Know your music

When you’ve been bellydancing for a few years you probably start to think about choreographing your own dances. Finding your own style is an important part of a dancer’s development, and creating a choreography can be a really good way to explore your ideas about musical interpretation. You’ll have some ideas already from learning other people’s choreographies, and hopefully at some point someone has told you the importance of knowing what your music is about. You don’t want to bounce around with a big grin on your face when the singer is heartbroken, or dance to a religious song (yes people have really done this, and there are videos on Youtube to prove it!). But how far do you take this process?

With a pop song you’re probably OK if you can just get the general gist of the song. Pop music isn’t very complicated, either you’re in love and everything is wonderful, or your heart is broken and you can’t carry on. You need to take care with shaabi, it might just be a nice song about going for a ride in a hantour but there could be a double meaning you should be aware of. It could be about politics or drugs or bird flu… I recommend reading what Candi has to say.

In this post I’m going to talk about the classic songs in the Egyptian dancer’s repertoire and use Ana Fi Intizarak (Oum Kalthoum)* as an example. These songs are just beautiful. Like pop songs, they tend to be about love and heartbreak, but in a more complicated way. Love is never simple, to love is to suffer! This emotional complexity is what makes dancing to these songs so challenging and so rewarding. Also, if your audience is Arabic there’s a good chance they’ll know all the words and can sing along!

Here’s Fifi Abdo dancing to it.

When I’ve chosen a song to dance to the first thing I do is find out what the words are. Ideally I want a transliteration of the Arabic along with an English translation. I’ve written before about choosing music and you’ll find sites with collections of translations at that link. Luna (Kisses from Kairo in the bar to the left) offers a translation service with a very good reputation. Sorry, I can’t help with translations from Arabic to other languages. For Ana Fi Intizarak Shira has not one, but two translations! Direct translations can sometimes sound a bit clunky and awkward so with two (or more) examples I can compare how different people have translated different expressions. For example, I’ve found one line translated as:
“With each little letter I count your conversations with me”
“I consider the whisper your language”
“Each whisper counts your words”
“I hear your voice in any whisper”

It will really help if you can learn some Arabic. Look out for workshops aimed at dancers which will teach you some of the common words in songs – I’ve been to good workshops with Kay Taylor, Yasmina and Sara Farouk. If you have more time go to an evening course or try learning from CD. Knowing a few words will provide some anchor points in the translation for you.

If I’ve chosen an instrumental version of a song my next step is to find a vocal version so I can establish what the words would be if they were there. Even if you’ve chosen a version with a singer I think there is still a lot to be gained by hunting down the original version. You’ll find a lot of recordings uploaded to Youtube, occasionally there is a video to go with them but more often not. Here is 35 minutes of Ana Fintizarak:

I settle myself down with the instrumental version, the vocal version, the translations and my notebook and get to work!

If you’ve got this far no doubt some of you are thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of work, it’s far too analytical and isn’t it better to just dance to what you feel? Actually, I find that going through this process, which requires a lot of detailed listening, makes me appreciate the music on a much deeper level. I hear nuances in the instrumentation that I may have missed when I first listened. Comparing the different translations really makes me think about how to interpret the words and how I feel. There’s no one correct way to feel about a song. Oum Kalsoum sounds like she is in utter despair, but Fifi looks like she is in the early start of a relationship where you can’t bear to be apart so while she is suffering she is enjoying every moment…

For the readers who are thinking “Well, I know and do all this already”, good for you! However, I never had anyone sit down and explain all this to me and I guess I’m not the only one, so I thought it might help a few others. For you I offer one more link I found when researching Ana Fi Intizarak. It’s a detailed analysis of an 18 minute improvisation by Oum Kalthoum around 4 lines of the song and I found it very interesting.

Now geek out!

*Oum, Om, Um, Kalthoum, Kalthum, Kalsoum, Kalsum and probably no end of other potential spellings. Ana Fi Intizarak, Ana Fintizarak, Ana Fi Entezarak, etc. etc.