"Classic" belly dance songs

LissaC

New member
What are "classic" belly dance songs, the kind of songs all belly dancers do/should know and that have danced to at some point?

Our teacher is having us dance to Batwanes Beek, she says it's one of the classics, but I believe there are others.
 

Daimona

Moderator
Oh, there are several. Just a few from the top of my head:

Leylet hob
Enta omri
Zeina
Tamr Henna
El Hob Kollu
Kariat el Finjan
Alf Leyla wa leyla
Sawah
 

LissaC

New member
Thank you @Daimona ! I have Zeina on my playlist but didn't know it was a classic, I will check out those other songs. Our teacher also had us listen to Sallam Allay which shows on shira.net and I think it must be a classic too
 

Tourbeau

Active member
First off, please don't interpret my long-winded, philosophical answer here as any sort of attack or ridicule of your inexperience. Everybody starts at the beginning, and when I was at your level, I was paying a teacher to feed me some genuinely odd, under-informed ideas about Middle Eastern music, so I started out as confused and clueless as they come.

The problem with the question of identifying a list of "classic" or "essential" songs is that the task is so big in scope, it is almost undoable. The answer depends on who's speaking, how old they are, where they're from, what they like, and what metric we're using to sort by (songs that audiences enjoy? songs that dancers like? songs that are significant in the development of Middle Eastern music or the evolution of belly dance as a performance art? songs that are challenging to interpret, and as such, represent various points of dance mastery?).

Ask the question "What are the top songs a belly dancer should know?" to a 20-year-old university student in Lebanon, a 30-year-old ATS (tribal) belly dancer in California, a 40-year-old musician in Turkey, a 50-year-old former dancer from the Reda Troupe in Egypt, and the ageless dance teacher and mentor Morocco (AKA Aunt Rocky) in New York, and you will get 5 unique sets of equally valid answers.

The region this dance comes from spans almost two dozen countries and multiple languages, and each place and each group within that place (different generations, different economic and ethnic subgroups) all think their answers are the right ones. They have had music and recording technology just as long as everybody else has, and while some places were more prolific, artistically adventurous, and adept at promoting their efforts than others, we're still talking about drawing from a potential library of hundreds of thousands of songs spanning over a century of recordings. There just plain isn't one short answer here. A while back on another (now defunct) forum, somebody started compiling an essential list, and I think it ended up being around 60 songs, with a lot of debate. The Salimpour list is over 100 songs. It took me almost a month to digest the library of essential ME songs on Oriental Tunes when they were online.

Out of curiosity, did you try googling "songs every belly dancer should know"? There's at least one CD with that name, not to mention numerous listicles posted by dancers, playlists on YouTube, and translation resources specifically so dancers can understand what the most commonly used songs are about.

And...much of this ignores that many dancers tend to exist in a musical bubble. Native Middle Easterners often have a much longer list of music they'd like us to know about and use, but too many dance students are either afraid to stray off the path and listen to music that does not feature the words "belly dance" on the album cover, or they never try to develop a taste for what natives actually listen to (i.e., usually not stuff with "belly dance" on the album cover, because they typically prefer longer, original versions with lyrics and medleys of covers called "cocktails," not heavily arranged instrumentals...although some of the classics never had lyrics, or multiple versions exist with different countries each claiming their version is the "real" one).

But it also goes the other way. There are songs dancers would consider very important that natives barely know. Bellydance Superstars had very little impact in the ME, and most natives don't usually think of music in terms of fifteen-minute sets, five-minute limits on hafla performing slots, magencies, and drum solos (although some famous dance recordings have in-culture recognition, and occasionally a dance-specific piece becomes popular, like "Tablat Bassem").

So how do we choose "essential" songs? In a match between "Shik shak shok" by Hassan Abou el Seoud and "Yearning" by Raul Ferrando, I'd side with the non-ME dancers and pick "Yearning." ("Shik shak shok" is cloying, dated, and dancing to it inevitably results in a losing comparison to Souheir Zaki, while "Yearning" is barely known in the ME, but it's riding a 12-year wave as the definitive veil-performance song.). If having to choose between Maya Yazbek's original version or Nourhanne's BDSS-popularized version of "Habibi ya eini," I'd side with the natives and Maya Yazbek. (I personally like the older version of the song better.) The dynamics of picking a list of music are just all over the place, and highly dependent on opinion.

