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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.



by Hossam Ramzy





A word that belly dancers often hear with respect to Egyptian-style dancing is baladi (which may also be spelled other ways, such as beledi, balady, etc.) Baladi isn't just a dance style, it's a culture. In January, 1997, well-known musician Hossam Ramzy posted this article to the med-dance list on the Internet with an Egyptian native's perspective on baladi. His comments appear here in their entirety, posted with his permission.

The musical format he describes in this article is known by several different names, including "tet baladi", "baladi taqsim", "ashra baladi", and "baladi progression".



What is Baladi?

To the great disappointment of the followers of Hilal School of "Raqs Sharqi" , baladi is the solo dance of the Egyptian women.

You will never see a group choreography doing baladi improvisation. It is just not done, while in raqs sharqi, there are many, many group choreographies. As a matter of fact, when raqs sharqi started, it often used a back row of backup dancers.

Now, am I right? or am I right? or am I right? I know I am right!

So what is Baladi Then?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Hossam Ramzy by Ubaldo Barem.

Come with me on a little stroll down one of Cairo's back streets. Not necessarily Mohammed Ali Street, this is too obvious. Let's go down Haret Zeinhom, in El Sayeda Zeinab.

Who lives there?

People who have moved to the city well over a couple of hundred years ago or even longer than that. These people came from the other cities of Egypt such as El Mahalla El Kobra, Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Asyout, Qena, Banha, Damanhour, Domiat, Sohag.... or any other. OK... Why? To get better jobs and to trade with their produce.

Now, these people are so special, they were not like the city people. However, some were very educated and continue to educate their children, many of which are now doctors, architects, lawyers, army officers, directors of big companies or even in the government.

And even though they are, and have been, part of the city for a few generations, they are still very proud and very connected to their roots. This is what they'll always call "home", the city or village their family came from. They say, "I am going back to el balad meaning "the country", or "the home town".

In Arabic, baladi, means "my country" or "my home town".

But to the "sophisticated" city people (one of the dictionary definitions of sophisticated is "untrue, false") it means something that is home grown, or their country, or the rural people or even fashionably tasteless clothes or street language. They say "Oooo la la, this is baladi!"


Okay. Let's now look at the life of these baladi people. Let's take a look at an imaginary young lady and study her day-to-day lifestyle, what is expected of her, what is she expecting out of life, her connections to the world, and how she's liable to make it. Let's call her........ Zeinab.

Zeinab's family are not rich. They live in a poor area, Haret Zeinhom. Her father works in a factory earning very little and can hardly support the family, including her mom, a very young sister, and two brothers who are 25 and 23 years old. Zeinab is the third child and is 18 years old, fully matured, ripe, and would break your heart with one smile or a look from the corner of her eye. She has long black hair and a face like a full moon smiling down at you from high above. You can see the respect of the family traditions have been not only bred into her, but also beaten into her by her protective brothers who are too scared, like everyone reading this, each to his/her relevant degree about reputation, honour and respect.

This is all the baladi people have, and this is all they give a damn about:

Self respect and to be respected by all others!

Who or What Are Women to an Egyptian Man?

Now you may frown and object to the idea of the brothers or the men controlling the girl, but before you do that, please ask me one very vital question:

Q) Who, or what are women to an Egyptian man?

A) A woman to an Egyptian man is either : Mother, Sister, Daughter, Aunt, Grandmother, Cousin, Fiancée, Wife, or Workmate.

Well, the Egyptian man can never say "no" to any of these ladies. They fully control his life. What he eats, what he will wear, where he is going to sleep, what job they will be proud to have him do, and they choose for him the woman who he is going to marry!

I know of many a disaster that occurred when some poor man married a girl who was not liked by the women in the family. It was hell on earth. Believe me, my brother did 28 years ago, and lives to regret it.

The ladies themselves have their own moral codes of conduct and what they consider to be a good woman or not good enough. She has to possess qualities and traits that they approve of. Well you see, she'll be their door and special agent to him, convincing him, in her way, to do what the rest of women want him to do.

I am not here to complain about anything, I am only fascinated by the way this chess game is played. It is a game of life, and the Egyptian women play it to the full.

I recall once when I was young in Cairo. I had a best friend who was also a drummer called Tareq, we were from very "sophisticated" (whoops) high-class families. My family were Pashas and in the cinema industry, and his were very rich diamond and gold merchants from Khan El Khalili. One day Tareq and I were in El Hussein and we were walking behind this Baladi woman. She must have been about 28 years old, and we were about 16 or 17. She was dressed in a long galabeya that was loose, but when the melaya was wrapped you could see that magnificent "Coca Cola" shape of her body. There was a certain part of her back side that moved independently like two ferrets fighting in a sack, so rhythmically Tareq and I started singing the maqsoum rhythm to her walk:

Dom tak Trrrrak Dom Retitak...

After a few bars of that, we broke out laughing. But I'll never forget that day.

She was walking like there were no other women worth looking at in the God-forsaken planet but her. As far as she was concerned, she was it. Proud, strong, pleasant and very respectable, and full of feminine power.

Imagine this was Zeinab.

By now her little sister, Souad is getting married. This is probably the happiest day of Zeinab's life, even more than her own wedding night. To her, now her family's duty is complete, and her father and mother can start having a bit of a life for themselves too. Don't you think she's going to dance that night? You bet your last hip drop she will! And in public too!

How is she going to do that without breaking the traditions? Of never showing off too much of her femininity and shaming her husband, who must be respected and given the idea that he is the "lion" of the family if not of the whole neighbourhood, so that he can shut up and do what he's told?

