.

It's like saying Love Me Do is a traditional English folk song. You could argue it, but really, no. And if Om Khalsoum sang it, it's first and foremost an Om Khalsoum song and all quibbles are off. If you're a geek like me you like to know who wrote it and when, but it's not as important as who sang it. And if it's The Lady, then you look very foolish if you don't acknowledge that at all.

Incidentally, I am not an Om Khalsoum snob. I don't object at all to tribal dancers taking on her songs if they wish to, and I don't think the view that only great dancers should try to dance to her work helps anyone. My first solo was to Enta Omri, and while it was far above me at the time, I worked really hard on it and learned a lot. If we all wait till we're fantastic before we try dancing to this stuff, we'll degenerate into a world in which "orientale" means "dancing to Arabic pop songs in a bedleh". Worse, we'll select a techno version of Lissa Faker and have NO IDEA what we're dancing to.

The same show included an orientale performance to Ana Fintizarak, described as Turkish, so the failing is not just on the tribal side. We need to check this stuff, even if only to avoid having some smug wanker, like me, sniggering in the audience.

It takes seconds to type the title of a song into Google. Read what comes up. Listen to the different versions that appear on YouTube. You might learn something.