Touring with the Ali Souissi Dancers
Touring with the Ali Souissi Dancers
By Aisha Ali
Upon returning to Tunisia in 1977, I began my agenda by paying a visit to Salah al Mahdi, a well-known ethnomusicologist and the director of Popular Arts at the Conservatory in Tunis. Several years had passed since publishing my first Tunisian field recordings in which I had expressed my gratitude to Dr. Mahdi in the liner notes. On this occasion, I was accompanied by my brother Jerome, who served as my audio technician. Dr. Mahdie greeted us warmly and I told him that I wished to follow up my earlier studies by recording new samples of the musicians, folk singers and dancers in each important region. He was interested in the idea and agreed to make me an itinerary, arranging a visit to each town and village where he knew of musicians who carried on important music traditions. In exchange I was to provide him with copies of whatever music I recorded. I agreed to this and was grateful for his assistance. My friend Mr. Asli, who worked with Dr. Mahdi, carefully worked out all the details and wired or phoned ahead to each location, making appointments with the artists so that they would be waiting and ready for me when I arrived.
My first stop on Al Mahdi’s itinerary was Sfax, where I learned that the Maison de la Culture was now known as the Comite des Affaires Culturelles and the new director was a Mr. Habib Charbonny. With the exception of Ali Mekki and a few fans, all of the committee members that had offered me employment directing a Tunisian dance company in 1973 had moved on and I had to begin anew to introduce myself. At first it was difficult to make any progress with Charbonny, and I was forced to sit for hours in his office while he conducted his business. Each day he had appointments with singers and musicians who came to see him and they too would wait quietly, speaking little. Patience was important if one wanted to be heard, for this seemed to be the way things were done.
Finally Charbonny became interested in my project and he sent for the Ali Souissi musicians from Kerkenna, for me to film with my new super 8 sound camera. (These were still the days before consumer video camcorders) He also brought a local dancer whose stage name was Nabila. She was reputed to be an expert in what she called the “Tunisian Bedouin dance” Arrangements were made for me to film Nabila dancing with the Kerkenna musicians at a theater which was part of the Maison de la Culture. The stage seemed as if it hadn’t been used for some time and the lighting instruments had been removed for use in another threater for a play that the Sfax actor’s group was performing at a nearby town. (Later they took me to see this play which was called “Ana Horra” which means “I am Free”) A single table lamp placed on the stage, was the only lighting available to us but somehow it worked; however, adjusting the recording levels for capturing the sounds of drums and folk oboes in a large empty auditorium, proved challenging. The stage floor was dusty and splintered but didn’t seem to bother Nabila, who was performing barefoot repeatedly for my camera. Between takes she had to wait around in the drafty theater lightly clad in her thin rayon melia (a large rectangle of fabric held at the shoulders by hilal, a type of Roman fibula or metal pin which is secured with a crescent shaped open ring). Still she never complained and watched everything with an attentive smile.
Nabila’s melia was of a looser weave and thinner than many of the types I had seen worn in the streets or for sale in the souk. Also she wore it without a khamisa (blouse) and instead wore a beaded bra beneath it, into which she tucked the front of her melia in order to display cleavage. On this occasion, her jewelry consisted of two silver hilal – strung together with the traditional hammered flat silver chain links – that fastened her melia at the shoulders, some thin silver bangles and a pair of plastic red chrysanthemum shaped clip-on earrings.
After several hours I suggested that we stop so Nabila could rest, but Charbonny insisted that it wasn’t necessary because she was accustomed to dancing hours on end. Nabila’s style was to accomplish dynamic syncopated movements while maintaining a good-natured air of indifference. She moved her hips in wide twisting motions that appeared effortless until I tried to imitate them. It was surprising how far her hips could travel while her back remained straight. With an air of quiet certainty she would cause her yarn belt tassels to whip forward and back emphasized by the high pitched slap of the darabukka. They were so aligned that it was difficult to tell if she were following the drum or the drum was following her. In a subtler vein, she would move her shoulders smoothly forward and back, while keeping her forearms raised and still. One of her most interesting movements was a shimmy with which she traveled sideways or on an angle, dropping one hip by stepping onto a flat foot, while the other foot remained on half toe and alternately sent the opposite hip upward before it dropped. This dropping hip produced a rapid piston- like motion.
For one of her dances she balanced a clay water jar on her bare head. When the music made the first transition ending with a roll of the darabukka, she twisted her hips rapidly side to side with the jar on her head, then dropped suddenly to her knees in time with the ending drum accent. She resumed her dance in a reclining position while supporting herself on one arm. Again the drum would roll and she vibrated her outstretched leg ending in a kick that coincided with another sharp slap of the drum.
