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Jeel, Rai and Al-Aghanni Wataniyeh from a dancer's Very Incomplete Guide to Arab Music

By A'isha Azar

When trying to find danceable music, belly dancers often find themselves confused by the influx of Arab music that is now available in the states. Unfortunately, many dancers are not blessed with instructors who can give them information on music, thereby making it possible for them to make informed decisions about music choices. Since the entire job of the belly dancer is based on the physical and emotional interpretation of the music, giving physical form to abstract concepts if you will, this is a pretty serious omission.

In the interest of helping dancers to make informed decisions about what is appropriate belly dance music, this paper deals with three distinct styles of music that seem to be wending their way on to the American stage. New styles are constantly developing now in the Arab world. Three styles having influence here in the U.S. are Al-Jeel from Egypt, Rai from Algeria and Al-Aghanni Watanniyeh from the Arabian Gulf. These forms are all very intense and each has its own meaning and reason for development.

The most ubiquitous of the three forms found in the U.S. is Al-Jeel. The word "Jeel" means "generation" n Arabic. The music actually had its beginnings in a rebellious furor against the strict rulings of the Ghadafi regime in Libya, when the government there began burning western instruments. Musicians from Libya fled to Egypt and began to share their ideas with Egyptian musicians and created this new form of music, which often takes on very techno-music traits. The music very definitely has a feeling of what the Arabs call "Lown Gharbi", or "the color of the West". The sound is often fast with a combination of western and traditional rhythms and modes.

Jeel usually shares the same central themes with traditional and popular Egyptian music. It is usually about love and often about lament rather than joy. As of the early 1990s, this music was still banned from radio by the Egyptian authorities, but often musicians play live in clubs. Some of the most popular artists in this type are Hameed Al-Shaary who is of Libyan descent, Amr Dieb and Hanna, who is also a classical singer. Many native Egyptian dancers are beginning to include Jeel pieces in their performances, but not to the exclusion of more classical dance music as we sometimes see in the States.

Rai is another form of music that is gaining in popularity in the United States. The music has been in formation in Algeria since the 1940s, when many people of artistic nature, writers, painters, musicians and singers all went to North Africa. In the 1970s in western Algeria, specifically in an area around the port city of Oran, a style of music developed out of the work of young musicians in the region. Their music began to take on the influence from earlier musicians who had related greatly to jazz introduced there from western visitors. Rai is also influenced by Berber rhythms and melodies. Some writers also discuss the Algerian Sheikhat as being the first true Rai singers as well. The male singers however, were the first, to state Rai in their songs. The words, Ha'er rai" can be loosely as "in my opinion".

Rai music is in some ways, in my own humble opinion, somewhat like American country/western music in that it has gone through a phase of themes based in loss. Many songs have lyrics that basically say, "My girlfriend left me so I'm going to get drunk and have sex with somebody else."

The music often talks about drinking beer, looking for babes and hanging around someplace being lonely for the one you love. The music does not set well with fundamentalists either in Algeria or in Algerian communities such as the ones in France. Several Rai singers have been killed for their art.

Some of the most well known artists are Cheb Mami, Khaled, and Ahmed Bellemou. Khaled's music has made it into the mainstream of alternative music and Cheb Mami has been featured on one of Sting's recordings.

Last but not least is a style that has been popular in the Arabian Gulf for years. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 this music has become even more popular and has found its way to the U.S. via companies that cater to the musical tastes of Arabs and dancers, such as Rashid Sales Company. As a result, one occasionally sees the use of this music on the belly dance stage. "Al-Aghanni Wataniyeh" means "National music" in Arabic. The music is very heavily reliant on the meanings of the words, with musical content as a back up and enhancement for the theme of the spoken message. These songs are patriotic songs. Kuwait is the main country, which produces these songs, but other countries have the style also.

Al-Aghanni Watanniyeh mixes traditional Gulf modes with Egyptian and Western musical concepts. During the war the music in this style was aimed at cheering on the people of Kuwait. Since then the theme has been based more on the triumph of Kuwait over its enemies and praising those who supported Kuwait during the conflict, for example, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who opened its borders to Kuwait and let even women drive into the country!! ( My own Saudi sources tell me that Saudi citizens were actually very resentful of their government allowing Kuwaiti women to drive when Saudi women could not. This controversy has not entirely died down.)

Many of the popular singers of the region are singers of this type of music. Abdulmajid Abdullah, for example is an oudist and singer, originally from Saudi Arabia but living now in Kuwait, where his wife is from. He sang a very popular song about how King Fahad of Saudi Arabia came to the aid of Kuwait during the war. Another respected singer in the style is Mohammed Abdu.

These three styles of music each have different origins and reasons for their development and each brings different cultural meaning into focus. Hopefully dancers who come into contact with these styles will make intelligent and informed decisions about whether or not to use these styles for belly dancing. It is always best to base such decisions on musical form and cultural context, and if a dancer chooses a song with words, she should certainly know the meaning of the words. Not knowing could mean she ends up dancing to song about how a guy sat in a bar and drank beer until he was sloshed, or worse yet, about the hardships of war.

A'isha Azar, 1999 (Revised, 2003)