Her Songs Dance in our Hearts

By Amina Goodyear (Originally appeared in The Belly Dance Chronicles April/May 2013)                    

"Ya habibi, el leila, we sama, we negum wel amaru..."

Oh my darling, the night, and the sky and the stars and the moon....

These are the opening words for the song entitled "Alf Leila wa Leila", which was written for Om Kalthoum in 1969.

Om, meaning mother in Arabic, was to me, the mother of my "all-time favorite" songs of all time. Songs that floated in my head while awake, songs that danced in my head while sleeping and songs whose emotions and passions I was compelled to reenact while dancing, performing and seducing my audiences at the Bagdad during San Francisco's golden age of belly dance (from the 1960's - 1980's).

Mohamed Abdel Wahab composed most, but not all of her best-known songs used by dancers today. But there were many other composers who wrote for her, since Abdel Wahab only wrote for her in the last ten years of her musical and real life. Om died in her seventies, but she had been singing and performing in lower Egypt's country villages in the early 1900's dressed as a boy (because girls did not perform publicly) almost as soon as she learned to walk and talk. According to Om, she used to sing for sweets and mahalabeyya (pudding) and her father would collect and keep her money. Later her father took her to Cairo where as a young and talented girl/woman, people quickly discovered her abilities and she was soon on the road to realizing her dreams. Her voice, her being, and her passionate drive also attracted young composers and writers to her side.  She discovered that they, too, desired and needed to be heard. And by her calculated choosing and manipulation of young men - suitors, musicians, composers, and poets - she created musical marriages that made her the powerful, hypnotic and ecstatic voice of Egypt. 

"Ya habibi, el leila, we sama, we negum wel amaru...."

Oh my darling, the night, and the sky and the stars and the moon....

This song was composed by the oh so prolific, legendary and somewhat wild and scandalous Baligh Hamdi with the lyrics, the poetry, written by Morsi Gamil Aziz.  By the time this song was written, Om had already established herself as the reigning queen of song. By 1969, the sixty something year old Om had already commissioned and performed hundreds of songs. And she had already won, captivated and broken many hearts. 

"Ya habibi" - Any belly dancer worth her salt, any belly dancer involved in this dance knows that "ya habibi" means oh my darling, oh my beloved, oh my sweetheart. But what about "leila?" Is it just a girl's name? Does it only mean night? In Arab "song talk" maybe it really means "oh sleepless night, I'm staying awake all night thinking, dreaming, talking to the night and reminiscing about you, my love, my love, you're the love of my life..." In reality it means even more. And "sama" becomes the sky...the heavens...the ultimate paradise...And what about the word "negum?" It can't just refer to stars as in Leila Farid's "Camp Negum." It can also mean forever, infinity, a million, million stars and more. And  "amar." What is "'amar?" Is it just a girls' name? Well, actually, it's that and more. It's also the moon and refers to "the her" the most beautiful and, of course, it's also important to cry out to the moon and speak of love. Yes, Arabic is a vague language and I've been studying it and trying to decipher it for decades.

"Ya habibi, el leila, we sama, we negum, wel amaru...." 

I've always loved the words to this song and the melody of the song itself ever since I first heard the LP when it was first released in the early 1970's.  I especially loved that it was a live recording as the recording would transport me to a Thursday night concert in Cairo where I could be one of many in the audience loving, dreaming and ecstatic with joy and memories.

I've loved this song in all its various permutations with and without lyrics, sung and played live at the Bagdad where I worked as a dancer. I also loved the various versions I found on records, on cassettes and later, on CDs that were recorded on "belly dance" albums. But most of all, I love all the versions recorded by various young up and coming Egyptian and Arab singers such as the little blind boy, Taher Mustafa, the child star George Wasoof and the popular singer of "cover songs", Nur Mhana.

Although I've always loved what I consider "the original" version of "Alf Leila wa Leila", which was the LP record, in a purple album cover displaying a photo of a passionate Om emotionally and vigorously singing, I was eventually made aware of how fortunate I was to know "the original" version of the song. Most of my young local Arab musicians and friends had never even heard the original arrangement on LP. They were too young to have heard the music from the LP albums; they only knew of the song from stories by their parents telling of listening to the radio broadcasts of first Thursday concerts. Some may have learned about the song from older local musicians, or they may have heard a cassette of Om singing.  Of course, this was all before the Internet and you tube, which has now become our greatest music and dance resource.

Oftentimes, in performance, the song would morph into an oddly arranged version of different portions of the original song. It would become shorter or longer in order to accommodate a homesick Arab audience in a club or maybe just shorter to be part of a belly dance routine on a cassette or CD. Sometimes the song would be sung by a "cover singer" who had used one of Om's songs to show off his or her voice in a "star search" type competition or festival. If this is how the new generation of Arabs learned their music, how about the new generations of dancers who would later discover this music? This crop of dancers has the advantage of having the most danceable sections become available in dance CDs edited down to adhere to appropriate festival/performance time requirements.

As a band member I've many times witnessed what could happen if one is not prepared.  I have seen dancers cry, saying that they did not get their requested song, when in actuality, they did not recognize the portion that the musicians chose to play. (Some dancers don't even know that "Alf Leila wa Leila" has singing. They may only know what they find in belly dance CDs, which is usually only the first instrumental section. That's only the first seven minutes of a sixty-minute song.) Yes, that's why it is so important. 

So, why should learning a song in its original arrangement matter to dancers? Why bother to learn/memorize a complete hour-long song when most belly dance versions of the same song are only 5 to 7 minutes long? Well, it's because I've found that as a dancer, dance teacher, musician, it is important to do research and learn the original version  (which is so easy to do these days, thanks to the internet) in order to perform the song with the correct feeling and without awkward surprises. Live bands often decide on the spot which section to play, or delete, and if they feel like singing or not. 

Besides "Alf Leila wa Leila", most of Om's songs are quite long and divided into sections. Usually they start with a long instrumental introduction followed by the first verse of poetry. This may be alternated by another but shorter instrumental theme, another verse, more instrumental interludes, then more poetry and so on. Often the poetry is so repetitious that the entire song (which can sometimes last over an hour) is in reality, usually one page long. Om was known for her repetitions - including singing one word or even one syllable repeatedly until she was satisfied that her audience understood her emotional intention.

If you choose to dance to such a piece, do your homework. Take the time to know how many musical themes; sections and verses are in the song. When choosing the song, notice if it's the first instrumental section, notice if an instrument such as the violin or accordion or saxophone is playing/singing (the part of) the voice; take the time to differentiate between the voice and the instrumental melodic sections. If dancing to live music, take the time to speak to the musicians and request a section. Be clear - such as, ask for the first instrumental section (commonly called the introduction) the first singing part and the last instrumental section. Don't leave too much to chance. If dancing to live music, let your musicians know that you know your music. You'll dance better and your musicians will want to play better when they know that you care enough to know the song.

Study the song so thoroughly that you can jump in at any section or even feel comfortable enough to play with it.

I could not find a concert copy of Om singing Alf Leila wa Leila, but here is one of her singing Fakkarouni. Be part of her audience and enjoy the show.