Zikrayat is an Arab music and dance ensemble dedicated to presenting together the classical music and the dance traditions of Egypt, Lebanon, and the greater Arab World, in vibrant stage productions evoking the theatrical atmosphere and dramatic depth of classic Egyptian musical cinema. Alternating vocal and instrumental numbers with solo and group dance numbers, Zikrayat’s mission is to highlight the diversity of Arab culture for mainstream Western audiences in an authentic, yet entertaining contemporary representation.
Inspired by the “golden age” of Egyptian musical cinema (the 1940’s-60’s), a period during which most of the major figures in music and dance in the Arab world worked in film, Zikrayat (meaning “memories” in Arabic) researches films from this period, searching for forgotten gems not performed since this era. Zikrayat’s repertory also includes traditional and standard numbers, as well as original compositions in the style of this period, classical as well as folkloric music.
Led by Arab violinist, vocalist, composer, and teacher Sami Abu Shumays and Egyptian-style dancer Robin “Dameshe” Shumays, Zikrayat also features a talented lineup of performers of diverse backgrounds brought together by their devotion to these rich art forms.
ABOUT THE TRADITIONS
Maqam Traditions and 20th century Urban Music
Arabic music is centered on a melodic tradition closely related to traditions practiced from North Africa and Turkey, through Iran and Central Asia, and into Western China, collectively known as maqam (meaning “scale,” “mode,” or “melody”). Shaped by thousands of years of trade, migration, overlapping empires, the music of the Middle-East reflects the tremendous cultural mixing of the region, and bears the traces of the many historical peoples who have passed through it—from the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans, to successive waves of Arabs, Persians, Turkic peoples and eventually Europeans.
The music of 20th century Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries displays a trend toward the development of national rather than broad regional styles, in parallel with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the new nationalism that resulted from the re-drawing of state boundaries in the region. Egyptian music in particular became closely tied with the presence of a strong and early recording industry in Cairo, dating from the first decade of the 20th century, leading Cairo to become the media center of the Arab world through most of the 20th century. The new “Egyptian” style fused Egypt’s rich folk traditions with the traditional classical urban music from the Ottoman period, resulting in a proliferation of new compositional styles in the early decades of the 20th century; Egypt’s musicians also actively studied European models, in terms of composition and medium, instrumentation and arrangement.
The traditional takht ensemble of late-19th and early 20th century Arab urban areas, featuring the oud (fretless lute), nay (cane flute), qanun (zither), violin (which had by that time replaced indigenous bowed string instruments such as the rababa and kamanja in urban music), percussion, and a vocalist, evolved by the 1940s into larger orchestral ensembles suited to recording and film, featuring string sections and the introduction of other western instruments such as the accordion, clarinet, and eventually the electric guitar, saxophone, and trumpet. The presence since the 1870s of a European opera house in Cairo (inaugurated by the production of Verdi’s Aida, which had been specifically commissioned for it) certainly encouraged these developments.
The term “Belly-Dance” conjures for many an all-too-familiar image: the scantily-clad harem girl gyrating suggestively before a room full of men, an Orientalist stereotype that has appeared in countless films and television shows, and seems to be a recurring image in music videos today. This depiction has little to do with what the dance actually is, or where it came from.
“Belly-dance,” the proper Arabic name for which is Raqs Sharqi (for “Eastern Dance”), is actually a stylized version of a social dance that has been done by both men and women throughout the Middle-East at weddings, festivals and parties, for centuries. Historically, dancing at these celebrations happened with the sexes separated; men dancing with men and women with women, and few depictions of mixed dancing exist.
Raqs Sharqi was popularized during the Romantic movement in Europe in the 19th century, as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire with varying degrees of exaggeration and fantasy. In the late 19th century, performers from different Middle-Eastern countries exhibited music and dance at several of the World’s Fairs, and the performances at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair gained national attention across the U.S. Dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, were on exhibit, but it was the dancers at the Egyptian Theater in the “A Street in Cairo” exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The rapid hip movements, undulating of the belly and the fact that the dancers (who were fully clothed) were uncorseted, was considered shocking to the Victorian sensibilities of the day; and they drew harsh criticism for their “immodest” “belly-dancing,” which was eventually censored due to public pressure.
It is also widely believed that the title “Belly-dance” arose not only because the dancers performed uncorseted, but also because when asked about their dance they used the word “beledy” to describe it. (Beledy in Arabic means “from the country.”) Despite objections, the dance became hugely popular throughout the country as it spread to Burlesque halls and carnival sideshows by American dancers. Due to cultural misunderstandings of the nature of the dance, and misrepresentations by the many imitators now performing it, the Western world considered it risquÈ, leading to the stereotype of an erotic suggestive dance.
