Interpretive skill plays a particularly important role in Egyptian raqṣ šarqī, which is customarily improvised by a solo dancer to live musical accompaniment. The heterophonic structure of classical Egyptian music involves layering instruments, each of which simultaneously performs its own ornamentation on the melody, rather than adding harmonies.
As an intermediary between the music and the audience, the dancer has the ability to direct the audience’s attention to a particular instrument or embellishment by emulating its rhythm, pitch, and dynamics in movement. In so doing, the raqṣ šarqī dancer chooses not only what the audience will see, but also what they will hear.
The concept of muḥāsabah (analytical listening) illuminates how, by being a sammīʿa (skilled listener), the dancer can enhance the audience’s appreciation of the music, temporarily making them skilled listeners as well. Ultimately, raqṣ šarqī performance is a multisensorial practice that combines sounds, sights, and movements in order to heighten the audience’s aesthetic and emotional experience.
This according to Listening with the body: The raqs sharqi dancer as musical interpreter by Ainsley Hawthorn (St. Johns: Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media, & Place (MMaP), 2020).
Above, a raqṣ šarqī dancer in Cairo with her ensemble, photographed by Dan Lundberg; below, Dr. Hawthorn presents her research.
Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.
“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.
The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.
This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).
Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
Commonly associated with Cairo’s working class, ša‘bī (شعبى ) is a politically charged musical genre with a long history of bawdy humor and trenchant social critique. While the cultural elite may see the term as an index of the backwardness of the uneducated masses, for many Egyptians ša‘bī evokes a sense of identity, tradition, and heritage.
One of contemporary ša‘bī’s foremost practitioners of social commentary and political dissent, Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (شعبان عبد الرحيم, above), stormed into popular culture in the early 21st century by mobilizing the genre’s potential to tap into the pulse of the Egyptian-Arab street. By 2002 ‘Abd al-Raḥīm’s brazen sociopolitical commentary had turned him into the unlikely hero of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.
This according to “‘I’ll tell you why we hate you!’ Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raḥīm and Middle Eastern reactions to 9/11” by James R. Grippo, an essay included in Music in the post-9/11 world (New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 255–75).
Below, ‘Abd al-Raḥīm’s Obama, which excoriates George W. Bush while poking fun at the notion that the newly elected Barack Obama will save the Arab world like Saladin.