One of the things I truly enjoy in Brussels is that there are a lot of events relating to Middle-Eastern culture. There are indeed a lot more of them than I can attend, but not long ago I did go to two concerts, one with Ghalia Benali singing Oum Kolthoum, presenting her new CD, and the other with the ensemble Nagham Zikrayet paying tribute to Farid el-Atrache.
They were both great musical experiences. They also both presented Egyptian classics live, and, what was of special interest to me, in interpretations that were not adapted to dance.– Ghalia Benali sings Al Atlal
Ghalia Benali presented Oum Kalthoum in a quartet format: oud, percussion, double bass and voice. She has a voice to fill a great hall but created such an intimate atmosphere it could have been a living room concert. I loved Benali’s take on the music, the jazzy tones, the intimacy, the modernity of her approach. I also couldn’t fail to notice how she made Oum Kalthoum more understandable, more easy to listen – for the Western ear –, how she commented on “the long piece”, Al Atlal, which she sang in its entirety (or almost) rather than a shortened version.
Which was quite appropriate: organised by Muziekpublique, the concert was held in the Théatre Molière for a general public (and by that I mean the usual Brussels mix of people). And for a general, mostly European audience, classical Egyptian music is not easy – we are simply not used to it.
– Nagham Zikrayet playing Farid el-Atrache
By contrast, the Nagham Zikrayet ensemble presented Farid el-Atrache’s music in a most classical way, with a full Oriental orchestra, that is 4 violins, a double bass, a keyboard, an oud, a kanoun and a ney, 2 percussionists, 3 vocalists, the lead singer, plus another singer who joined for the last song. They played the songs in full: we heard maybe five songs in a concert more than 3 hours long.
It was also a concert organised, as the hostess of the evening said, “to guard our cultural identity and pass it on to our children”. The public, accordingly, consisted mostly of people of Middle-Estern/North African origin, roughly from 7 to 70 years of age. It has to be mentioned though that no matter how traditional the setting, Nagham Zikrayet is a mixed group both in terms of gender and of ethnicity. The fact that such an orchestra would have women and non-Arab (Western-looking) members surprised me and was further emphasized by the hostess of the evening, who expressed how happy she was about this mix.
I sat between an elderly Hijabi lady and a man who, through our admittedly very short interaction, never thought I may not understand Arabic. I was clearly an ousider – and yes, that made me feel awkward. It was also a powerful learning experience, though I’d be hard-pressed to put into words that glimpse of understanding I gathered there. Events of this kind – organised by and/or for the local Arab community – is the closest I get (for now) to Middle-Eastern culture.
And yet, I didn’t see almost anyone from the Brussels oriental dance community.
If you’re a dancer and have the chance to see Arabic music live, don’t miss it. Even if, no, especially if you find the music difficult: this kind of music is best enjoyed live.
If you are not a dancer? Go anyway. There is a lot of beautiful music to find.