Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about music, and how we relate to it emotionally. Since becoming a bellydancer, I’ve gradually begun to listen to more and more Arabic music, until it has become almost the only thing I ever listen to. I love the complex rhythms, the melodies that can soar majestically before diving into subtle modulations of almost infinite detail, and the incredibly emotional and beautiful lyrics.
The Smiths in 1985
But in the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to more Western music again, rediscovering the music that is, if I’m honest, my own cultural heritage. It’s an odd mixture – music that was the soundtrack of my life as I grew up, survived secondary school, and stumbled haphazardly through university, that comforted me when life was bleak and was there alongside me during the good times. Music has always been a very important part of my life.
What struck me, returning to these songs, was how many of them bring back a huge, tangled web of memories and feelings, of a place and time, weather, people I knew, places I lived, events, smells… Of course, some songs have far more of these associations than others. The most powerful are perhaps those I remember from childhood and that I still love now – ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ for me is hot summer days in Bristol and the smell of dry grass in the mid-1990s, whereas Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is both long car journeys with my family, listening to chart music on the radio, and later (when I actually started paying attention to the words) one of the anthems of my years at university in Oxford… Others are less deep and meaningful – the songs that I’d sing along to with my friends at the tops of our voices. Everything from the Smiths to Sean Paul to Madness finds its way into this category.
The point of all of this rambling is that at the moment, there are some levels on which Western music is meaningful to me and deeply affects me, which Arabic music rarely can. This is partly because of these memories of time and place and what songs have meant to me at different times in my life. Some Arabic songs are now beginning to have this effect, as my love for bellydance reaches its fifth year and this music has started to become as much a part of the fabric of my memories as David Bowie or the Sisters of Mercy.
But it’s also because of the language barrier. I don’t speak Arabic beyond a very basic level at the moment (“Good morning! My name is Rachael! Please may I have some falafel?”), although I’ve picked up a fair bit of ‘dancer’s Arabic’, phrases that are fairly useless in normal conversation, but turn up all the time in love songs… With an Umm Kulthum song, I need to spend hours poring over translations and transliterations, following along with the lyrics as I listen to the song, before I can begin to appreciate the meaning. And even so, I’ll be missing metaphors and cultural references. When I listen to a Western song that I love, appreciating it is effortless, because not only do I understand the lyrics immediately, but I can also pick up on layers of meaning that aren’t apparent in a literal reading, without having to study the song for days.
Taking all of this into account, I can see why some dancers feel tempted to give up on Arabic music, and dance to their favourite Western songs instead. It is easy to think, in this situation, that fully understanding and appreciating Arabic music as a non-Arab dancer is a hopeless cause, that we’ll never enjoy it as natives do, and that we might as well just do our own version of bellydance reflecting our own cultural heritage. But those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I don’t agree with this line of reasoning!
Umm Kalthum, Egyptian singer
Let’s first look at the type of response to music that I began this post by talking about. That mixture of memory, emotion and nostalgia that we feel listening to a song that we’ve known and loved for a long time. These feelings are uniquely personal and sometimes quite idiosyncratic, depending as they do on the events in your own life. So, I’ll never feel the same way about Umm Kalthum or Abdel Halim as someone who grew up in Cairo. But the thing is, no two Egyptians will feel exactly the same way about these songs either. Everyone relates to them in their own way, that comes from where that music has fitted in to their own unique lives. The question for us as Western dancers is then simply, do we have that kind of relationship with this music at all? The kind where hearing even the first few notes takes us back to past moments of joy or sadness? We may not to begin with, but after years of immersion in the music, we all develop our own relationships with it, and our own deep feelings about it. And in this context, our feelings are as valid as anybody else’s – what matters is that we have them at all.
Looking more deeply at this, I do think it’s true that the music we hear in our childhoods is inevitably what gets etched most deeply into our subconscious minds. The songs we hear as children are the ones we’ll still be singing when we’re ancient and have forgotten everything else. But it’s possible to fall in love with new music from our own culture later in life, and that love is just as valid, if not more so since it’s music we’ve chosen rather than being passively exposed to. For example I didn’t discover the Smiths until I was at university – but metaphorically speaking, Morrissey and I have been through a lot together… Likewise, I don’t see that it’s any less valid to discover music from another culture as an adult.
The language barrier is harder to overcome. A song may have all kinds of associations for me, but to fully enjoy it, I need to know the meanings that the writer and the singer (usually different people in Arabic music, because a great poet isn’t necessarily also a great singer) were trying to express, as well as my own feelings that colour my perception of the piece. And without speaking the language fluently, this is hard work.
Abdel Halim Hafez, Egyptian singer
But it’s not impossible. You just need to spend some quality time with the song, a transliteration of the lyrics (that is, the lyrics in Arabic written in latin script so that you can read it and follow along), and a good line-by-line translation. Shira’s website is an excellent place to find these, and if you can’t find a translation online, there are also many people out there who will do song translations for you for a small fee. After listening to the song whilst following along with the lyrics enough times, you’ll begin to know which lines in the song correspond to which meanings, and be able to start feeling the meaning and intention behind the singer’s words. This is also the point where the ‘dancer’s Arabic’ vocabulary comes in handy, providing ‘signposts’ in the lyrics where you can recognise words which remind you which part is which.
There are a small number of songs where I’ve now done this so often that I can follow most of the lyrics without referring to a translation, and experience the emotional impact of the song much more fully. It’s a lot of effort, but I feel it’s worth it to really get to know this incredible music. I do still feel that I’m missing something though. This is why I’ve decided to start taking Arabic classes this year – it’ll be a long time before I’m fluent enough to be able to understand a song as I hear it, but I hope that that day will eventually come. In the mean time, I’m enjoying learning to write in a new and beautiful script, and finding out about a completely unfamiliar system of grammar. However, I appreciate that learning a new language isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to be able to enjoy Arabic music.
All of this may seem like I’m over-thinking the whole thing. And maybe I am. Because when I listen to a live Arabic band (sadly not as common an occurrence as I’d like), it doesn’t matter one bit if I don’t know all the songs or don’t understand the words. The sheer beauty and passion of the music still carries me away and sends shivers down my spine. And really, on some level, that’s all that matters.