There were four musicians from the Ali Souissi group on that occasion, men in their fifties or thereabout who were dancers as well as musicians. Except for their white sneakers, their costumes were traditional and elaborate. They wore Greek style white fustanellas with white shirts and hose, but their vests and felt hats were red. Around their Fez-type hats were very long twisted yellow plaid scarves. Arranging them required assistance from a second person who would first twist the fabric and then wind it around the hat.
Playing their instruments as they moved, they demonstrated more than several choreographed dances for me. The instruments they played were the zukra, –which like the Egyptian mizmar and the Turkish zourna, is a type of folk oboe – and tabls – large double-faced drums played with sticks. Their dances were slow and hypnotic and sometimes while traveling in a circle with a deliberate forward back pelvic movement, they reminded me of the movements of the Ouled Naïl.
Slowly they formed constantly changing patterns emphasized by their billowing white skirts. When all the filming and recording was completed, Charbonny asked me if I would like to make another film of Nabila doing raqs sharqi. Nabila became embarrassed and said that she did not really know the Oriental dance. Of course I was very interested in seeing what her movements would be like to Egyptian music, but I was afraid that it would be asking too much of her. By the time I had made my up mind not to trouble her, Charbonny had already sent her home to fetch her cabaret costume.
She returned in a short time carrying an open satchel with her costume stuffed into it, and several LP’s with worn covers. I accompanied her to the storeroom that we had improvised as a dressing area. Although we had difficulty in speaking to each other since Nabila spoke no English and my Tunisian Arabic was limited, by the time we left the dressing room, we had established a friendly rapport. She had confided to me that although she performed raqs sharqi professionally in the nightclubs, she did not know much about cabaret style and that her dance was “Bedouin,” or shaabi. I had often noticed that certain folk traditions such as jewelry and dance were often broadly referred to as “Bedouin.”
Since the musicians only played Tunisian folk music, Charbonny had located a portable record player for Nabila’s Egyptian LP’s. Nabila looked lovely in her gold beaded costume. As was the fashion in the 1970’s, she had tucked the side panels of her chiffon skirt into her belt forming a puff on each hip, and she was still wearing her red chrysanthemum earrings.
She began dancing to the tune of “Khudni Ma’ek” and it became apparent that her moves were similar to those she had used in her Bedouin dances; but somehow it worked well for her. From time to time she would break out in a self-conscious giggle and I would assure her that she was doing very well. When I had finished my film, (in those days before videotapes, I used four minute 8mm film cassettes) I joined her in the dancing and she wanted me to show her some of my Egyptian movements. We had fun and agreed that during the forthcoming weeks we would each teach the other her dance.
Shortly after the eid el adha, an important feast day when lambs or sheep are slaughtered and a portion of the meat is given to the poor, the Minestere des Affaires Culturelles had arranged for Nabila and me to perform in a small town called Menzel Shaker. This was to be the first of a series of performances that I made with Nabila and the Ali Souissi musicians on what they referred to as a cultural exchange tour. Our group traveled to outlying towns and villages and put on a performance of folk music and dance. Six of us, plus Charbonny and the driver, met at the dar shaab (House of the People) with our luggage and piled into the back of a Mercedes van where there were no seats. In order to avoid sliding around during the long trip over bumpy roads, we had to sit tightly together. Charbonny of course, sat in front with the driver.
When we arrived in Menzal Shaker we needed to announce to the people that there was to be an evening of entertainment. In the past when there was a public performance of music and dance, the performers would make a procession through the town playing their instruments and dancing as they went to gather the townspeople and lead them to the area where the exhibition would take place. On these occasions as we circled through the towns, the driver played a record which was broadcast through a squawky speaker box. He would interrupt the music at intervals by announcing that there was to be a performance by the Ali Souissi group and the famous dancers Aisha from America and Nabila from Sfax.
After circling the area for 20 minutes or so, we were brought to the home of a woman who was the official head of the village. She received us in a friendly manner and announced that she and some of the townswomen were getting together to prepare a couscous dinner for everyone. Chairs were brought into the small house especially for us, although the rest of the family, including the grandmother, was seated on the straw floor mats. We were offered some of the fresh crispy red dates that had just been harvested and some preserved meat that was made after the feast day. After receiving their hospitality and paying our respects, we returned to our van with the squawking box and this time stopped to visit the home of a person who Charbonny referred to as the “Delegate”. His house was somewhat large and more European in fashion so that it seemed unique in the area, and he and his family appeared to be the foreign aristocrats of the town. He was an elegant young man dressed in a three-piece suit and he received us in a salon furnished in French provincial style. He accepted Charbonny’s invitation to attend our performance and dine with us, and to be polite, he invited me to have dinner with his family the following week.
