I went to Egypt in search of music. Music that lives inside of dance. Music that inspires freedom and laughter. What I found was more surprising than I imagined. I'd heard of Whirling Dervishes that spin themselves into ecstasy. I wanted to see belly dancers who light up the stage and screen. I wanted to whisper to the Sphinx: "Don't worry Father of Terror, I've seen many a worse nose job than yours." I wanted to make some sense out of this newfound fascination with Middle Eastern music in pop today. Even rap artists have the fever for the habibi flavor. Go on Missy, get your freak on, girl. I ain't mad at ya.
It was my first trip to Egypt, and friends had warned me about the airport, calling it "the most frightening in the world." When I walked through the wide sliding-glass door, everything turned black and white, then slow motion. I heard the howl of the desert wind, and swallowed sand as I quickly closed my mouth to hide my expression of culture shock. I could hardly make out a metal rail holding back hundreds of people. It seemed they would all topple over and crush my feet, or maybe break into a musical number à la Moulin Rouge. Hustlers driving homemade taxis offering a "special price" worked the room. I found the young man holding up a cartel with my name on it. Hamd'Allah, my contact came through.
On the minibus to the hotel, the driver stopped the radio dial on a Celine Dion song, perhaps thinking it would bring me comfort. "La shukran. Raks sharki (No thanks. Arab music, please)," I said. Back in Miami I had been traumatized by hearing Stella Soleil's ultracheesy remake of Turkish pop-singer Tarkan's song "Kiss" constantly played on the radio. Now I was in search of authenticity: music that shined as brightly as the sun above the pyramids.
I wandered through the Khan El Khalili market in Old Cairo. A vendor, frustrated that I would not respond to his flirtatious hawking, yelled after me: "Lady, what is your target?" I would like to ask Stella the same question. The U.S. pop version of the song originally released in Turkey can't even be called a remake; it's a bite. Stella simply speeds up and raises the volume on Tarkan's track, while painfully excising the smooth and quick jumps up and down the scale characteristic of Middle Eastern vocal style. Instead she unleashes a smoke screen of nonsense lyrics and overly sexualized delivery. Whereas Tarkan's voice is smooth and playful, Stella attacks the opening sentence of every verse and ends up sounding harsh and horny. In the studio she showed herself to be the recorded version of what travelers know as the "ugly American."
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Even uglier was the Alabina concert at the Jackie Gleason Theater on June 14. Alabina, whose tracks have been a staple at glamour clubs like JimmyZ and the late Bash, has always offered a hybrid sound of highly danceable Spanish Gypsy and Arabic pop. She found fame by Westernizing Arab favorites and lending them a Gypsy tone. Her earlier releases offered a palatable if bottled-blonde ethnicity. Her sleeper of a concert on Miami Beach, however, suggests that she has lost her habibi flavor. Her backup band, Los Niños de Sara, howled in an idiolect only interesting to each other, spewing out catchwords like vagabondo and mentioning a sexy "negra." The musicians threw in tropical rhythms to make the mix festive. As they hit-and-run through gypsy and flamenco styles, I kept hoping it would eventually come together. Then Ishtar, the half-Egyptian, half-Moroccan starlet, came out singing in English -- "I'm gonna take you higher" -- with all the conviction of Axl Rose singing a Barbra Streisand cover. She treated the audience with a cocky disdain that later turned desperate. As she continued the tune in English, I silently pleaded (as I would with the taxi driver in Cairo): "Can't we get some Arabic flavor up in this piece?"
What's really a shame is that Ishtar's voice is more than capable of Arabic vocalese. She successfully stretched notes and offered emotive deliveries on Middle Eastern favorites. She really can sing, but the show fell short of its crossover promise. It was neither Arabic nor Western, just a corny exotic hodgepodge. While Stella didn't do Tarkan justice, Alabina didn't do Alabina justice.
I found the flavor I sought at the Cairo Sheraton, on the opening night of Raqia Hassan's Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. The evening commenced with a Gawazy troupe from Luxor, an earthy tribute to all that is organic and life-affirming. Three female dancers were round and inviting. The musicians filled the air with the high-pitched metallic sound of the mizmar, the heavy thumping of polyrhythmic percussion, and the celebratory sound of the sagats. The troupe's director, Machsoub Machmoud Kenawy, was charming and brought the audience to a roar when he took center stage in his djellaba. He danced Gawazy folklore, which resembles what is called belly dance in the United States. His hips, sharp and precise, could bring most women to shame.
The headliner of the show, Egypt's current enfant terrible Dina, let me know I finally had arrived. Most stage productions in Egypt revolve around the dancer. In her game Dina reigns queen supreme. She bolted onstage and seemed to radiate into her audience like liquid fire. She seduced each and every one of us. Unlike the contrived and desperate attempts for audience acquiescence by Alabina, Dina was breathtaking. Her smile, her irreverent spunk, her sensitivity, her coolness embodied all that is sacred in a dancer. The cells of her body filled the music, reshaped it, and created a whole new universe. Her twenty-piece orchestra and singers were precise and followed her every movement. Every accent her body made was accompanied by the crisp tak of the darbuka. Dina is modern and frolicsome. She is notoriously avant-garde with her costuming as well, unleashing a new wave of fashion by belly-dancing in miniskirts. Tonight she wore a loin cloth. Whether that choice could be seen as Pharaonic or Western, she pulled it off like no one can. The marriage of her body and the music gave me what I came in search of: the real thing.