I’ve been geeking out about Arabic music a lot in the last year, including listening to a lot of different things, reading loads of books, and even learning to play the oud. And in that time, I’ve realised that there’s a bit of misunderstanding of muwashshahat (singular muwashshah) in the bellydance world.
What we learn in the bellydance world…
The standard view of muwashshahat in the bellydance world goes something like this:
Muwashshahat are songs that come from mediaeval Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus), and have survived to the present day. They use the 10/8 Samai Thaqil rhythm. Originally, court dances may have been done to them, but nobody really knows what these dances looked like. These dances were creatively reimagined in the 20th century by Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, and this is how we dance to muwashshahat today.
I’ve come to realise that this information is not exactly wrong as such, but it is very incomplete, and somewhat misleading.
So, what actually are muwashshahat?
The term muwashshahat actually refers to a poetic form, which originally became popular in al-Andalus.
There are several musical traditions based on this poetic form. These include the North African ‘Andalusi Nuba’ tradition (which we don’t tend to dance to, and which I don’t know a great deal about), and the Syrian/Egyptian wasla tradition which incorporates muwashshah poems set to music, along with other instrumental and lyrical genres.
The pieces we use for dance come from the Syrian/Egyptian tradition. Some of these use old poetry from al-Andalus, whilst some use more recently composed poems in the muwashshah form. However, the musical compositions themselves are not from al-Andalus. For example, Lamma Bada is the best known muwashshah. The lyrics are thought to be very old, but the melody used today was composed in Egypt in the 19th century (see 004 – Sama‘ – Lammā badā yatathanna – AMAR Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research for more info on this song, and some very early recordings). The compositional style was influenced by Turkish instrumental forms during the Ottoman period, particularly by the Turkish samai.
Lots of Egyptian muwashshahat were composed in the 19th century during the nahda or Egyptian rennaisance, and some in the early 20th century too. The great Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish wrote several, for example. They are an important part of the Egyptian musical tradition, especially before the advent of the ughniyah or ‘long song’ format of Oum Kalthoum et al. Legendary singer and composer Mohammed Abdelwahab recorded many muwashshahat during his early career. More recently, a huge number of muwashshahat have been recorded by the Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri.
A variety of rhythms are used in muwashshahat – 10/8 samai thaqil is certainly popular, but it’s not the only one by any means. Other muwashshah rhythms include familiar favourites like masmoudi kebir, as well as many based on longer rhythmic cycles which are almost never used in dance. There’s a fairly exhaustive list of these rhythms here, including audio clips – Maqam World – Muwashshah Rhythms.
It’s also worth noting that they are not all slow, and some are actually very lively. Even Lamma Bada, which is often played very slowly in recent recordings, was originally far more upbeat!
So, what about the dancing?
As I mentioned previously, almost all bellydancers associate muwashshahat with the dance style created by Mahmoud Reda in the 1980s. This style is refined, elegant and balletic, with hypnotic spins and arabesques, and as with most of Reda’s dances, almost no movement of the torso. Farida Fahmy, principal dancer in the Reda troupe, wrote this about the Reda muwashshahat style:
In these dances he was not restricted to any specific temporal reference or dance tradition. This gave him a wider range of movement and choreographic possibilities. In his choreographies, Mahmoud Reda relied on his artistic imagination and how the music inspired him, as well as his expertise and rich repertoire of movement vocabulary that he had accumulated for many years.
We can therefore see that it is, essentially, a fusion style, albeit one developed in Egypt for an Egyptian audience.
However, muwashshahat were, at one point, the popular music of their day, and it’s reasonable to assume that dancers would have performed to them in the 19th century (although there were other types of music more associated with dance, e.g. light songs in dance rhythms, and the tahmila, a structured improvisational style). Egyptian films, especially when portraying 19th century scenes, sometimes show dancers performing to muwashshahat in styles not influenced by Reda.
For example, see the opening sequence of this 1960s film about the life of Bamba Kashar:
Or this scene in the 1960s film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel ‘Palace Walk’ (Bayn al-Qasrayn), set in early 20th century Cairo, and showing a ‘sahra’ or musical gathering at the home of a professional entertainer/courtesan (the first song is a muwashshah in a 6/8 rhythm):
Or this clip of Leila Mourad singing the muwashshah ‘Mala al-Kasat’ with a chorus of oriental dancers in two-piece ‘bellydance’ costumes:
So, if you choose to dance to muwashshahat, it’s legitimate to use the Reda style, but it’s not mandatory. Reda’s interpretation was a fanciful re-imagining, rather than a historical reconstruction. There’s certainly precedent for dancers interpreting these beautiful pieces of music in their own styles, and so I think there’s also a place both for trying to recreate the style of the late 19th century, and for applying your own original interpretation using your knowledge of present-day Egyptian dance, as well as for the Reda style.
- Al Muwashshah – AMAR foundation podcast – a more detailed and technical look at the history of the muwashshah as a musical form, including historical recordings. Podcast in Arabic, with transcript in English.
- Farida Fahmy – Dancing Muwashshahat – Farida Fahmy writes about the development of the Reda troupe’s muwashshah style.
- Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria – Jonathon Holt-Shannon – A more detailed look at the musical traditions of Aleppo in Syria.