In the several hours since we had arrived in Menzal Shaker, all the townspeople had received news of the performance and many were seated in the auditorium of the dar shaab. These centers are located in each city, town and village for cultural and social activities, and are subsidized by the government.* The house lights were bright and everyone was happy and eager to enjoy this unexpected pleasure and they seemed pleased by the presence of the “Delegate”. The director of the center and his cronies decided to sit on the stage and smoke cigarettes while we danced. Their chairs were set against the side wall of the stage so that they had an excellent view but they didn’t seem interested in watching us. They did however, frequently find excuses to come by the dressing room after our dances. The window in the dressing room (which was actually a classroom) was not curtained, and some of the local young boys decided they would rather watch the show from the window. Nabila caught them peering at us and walked unabashedly towards the window saying something that made them scamper.
As we were changing into our costumes, Nabila showed me an interesting method for arranging and pleating the back of the melia. After fastening two thirds of the width of her melia with the silver hilal, she would hold the loop end of the yarn belt against her left hip while I held and pulled the other end out to her left side. She then draped the remaining third of her melia forward over the belt and had me tug the end tautly until a shimmying motion occurred, gathering the cloth into pleats before she wrapped the belt backwards and around her hips, then through the loop on her left and doubled back to her right hip where it was tucked under and secured. It took me over a decade to really understand how this worked and now it all seems so simple.
During those years I was directing my own Middle Eastern music and dance company of twenty-five members back in Los Angeles. Our standard 90-min. program included 16 separate numbers with music and costumes from a variety of regions of the Middle East and North Africa. It was hard for me to conceive putting on a two-hour show with four musicians and two dancers, yet no one seemed to expect anything more. Between us we had three costume changes. There was my two piece gold and crystal beaded oriental costume and two of Nabila’s melias. These were both loosely woven of thin rayon making them rather slinky and clingy. One was forest green and the other a deep purple. Nabila had only one set of hilal, but she insisted that I wear them and when we appeared on stage together, she fastened her melia with safety pins. We danced together, we danced separately, the musicians danced and the musicians played, and we danced sometimes with them. In the end I performed a belly dance to only drums; and somehow we filled the two-hours.
Our audience was attentive throughout and seemed reluctant to leave when the show was over. After changing, the musicians and dancers were shown to a room where a large tray of lamb cous cous had been laid out. Tired and hungry, I dipped in with my hands like everyone else while some of the local women watched us with a proprietary interest from outside the doorway.
Although the “Delegate” and his wife had left early, most of the people had stayed to thank us and give us a warm send off. As I climbed gratefully back into our van I wondered if I would ever return for the offered dinner invitation with the foreign aristocrats. I didn’t think about it very long because within minutes I was asleep.
* While recently teaching in Italy, it was interesting to note that in Florence they also had a city meeting place that they referred to as “People House” which served the same function. After my workshop many of the dancers met us there accompanied by their husbands and boyfriends, to eat pasta and pizza. Although our group was mainly middle aged, the place was filled with happy, noisy youths and everyone seemed pleased to be in such an active sociable atmosphere. They were very proud that the food served was the same as “home made.”
This is an edited version of an earlier article published in Arabesque Magazine in 1977.
Aisha Ali is an internationally acknowledged expert on the regional styles of North African and Egyptian dances. She began her fieldwork in 1971, traveling to the Middle East to observe and document traditional dances. In Upper Egypt she performed with a family of Gypsy entertainers at country weddings. In 1973, during her stay in Tunisia, Ms. Ali was the featured soloist at the Municipal Theatre in Sfax and was asked to form a dance troupe through the Maison de la Culture. Later that year in Algeria, she stayed among the Ouled Nail, a tribal group famous for its women dancers. Since 1973 she has made many subsequent visits to Egypt and North Africa collecting folkloric materials from which she produced eight CD recordings and two video documentaries as well as a series of instructional videos. Her many articles include text for the JVC/Smithsonian Anthology of World Music and Dance, and the Oxford International Encyclopedia of Dance. In 1984 she organized participants from the Middle East nations for the 1984 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Los Angeles. Among other honors, she was inducted into the 1996 AAMED Dancers Hall of Fame, and later that year was proclaimed a “National Tresure” by impresario Peter Sellers during the city-wide Los Angeles Dance Festival. Recently she was nominated for the Dance Heritage Coalitions’s list of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.” Aisha Ali gives periodic lecture/demonstrations at UCLA and conducts master classes in the U.S. and abroad. She is currently editing her latest Egyptian footage. www.aisha-ali.com