So Step One here is to go out and hunt down the main version of "Batwanes beek," which was sung by Warda (al Jazaira), if you haven't already. It's more important to "chew your food thoroughly," so to speak, than to worry about having a list of songs where you can check off boxes. If you are working on a song for a choreography or you find a song you love, invest the time to really hear it, not only rely on whatever sanitized-for-your-dance-protection, edited version you're using in class or planning on performing to. Spend time with the original version. Check out cover versions by other famous musicians. Don't be afraid of listening to concert/performance versions, even though they may be longer. ME music is meant to be live, dynamic, and improvisational. Long concert versions mean this is what the song sounds like when everybody is really getting into it.

Some dancers may suggest you focus on the Big Four of Egyptian music (Farid al Atrash, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Umm Kalthoum, and Abdel Halim Hafez), but remember, Lebanon/Iraq/Saudi Arabia/Turkey/wherever thinks their pantheon of greats should be on any list of the most important music, even though most dancers may not know much about those artists, and their music might not be performed/performed to very frequently outside of their culture.

The whole "Big Four" idea is sort of like calling Elvis Presley "The King of Rock and Roll." Contemporaries existed to challenge the notion of isolated greatness, and time weathers anyone's legacy. No matter how stellar and landmark-y your popularity was, new music keeps coming out and pushes you down the list as younger generations march away from you. Heaven knows, I'm not suggesting Mohamed Ramadan should supplant Farid al Atrash or anything, because they barely qualify as doing the same thing, but the music industry is driven by youth and/or newness, so no matter how fresh and innovative an idea was, it will still eventually age into being somebody's grandparents' musty old stuff.

That means Step Two is to stop thinking in terms of a fixed, masterable list of "classic songs every dancer should know," and realize that musical education for a dance student is a multifaceted, ongoing process. It is frequently nonlinear, meaning you may need to circle back and re-listen to things as you grow and gain new insights and experience. There is no moment where you can sit back with satisfaction and think, "I'm done. I've heard it all."

As I said at the start, my first teacher made some odd comments, so in 1999, I wandered off on my own to learn about ME music. I'm well over the mythical "10,000 hours of work to become an expert," and I still feel like I can look over my shoulder and see where I started a few steps back, because there is so much more to learn--and they keep making more new music! And uploading previously unavailable old music! And the good news is that it has never been easier to find and enjoy all of it!

Please don't take my ramblings as something to be discouraged about. This is a long journey with no obvious end, but if you love ME music, it is a magical experience, full of beautiful delights to explore! Over two decades in, I still think of ME music as a bottomless treasure chest of new (and new-to-me) joys to discover!

And remember, above all, we dance because the music moves us. Music is not an afterthought to your dance education. It is what gives our dance meaning and purpose.
 

LissaC

New member
Ok, so apart from classes I'm watching Youtube tutorials and following musicians and dancers on social media and sometimes the teachers/musicians say "you probably heard this song", "You should be familiar with this", and I read this as meaning that there are a set of songs that most belly dancers and musicians have heard. I'm smart enough to know not everyone considers the same songs as a classic, and that the Middle East is a wide region made of different countries with a different musical heritage. Same way I am smart enough to understand the 5th Symphony is a classic, and most people in the West have heard it and most people who've had a musical education have played it, same thing with Elvis, which doesn't mean western music isn't varied and that the West isn't an extensive region made of different countries with different musical heritage. I don't believe a dance that has hundreds of years of tradition doesn't have songs that have been played and danced to more often, usually for a good reason. Or maybe my teacher is teaching us Batwanes Beek and Sallam Allay because she doesn't know any more recent songs? And maybe there are really no classics in belly dancing, then why did some of the songs suggested here matched with songs my teacher shared with us in dance or songs I had found on my own?

