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  • Lisa Lumina

L2: Bands and Orchestras

Part 1:

This semester, we've worked on musical phrasing and learning to identify different instruments. All of that comes together when a band or orchestra plays. So, let's look at some different types of bands!

First up, a tahkt ensemble. This is a small group of musicians, and depending on context could be any combination of instruments, but generally will be traditional Arabic instruments. The first video is an example, playing a classic shaabi song. The second video, with Soaud Hosny in red, is from a movie where she is part of an Awalim family, and in this scene her family troupe is entertaining at a beledi wedding. Since at least the mid 1800s it has been the traditional way for Awalim to perform publicly, that they would be on a stage with the band (possibly male members of their family, possibly musicians they had hired from cafes on Mohammed Ali street) playing cymbals and singing, and would get up to dance when moved to, or when the performance called for it. I included the clip as an example of that, but if you listen you'll notice the instruments you hear playing are not the ones on the stage in the clip. This is not uncommon in movies.

Sometimes you will hear a full orchestra, and not see one, thanks to movie magic. However, the fashion for light percussion (sometimes just a tambourine, aka riq) to allow for the artistry of the melody to shine, in echoed in the softer style of dancing characteristic of the silver screen stars from the 40s and 50s in Cairo. This style of art music is still popular, even if dancers can't afford to hire a full orchestra to play it live for them. Riq is also popular percussion for art music.

In the US scene, from the 50s until now, bands are often from a mixture of backgrounds. You might have a club where the kanoon player is from Syria, the oud player is from Greece, the tabla player is from Turkey, and the violinist was a rhebaba player before they left Egypt. This contributed to the music and dance style that became vintage American, as musicians, patrons, restaurant owners, and other dancers, trained new dancers on the job. It is also worth noting that in Turkey and in the US, the venue/band would hire the dancer, while in Egypt the dancer would hire the band. That impacted the size of band, and how much the dancer plays her finger cymbals.

Part 2:

It was once the fashion for star performers in Egypt to hire large bands, it showed off their status and therefore the wealth of those hiring them before the economy tanked in the 90s. Each dancer, of course, has her own style, and things vary from region to region (a bit like, each person has their own voice, but you can still hear regional accents and dialects), but I think you can see how the different composition of musicians changes how dancers perform. Where modern dancers have stronger moves to go with the more percussive bands, more melody heavy arrangements call for a softer interpretation. Here is Aida Nour performing in a 5 star hotel, and Fifi Abdou making a spectacular entrance for one part of a show she did in the Gulf.

Modern economics and technology have changed the sound of raqs sharki music. Bands hired by clubs, festivals, and dancers often have fewer members than star dancers would hire in the past, since wages for the dancers are down. Drum machines and electric keyboards that imitate many different instruments (often poorly) are common, and the percussion section has grown, since drummers work cheaper than melodic instrumentalists you can get more (literal) bang for the buck. Some of this music can sound canned if you have only heard it on CD, but if you go to festivals where it is played, it can fast develop an association with the joy and energy of those events which makes it more enjoyable.

Especially in Turkey and the US, bands are often being replaced by CDs, if there is even a venue for dancing at all. And the Turkish style music is often being replaced by Egyptian and Arabic tunes. Here is Tulay with a small band playing Turkish style music, and Didem a few decades later, dancing to a recording of Enta Omri, while a whole orchestra sits by and takes their break!

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