Classics, live

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.

– an oud, a qanoun and a ney (photos by: openDemocracy, Ozanyarman & Nerval)

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.

Posted in Blog, Oriental Dance.

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