I have heard all of the songs suggested in this thread, and some I don't like and won't add to my playlist, unless my teacher teaches them in class, but thankfully we don't do choreography, which means I can dance to what I want at home. And I have listened to both "Shik Shak Shok" and "Yearning" and put them aside because I didn't enjoy them. Same way I'm not saying the 5th Symphony isn't a classic just because I don't enjoy it. Which doesn't mean it's not important for me that I know these songs.
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
I should mention the songs I added are classics from the viewpoint and experience of an AmCab dancer who began performing in the 70s.
 

Tourbeau

Active member
[...] I read this as meaning that there are a set of songs that most belly dancers and musicians have heard.
Depending on the circles you travel in, you will naturally encounter some songs more than others, and while dancers have attempted to compile "essential" lists, there is no universally agreed upon master list, just as there is no universal agreement on names of movements, or what is required to graduate from "beginner" to "intermediate dancer," and "intermediate dancer" to "advanced dancer" to "professional."

In the US, depending on the teachers you have access to/choose, you can study for years without ever encountering most of these "essential" songs. There are still many classes for traditional belly dance (not even tribal fusion) that rely on records that aren't these songs (studio musicians playing soundtrack-grade, randomly named instrumentals, and albums made decades ago for dancers by musicians in the US when native music was difficult to import), and once you decide to start working as a soloist, teacher, or troupe director, you choose your own music, so it becomes even easier to avoid "the list." Some dancers actively do avoid using the "classics"...sometimes out of concern they are not up to the challenge, and other times because they think it won't stand out enough in the show, or it is too old fashioned when they'd rather do something novel or trendy. Your odds in the US of going to a hafla and not seeing a performance to a "classic" is on par with your odds of buying a lottery ticket and not winning! Note also that many gigging dancers are hired for hookah clubs with young audiences who don't want oldies music, and non-natives who are looking for a fun, kitschy party experience, not a soulful rumination on love or an authentic folkloric experience. And most US dancers never perform with a live ME band.

The lack of rigor and consistency in dance education and the reality on the ground make it possible for a list of essential music to be simultaneously important and incredibly easy to ignore.

On the other hand, if you spend enough time online watching talent shows based in the ME ("Arabs Got Talent," "The Voice: Ahla Sawt," "Arab Idol") you can start to compile your own list of the songs natives consider essential, and compare that to what dancers think natives like.

I'm smart enough to know...
I apologize if you felt I was talking down to you. This forum is read by all sorts of students, and I am in the US, where it is not uncommon to find people who are substantially lacking in their knowledge of what goes on in other parts of the world. Many students show up to their first belly dancing class without ever having heard authentic ME music before and knowing very little beyond Shakira and the stereotypes they see in the media.

The point of dragging Elvis Presley into this was to use him as an example of someone who was once considered very influential, but who has largely "rolled off the page." Important nickname aside, Elvis has been mostly forgotten, and only a small subset of his discography is encountered IRL anymore. The "Big Four" are really down to two now, and the legacies of Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez are similarly contracting in the public consciousness. It's not that people don't care about Mohammed Abdel Wahab anymore--they just don't care about him any more than they care about Sayed Darwish, Zakariya Ahmed, or any other dead composer of once-popular songs.

And part of why Farid al Atrash even got into our Big Four was his relationship with Samia Gamal. Farid was significant as a musician in his own right, but what pulled him ahead of guys like Mohammed Fawzi, Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, and Mounir Mourad was that he was composing music for and starring in movies with Samia during the peaks of both of their careers. We think of his music as being essential to belly dance because as a side effect of their hooking up, she became the ambassador of his music to the dance community. If it hadn't been for that connection, he probably would have receded into the mists of time just as much as his contemporaries did. Not that I'm diminishing his contributions, but why focus on him when you could make a solid case for others taking that fourth spot instead?

Older people and music nerds know and remember all of them fondly, but younger people just aren't that engaged with this music anymore, which isn't to say there are no younger fans, or it isn't still valued for its cultural, historic, and academic significance, but belly dancers have this idea that the Middle East is trapped in amber, when the reality is that time marches on, and most young people over there aren't any more interested in watching old B/W movies and listening to singers who died two decades before they were born than they are anywhere else in the world.

