This post inspired by a suggestion from Jitka. Sorry it took me so long to write it 🙂
Some of the first questions students ask – after “How do you shimmy?” – are about music. What to get and where to get it. Arabic music is so easy to find now. Most of my music has come from Aladdin’s Cave http://www.aladdinscave.com/acatalog/New_arrivals.html , who always have a wide selection and great customer service, but in the past few years more and more has become available to download through sites like iTunes, emusic and Amazon. If you want to listen to a whole song, rather than the snippets available on those sites, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone dancing to it on YouTube. Bellydance downloads http://www.bellydancedownloads.com/ can help you find particular tracks.
I don’t want to be too prescriptive in this post because I think discovering music for yourself is such an enjoyable experience I would hate it to be spoiled with a box ticking mentality. I just want to point you in a direction and let you explore. Everything I write here is just a suggestion 🙂 how much you do is up to you.
With so much choice out there it can be hard to know what to start with. If you’re a beginner, or new to Arabic music, then pop music can be a good way to start training your ear. The rhythms and the structures of pop songs are pretty simple, so all you’ve contend with are some unfamiliar instruments and a language that you probably don’t understand. If you’re feeling very keen you can always look up the lyrics, there are websites out there dedicated to song translations:
Look out for album series like “Now Dance Arabia….” and “Now That’s What I Call Arabia…”. I have a double CD set which is quite out of date now 🙂 but I still like it called “Arabia: The Essential Album”. Find an artist you like, search for more of their songs…
When you’re ready to start moving beyond pop music try looking for compilations. One of my favourites is Bellydance Superstars Volume 1, it has a really varied selection of styles. None of the other albums in the series have had such a good selection, in my opinion. The only downside is that this one was so popular that a lot of the songs have been done to death – please let me never have to hear “Chicky” again! Another album I like is “10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know”, which is a good introduction to some of the classics. The “Oriental Fantasy” series is not so widely available now, but you can download them http://www.oriental-fantasy.com/dance-academy-cifuentes-berlin.php . Find a song you like, find out what it is about, look for videos of dancers using it, find out the composer and who originally sang it…
If you’re looking for music with performance in mind, check out the albums produced by dancers who have worked in Cairo. Yasmina, Leila, Outi, Samasem, Nesma…dancer-friendly versions of lots of classic songs. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning music piracy up until now, because it’s something that everyone knows is bad but does anyway. I’m mentioning it now because producing these CDs is often a labour of love for the dancers, so please try and get yourself an original copy.
Ask questions! When you’re in class or a workshop and you hear something you like – ask what it is. If you have a song you like but you’re not sure what the style is or how to dance to it – ask your teacher. We like questions. Get on the internet and start searching. If you want a checklist of composers and singers then Candi’s website is a fantastic starting point http://www.rakscandi.co.uk/ I often refer to it especially when I’m looking for different versions of a particular song or some background information.
Music is essential for bellydance. It can be difficult at first if you’re not familiar with Arabic music – new rhythms, new instruments, a language you may not understand – so I can understand why people seek refuge in the familiar and end up dancing to western music or Shakira. I think it’s such a shame to limit yourself in this way, more so if you are telling yourself that you are in some way being edgy by doing so. What is transgressive about dancing to the music that has surrounded you all your life? Learning about a whole new genre of music is a challenge but if you want to call yourself a bellydancer it’s one you must embrace. Listen and listen and listen some more and you will soon find you lose yourself in the ethereal beauty of a ney taqasim, or luxuriate in accordion balady, or with a lump in your throat listening to Oum Kalsoum.
You can even learn to love the mizmar. Really.