She'll need to do it slowly and bit by bit. A small taqsim on an oud, or accordion, or saxophone, or nowadays the keyboards. She will have to dance it on the spot, with small movements, very contained, but full of feeling for the music, and expressing the music. If the music does a long note, she sways with it for as long as it does like the reeds from the bamboo plants along the Nile banks, swaying with the force of the breeze. But if the music consists of small, choppy sounds, or even tremelando, she shimmies with it.

The bamboo reeds are also called ood. The taqasim introduction got its name from this, as well as from the fact that it used to be played on the oud instrument.

This way it is called awwady.

This part is like a mawwal (freestyle non-rhythmic nostalgic singing) on an instrument.

But you see, the audience want to see Zeinab dancing to the full. So when the ice is broken a little, the rhythm is introduced bit by bit. How is that done?

The taqsim is resolved to the opening key with which it was started, then the instrumentalist does a question and answer with the drummer. The question and answer both fit into one bar of rhythm at the same speed as if and when it continues and they play together, but in a call-and-response style.

The melody plays 2 an 3-
Then the drums play 4 an 1 and

For 4 times, or 8 times, playfully teasing and urging Zeinab to dance more with the rhythm until they feel that all is well with all concerned. Then they start the continuous maqsoum rhythm section.

This question and answer part is called me-attaa. This means broken-up bits of music and rhythm.

Once the rhythm is established, then Zeinab will dance, conservatively but coyly, expressing more reserved sensuality and a personal feminine touch. But by then the musicians know that it's okay, and after a little bit more they go into a different type of question and answer, me attaa. This is shorter, faster, and indicates that it's possible a faster rhythm can come.

Then they go into the up-tempo maqsoum. By then, Zeinab is free from all inhibitions and what the heck, it's her sister's wedding anyway! She knows that she has teased her husband so much that she drove him to total frustrated silence and chained madness, to the point that nothing matters. But, she also knows the absolute sweet treacle-like honeyed way in which she has him wrapped around her little finger. So... out comes the one and only dance step that is true and traditional and known to all Egyptian women, the hip swerves! And the wedding is on blissful fire.

This is all the baladi people have, and this is all they give a damn about:

Self respect and to be respected by all others!

In this part also, the music plays a very nostalgic sound for the Egyptian people, the sound of the mizmar. It sounds like accents on the 2 and 4 :

4/4 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4
Tiit Toot | Tet Teeit

And so on. This is why this part is also called the tet.

This could go for some time, but then for the baladi people, the ultimate thing is going home, isn't it? That is going back to the roots, the countryside, the farms and the farm life, the fallahi life style, so here comes another me-attaa; however, this call and responses will slow down gradually so that you can pull out the fallahi rhythm from that faster maqsoum. (The Egyptian word for "pulled out" is magrour). To this they normally do what dancer in the U.K. call the "Egyptian walk". People in the U.S. call it "shimmy walk".

Also tet could be played on the fallahi rhythm.

Finally, enough is enough, now you have seen it all, and let's face it, Zeinab's husband is about to burst a rib smiling that deep.

As the musicians and Zeinab were the ones who brought it into this frenzy of dance and music, they need to calm things down gradually, or the people will go too wild if she stops suddenly. So, they slow it down and down and down until it is back to the original awwady taqasim and a gentle stop.

This is how a baladi woman would dance.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Musicians play mizmars in Egypt. Photo copyright Shira, 2004, all rights reserved.

Closing Thoughts

This has been incorporated on stage in almost every dance show, and you can also go on from the middle of the fast maqsoum tet section into other songs, and prolong it as long as you wish, as well as adding a drum solo, but basically this is it.

Now you might say to yourself, "Well, what is cabaret dancing then?"

Basically, it is raqs sharqi. In Egyptian night clubs, the dancers perform a bit of raqs sharqi in a two-piece costume. (A baladi woman would have never been seen even dead in a two-piece raqs sharqi costume!) Then the dancers go offstage to change to the one piece thobe or gallabiya to perform a baladi, or another folklore segment, then baladi, or Saidi, then baladi, it all leads back to the baladi. Then drum solo, then the finale. So, what is all the big fuss then?

A truth is a truth whatever anyone says about it, and if you want to get well squashed in life, stand in the way of truth.

Check out any baladi piece, by any Egyptian musician, on any recording or on any Egyptian dance video and see if this does not apply.

If you were to ask me who does the best ever baladi dance in Egypt today the answer is simple: Lucy. Before that, it was Lady Nagwa Fouad.

The phrase "El Baladi Youkal", is what street vendors call out to promote their home-grown produce, meaning that it is baladi and good to eat.

So is Zeinab. Big hand for Zeinab.

With Lots and Lots Of Rhythm,
Hossam Ramzy



About the Author

Hossam Ramzy was born in Cairo. From a very early age he showed an interest in playing the drums. He felt called to pursue a musical career, and learned to play Egyptian rhythms. His initial jobs consisted of playing drum kit with Cairo pop bands.

In 1975, Ramzy moved to England to expand his musical horizons. There, he began playing drums for jazz, Indian, funk, soul, Latin American, and African music. In the 1980's, he went to an Arabic club in London, and felt drawn to return to his roots of drumming for Egyptian music.

Ramzy has released many albums featuring Egyptian music, arranged for use by belly dancers.

He passed away September 10, 2019.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Photo of Hossam Ramzy by Danny Woodmansey. April 2018.



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