The Arab Spring upended a lot of things, including tourism, which was a major sponsor of nightlife, especially dance shows, but they were two generations into a shift away from those sorts of nightclubs anyway, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism wasn't helping. Young people who wanted to push back against the mullahs didn't want to rebel by going to supper clubs and listening to orchestras playing songs two or three times as old as they were.

Prior to the pandemic, many of the top working dancers in the ME were not even from the ME. To be blunt, belly dance--as we've known it as a formal performance art going back to Badia Masabni--is dying. Dancing is still thriving as a social activity, but outsiders are a big part of what is keeping it afloat as a theatrical profession and a scholarly endeavor (for now).

Or maybe my teacher is teaching us Batwanes Beek and Sallam Allay because she doesn't know any more recent songs?
Both of your teacher's selections would be on some dancers' lists, maybe even most dancers' lists, but someone else might choose "Fi youm wa leila" or "Akdib aleik" or "Tab wana maly" or "Aal eih beyesalouni" instead of "Batwanes beek" as their Warda song, and Warda is only one singer. How many of her hits does she get on this list? Do we include all of Umm Kalthoum's music? How many songs does Fairouz get? And Sabah? Asmahan? Shadia? Najat al Saghira? Souad Mohamed? Samira Said? Nancy Ajram? That's only 10 women. We haven't even started on the male artists and folkloric traditional songs, and the list is already spiraling out of control.

An educated dancer should have familiarity with all of these "classics," in addition to being able to recognize various styles of music, and the most famous singers by voice and on sight. That's a lot of listening homework, more than many students are willing to do for a part-time hobby they took up for fun, so their teachers just shrug and go along instead of expecting higher standards from their pupils.

As for the idea of more recent songs, I don't think the mythical "list" has been updated since the Arab Spring intersected with the current down cycle of belly dance's popularity, but it's possible some Facebook group has added a few songs. I'm trying to remember when the last big everybody-wants-to-dance-to-this song came out that wasn't mahraganat or Westernized fusion. "Souq al banat" by Mahmoud al Leithy was around 2011. ""Al dunia zay aI morgeeha" by Amr al Said and "Al Aww" by Diab were 2010. "Sigara bony" by Mahmoud al Husseini was around 2009. The "Qeset al hai al sha'abi" soundtrack was 2006. None of those are classical. Anybody? I got nuthin'--just the Arab Spring cratering the traditional ME music industry and lowbrow popular stuff.

In all honesty, it's probably time to admit the sun has set on the style of traditional Tarab music. Sure, there are musicians who still play these songs and audiences who still want to hear them. This music continues to be studied in conservatories. Dancers and ME film and mosalsalat producers still commission this style of music to be composed and recorded. But we may as well be talking about the current state of Italian opera or 1940's-style Big Band music. Where is the modern-day Puccini or Verdi writing destined-to-be-immortal arias? Where is the modern-day Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington? Where is the modern-day Mohammed Abdel Wahab or Riad al Sonbati or Baligh Hamdi or Sayed Mekawi? It doesn't mean there will never be another great song, but aside from the Rahbani family, and maybe being generous and including Kazem al Saher as an exception, the majority of ME musicians are putting their efforts into more informal styles. Few things stay popular forever.

And maybe there are really no classics in belly dancing, then why did some of the songs suggested here matched with songs my teacher shared with us in dance or songs I had found on my own?
There are classic songs, but there is no well defined consensus of which ones are the most important ones. This is closer to how mathematics and logic use the concept of "necessary but not sufficient." "Batwanes beek" and "Salaam allay" are not on Hollywood Music Center's "10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know," "Top 20 Bellydance Hits," and "50 All Time Greatest Belly Dance Hits," but they're on "Aziza Raks!" What does that signify? Mostly that Aziza and the Panossians chose different songs.
 

Tourbeau

Active member
[Sorry, I have lots of opinions on music...]