Soon after the turn of the century, performance of the dance also became popular in cafÈs and nightclubs across Cairo. Ironically, the performances at these nightclubs reflected what was being done in the West. The two-piece costume now associated with raqs sharqi was adopted by dancers in Egypt in the 1930s, and owes its creation to the harem fantasy productions of Vaudeville, Burlesque and Hollywood, rather than to actual authentic Middle Eastern dress. An enterprising nightclub owner in Cairo named Badia Masabni is credited with the adoption of this costume due to the fact that this was the image that Western tourists came to expect! Because of the religious conservatism of Middle East and North African societies, the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes for mixed audiences came to be seen as morally objectionable, and the image of Raqs Sharqi fared poorly in its countries of origin as well.
Since that time, very little has changed. Despite rises and falls in popularity over the last 60 years, the dance is still seen as objectionable in the Middle East, and practitioners are often viewed as women with questionable morals. The costuming and movements are no more revealing or sexually charged than many of the Brazilian and other Latin ballroom dances performed in the West, yet “Belly-dance” is unfairly viewed in the U.S. as a highly sexual dance, something akin to stripping.
Beyond the stereotypes, however, a richly textured, vibrant dance art exists. The beauty of Raqs Sharqi is the way in which it allows dancers to internalize and express the emotions evoked by the music. Appropriately, the music is integral to the dance. The most admired Raqs Sharqi dancers are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even when their dance is made up of simple, subtle movements. The dancer’s goal is to visually communicate to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music.
Looking to the great dance stars of Egypt’s Golden Age of cinema for inspiration, Zikrayat’s dancers strive to lift the dance away from negative stereotypes and present it as a viable art-form. Through education, and by presenting Raqs Sharqi alongside other folkloric dances of the region in performance, we hope to enlighten those who maintain an uninformed view about this often misunderstood dance form, with the goal of restoring dignity to images of Middle-Eastern women as well.
The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema
For most of the 20th century, Cairo, Egypt was the center of the film, television, and recording industries of the Arab world, much like Bombay/Mumbai (sometimes called “Bollywood”) is for India. And for most of that time, the Musical was the most popular genre of film produced in Cairo. Consequently, the film industry employed most of the best musicians, singers, and dancers in Egypt; almost all of the most famous names in music and dance from Egypt in the mid-20th century, the singers Abdel-Wahhab, Umm Kulthum, Farid el-Atrash, Esmahan, Layla Murad, Fayza Ahmed, and Abdel-Halim Hafiz, and the dancers Naima Akif, Taheya Karioca, Samia Gamal, Nagwa Fuad, and Fifi Abdou, as well as many others, were all huge stars in Egyptian Cinema.
The standards for art and performance were very high in these films, especially in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of film in Egypt, the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. With their mix of the classical, the folkloric, the dance, the serious as well as the light-hearted, many of the best films (such as the famous Tamr Hinna, starring the singer Fayza Ahmed and the dancer Naima Akif) managed to capture and present the whole range of Arabic music and dance. Toward the latter part of this era, a nascent film industry in Lebanon, and the rising popularity of musical theater there (much of it centered around the singer Fairuz and the composer-lyricist team of the Rahbani brothers), contributed as well. This period resulted in the production of an enormous repertory of songs and dance pieces, a small percentage of which is very well known and enormously popular throughout the Arab world (dance pieces like “Aziza;” songs like “Ghannili Shwayya”), but most of which is almost totally unknown or forgotten.
ABOUT THE INSTRUMENTS
Zikrayat’s ensemble is a hybrid of the traditional takht ensemble of early 20th century Arab urban areas combined with features of the larger orchestral ensembles of the mid-20th century, to suit the Egyptian dance styles of the 1950’s onwards. Zikrayat includes a pairing of two percussionists, one playing the riqq (tambourine), the main percussion instrument in the classical music, and the other the tabla/derbakki (goblet drum), the main percussion instrument driving dance music, a combo that formed the backbone of many ensembles in the 1950s and 60s; Zikrayat also includes contrabass in its ensemble, which adds an orchestral depth and richness to its arrangements.
Zikrayat includes three principal melody players on violin, nay (cane flute), and buzuq. The nay is one of the oldest instruments in the Middle-East, a simple end-blown flute made from reed or cane. The oud, a pear-shaped fretless lute, is the iconic instrument of the Arab world, played by singers, composers, and amateurs alike; it is also the ancestor of the European lute, brought via the Arab presence in Spain from the 8th-15th centuries. The violin was brought to the Arab world in the 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century it had replaced the kamanja or rababa in the takht. The buzuq is a long-necked fretted lute popular in Lebanon and Syria related to the Greek buzuki, and the qanun, a 70-some-stringed plucked zither played on the lap.
Zikrayat doubles as a folkloric Egyptian ensemble, with violinist Sami Abu Shumays switching to rababa (a two-stringed spike fiddle made from a coconut shell covered with fish skin, used in music from Upper Egypt); keeping the nay (used in both classical and folkloric music) and occasionally the accordion (which has found a place in modern folkloric troupes, since those genres have been heavily influenced by urbanization, cross-pollination, and media presence in 20th-century Egypt).