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Raqs al Baladi

Understanding Raqs al Baladi

By Hossam Ramzy

The oldest form of the Egyptian solo dance is raqs al baladi, or “dance of the people.” It is an ancient art of earthy sensuality with a proud, playful air. It has proved a powerful and enduring source of fascination to outside observers, and has changed little over the centuries. Traditionally handed down from mother to daughter, it is still performed in private by women for their own amusement. In Egypt, it survives among the ghawazee (gypsy tribes) and other professional performers who are brought in to entertain at weddings and other celebratory occasions within the community. Modern baladi differs in subtle ways from village to village in Egypt, with individual dancers contributing their own embellishments to a dance which, unlike many other great dances of the world, has never been codified. Baladi contains an element of melancholy which owes something to the loss of agrarian life, as well as something to the timeless concerns of love, loss and yearning. From baladi has developed raqs al sharqi, or “dance of the East,” a style more suited to the formal stage setting of theatre and cabaret.(Introductory notes of Hossam Ramzy’s CD, “Classical Egyptian Dance,” written by Wendy Buonaventura.)

Essentially, baladi today is Egypt’s urbanized folklore, music and dance. The word literally means “my country,” or anything that is done by the same country. Sometimes the term is used to express the lack of modernization within something. It is also used to refer to the country folks, as well as anything that is done by those people.

Hossam Ramzy

Baladi is also a special part of the Egyptian heritage of Mohammed Ali Street. This is a most famous area right in the heart of Cairo, where musicians and artists live and can be contacted. There are two cafés in Mohammed Ali Street, the El-Tagara (The Trading) and the Khalil-el-Dems. The musicians are split between these two cafés and are very protective about their patches, as when anyone wants any entertainment for a special occasion, this is where the musicians, singers and dancers can be found.

When we refer to a piece of music as baladi, it generally contains several distinct sections:

1. TAQASIM: The baladi always has a slow improvised introduction called taqasim.

2. AWWADI: The taqasim develops into the awwadi, a part with broken rhythmic construction that emphasizes the “one-and” in the “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and” count. The word Awwadi is derived from the oud (lute), as this section was usually played by the oud before the introduction of the accordian to Egyptian music. It also means “like an ood,” which is a bamboo reed that grows on the banks of the river Nile. The music, or the listener, sways with the breeze, as the rhythm accentuates the “one-and.”

3. MAQSOUM: The music in this slow section will be very emotional and full of sweet melancholia, until it arrives at the conclusion of the scale being played.

4. MAGROUR: The music goes into another broken rhythmic part that prepares it to go to the fallahi (“of the farmers”) rhythm. It is in a faster feel, but in the same tempo as the previous section. Magrour means “pulled and dragged along,” as the piece is coaxed by the music and tabla until the music scale is ready to go to the faster feel. When the fallahi rhythm is fully established, many a known song is hinted at by quoting phrases. The fast part of the magrour is the “tett,” where the sound that is played goes “tett, toot, tett, tat, etc.” At weddings, this is where the money is thrown to the band on stage as noqta (tips).

5. ENDING: The ending of the baladi is done after the magrour is exhausted. The music is decayed by a gradual slowing of the rhythm, then a finishing taqasim to surrender the scale to a stop.

It is then followed, if needed, by a tabla solo in which the dancer and drummer communicate choreo-rhythmically together, but that is another story.

Baladi is an improvised, heartfelt impression from the soul of the musician, inspired by the dancer’s response to his creation. A baladi will sound different each time it is played. Militant rigidity, or cassette recording of a baladi, loses the essence of the form. Nevertheless, some structure could be worked out so that the dancer and the band know more or less what will be expected. The improvisational nature of the baladi should include both musicians and dancer alike.

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