Finally, the significance of bringing up different regions of the ME being excluded from or under-represented on "the list" is that these are often distinctive, non-interchangeable musical styles that a well-rounded dancer should have familiarity with. When we are talking about compiling some master list of songs for dancers, it inevitably shortchanges anywhere that isn't Egypt--not because those other places don't deserve to be represented, but because Egypt controlled the lion's share of the Arab entertainment industry until the oil money in the Gulf started to assert itself. If a competent dancer is supposed to have knowledge of Khaleeji dance style, then why do these essential song lists rarely have more than a few Gulf songs, one of which is usually not even identified by its proper title (Mohammed Abdo's "Abaad," AKA "the 'leila, leila' song"), with little awareness that there is more than one kind of Khaleeji music? What about dabkat that isn't "Ya ein moulayetein"? Muwahashat that isn't "Lama bada yatathana"? Nubian that isn't "Sukar"? Has anyone ever seen a list of essential music for dancers that acknowledges Iraq had an extensive and rich history of traditional Tarab music, with a Golden Age to rival Egypt's? What about Turkish music that is more than three folk songs ("Bir Demet Yasemen," "Şişiler," and "Rompi, Rompi") and "Şımarık" by Tarkan?

This is not an issue of not having time for everything, or some areas being too obscure to be worth knowing. There should be essential sub-lists for each of these styles as they are taught, and instead, we act like it is a priority to include these dance styles in our curriculum while serving crumbs of the music accompanying them.

The insufficiency of these "essential" lists make them deceptive and problematic. They are starting points, not end points.
 

Daimona

Moderator
And starting points are exactly what these lists should be, even if they are unsufficient and exclusive by nature. We all need to start somewhere, right?
 

Zorba

"The Veiled Male"
Some songs are just overplayed, like "Sahra Saeeda" or however its spelled. Its a nice drum solo - the first 35,783,508 times you hear it - after that, it gets old. And I can't abide Hakim for the most part - but he's hardly classic. Now Tarkaan on the other hand, I love most of his stuff!
 

LissaC

New member
Some songs are just overplayed, like "Sahra Saeeda" or however its spelled. Its a nice drum solo - the first 35,783,508 times you hear it - after that, it gets old. And I can't abide Hakim for the most part - but he's hardly classic. Now Tarkaan on the other hand, I love most of his stuff!
I liked Sahra Saeeda but I have yet to find a drum solo that I don't like! The rhythm that comes around 1:56, I've heard it somewhere else but can't locate where.

You mean this Tarkan? If yes I still remember his song on Eurovision, I loved it.
 

Greek Bonfire

Well-known member
I liked Sahra Saeeda but I have yet to find a drum solo that I don't like! The rhythm that comes around 1:56, I've heard it somewhere else but can't locate where.

You mean this Tarkan? If yes I still remember his song on Eurovision, I loved it.
Gamal Goma is the artist for Sahra Saida.
 

Tourbeau

Active member
And I can't abide Hakim for the most part - but he's hardly classic.
I hate to say it, but as one of the last of the old-school Egyptian sha'abi singers, and as a hafla staple for over 25 years, Hakim probably qualifies as an essential artist for dancers to know.

But look on the bright side...At one point, Miles wanted to promote Hakim more aggressively outside of Egypt, but Hakim didn't share his enthusiasm for the idea, so I guess you have to grudgingly concede some goodwill toward Hakim for that. Things could have been a lot worse than a tacky remake of "Walk Like an Egyptian."
 

Zorba

"The Veiled Male"
Yea, I know him fairly well. Just don't like most of his music - its been described as a "Braying Jackass", which is pretty much my feeling as well. But he certainly wouldn't be as well known if it hadn't been for good ol' "5280"! I'm sure there a tune or two of his that I can stomach or even like, but can't think of any right now...
 

Greek Bonfire

Well-known member
I hate to say it, but as one of the last of the old-school Egyptian sha'abi singers, and as a hafla staple for over 25 years, Hakim probably qualifies as an essential artist for dancers to know.

But look on the bright side...At one point, Miles wanted to promote Hakim more aggressively outside of Egypt, but Hakim didn't share his enthusiasm for the idea, so I guess you have to grudgingly concede some goodwill toward Hakim for that. Things could have been a lot worse than a tacky remake of "Walk Like an Egyptian."
Whenever I hear Hakim, I think of the Muezzin call because he does have the note range. But I find his tone a little harsh for my taste.
 
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