March 15, 2010

Raqs Africa report, Feb., 2010

Raqs Africa Report, 1st Quarter, 2010

I just came back from spending one month in Zanzibar to initiate the concept of "Raqs Africa". Read on and stay posted in the future, as I will be going to Zanzibar again in July, 2010 to continue what I started.


1. To re- introduce the art of belly dance to Zanzibar, offering an image of belly dancing that would be compatible with the values of Muslim society and the standards of modesty instead of clashing.

2. To film traditional local dances of Zanzibar

3. To begin research on a book chronicling the history of 105 year old Ikhwan Safaa, the oldest band in Africa

I arrived in Zanzibar February 3rd, 2010. The island has had a blackout, which means no lights and no running water (due to pumps being unable to function). After debating the wisdom of starting the Raqs Africa project under those circumstances, but after careful consideration I decided to go ahead with it.  If around one million people can live this way, I can be supportive of their island, contribute to the local economy by spending my money on housing, food, etc., and show that I have not given up on the place. The lights were supposed to go on February 20, but the date was pushed back to February 28. The lights finally came on March 8. I was gone by then, but got word that the people are really happy. . 

The apartment I usually stay in was occupied. I had contact with a man who had several apartments available, but when I saw them I really didn't want to stay. Not only was there no electric or water, but they were filthy and not very appealing. Luckily, I went to "Emerson Spice," an unfinished boutique hotel to look at the roof top where I would start teaching bellydance classes. The manager wanted to show off the two luxurious rooms that were already decorated. "Too bad we have no water or electric, otherwise you could stay here." He said. I seized the opportunity "No place else has electric or water. I can stay.' The owner couldn't believe i would stay under those conditions, as most fancy places had generators. He gave me an amazingly low price, sent a woman to carry two buckets of water on her head to my room each day, gave me some candle holders and small kerosene lamp and I was set. 

Objective #1:

For the first ten days, I only had one student- Leila, who is a cello player from the music school. She performs as a dancer in hotels and was eager to learn belly dance. Along with a genius musician named Matona and members of the Ikhwan Safaa band we were scheduled to perform at "Busara," an internationally acclaimed music festival that takes place in Zanzibar every year. We had applied for the festival to play the innovative mix of Zanzibari Taarab, Arabic Tarab, and western classical music that is on the CD I produced with the same ten musicians last year. I was to bellydance with some of the songs. 


Every night around the sunset, we practiced on the roof of the Ikhwan Safaa clubhouse. It was too hot to practice inside. The rooftop would fill with neighboring children. One day a group of kids scolded Matona for arriving late. These kids were often the only ones to arrive on time. They sat in neat rows and applauded at the end of each song. Women watched from windows in apartment buildings surrounding us. We didn't see them, but there were cheers and Zaghareets (ululations) when they particularly enjoyed our pieces. The show opened with the orchestra playing Ravel's Bolero with taksims (Arabic style musical improvisations.) I was then to dance to a typical "barshraf" (instrumental piece with Ottoman-Arabic structure) while using finger cymbals. This was followed by "Carmen in Africa", a rousing Zanzibari version of La Habanera from the opera Carmen. I came on again to Scheherezade L'Andalous, which begins and ends with part of the Scheherezade Suite, with the thousand year old Arab- Andalous song "Lamma Bada" sandwiched in between. This opened with a veil and i wore a long, loose red silk caftan with beaded accessories. Next, the band played "A Rainy Day in Zanzibar", which was created especially for the CD and became a favorite of the president of Zanzibar. It combines Pacchabel's Canon with an old Zanzibari favorite called "Ni Pe Pe", meaning "Fan me", so it is quite sultry and romantic. I showed Matona my favorite dance piece on DVD- a 1970's performance by famous Egyptian dancer Azza Sherif in which she dances a Tunisian dance surrounded by drum playing men who interact with her too.  One night, Matona said he woke up with an inspiration. Long ago in Zanzibar, they used to play an instrument called "Simsimeya", which was popular in one form or another up and down the east coast of Africa, all the way to Egypt. It is a harp like instrument that is often played by sailors. When they used it in Zanzibar, gay men would dance, shaking their hips in the middle of a circle. Zanzibar's most famous singer, the nearly 100 year old Bi Kidude, often sang an old simsemeya song welcoming the Arab sailors to port. She had worked at the port when she was young and as a child she would board the Arab dhows (Sailing ships) to hear their music. The plan was for Bi Kidude to be brought on as a surprise guest artist at the end of the show, but for the first time in decades she would be accompanied by Matona playing a real simsemeya. He had obtained this one while on a trip to Ethiopia. I would come out and dance, and involve two of the musicians to dance with me. 

The Big Day:

Busara was held in a 15th century Portuguese fort. A giant generator had been obtained, which rescued the festival and actually brought tourists to Zanzibar to pump up the economy for a few days.

February 11th, opening day, was our debut. All I can say was that the show was a runaway success and made waves across town. Being onstage with ten acoustic musicians playing music blended from three long held traditions, I was in my glory and filled with inspiration. I wore simple, covered costumes. No one missed the belly or any other show of skin. The dance never showed skin in the Arab world until colonial values took over in the 1930's. My dance was completely recognizable as belly dancing and people appreciated that I respected their culture with the way I dressed. When I got the DVD, I realized that this may be the best belly dance show I have seen in many years. Now, in Egypt, although there are good dancers, their art is overshadowed by breast implants tucked into tiny bras and mini skirts. The music is often overly amplified with a dominating synthesizer. The shows in Egypt can cost one month's salary for an average worker to attend. I was proud of our show. It wasn't because I was doing the dancing. It was the context in which the dance was presented that made it culturally acceptable. And a ticket for locals to enter Busara cost only $1.60. It was accessible to local people. It was not for one part of society only. The final straw that sealed our success was the surprise appearance of Bi Kidude. The audience went wild! She stood, calmly controlling the audience with her powerful voice. Although everyone knew the song she sang, as she has sung it many times over the years, each time is different. She creates new verses, improvising in and out of the structure with her powerful voice. 

Afterward, we were asked to go to the news room for interviews. I know that we were in several papers from the mainland Tanzanian city of Dar Es Salaam, but never saw them. I never saw a functioning TV set either, except when a generator powered television was placed in the street to show a sporting event and groups of coffee sipping men would sit on benches to cheer. For two weeks afterward, I heard that our performance was played over and over on TV in Dar Es Salaam and the neighboring island of Pemba. 

Swahili Sisters:

The Busara Festival had sponsored a hotel room for me for three days. I didn't need it, but they didn't need it back either. It was a little old place, shaking with the loud buzz of a generator. I had the bright idea of charging my phone, computer and video camera in my room. Unfortunately, none of the plugs worked. I went home to get my shampoo, determined to give my hair a good washing. The water barely trickled out of the faucet as it was turned off for much of the day, but on my way to the hair washing attempt, a special thing happened. I got lost. That is normal as Zanzibar is a maze of tiny midieval looking streets that takes years to learn to navigate. I saw a group of women clad in black bui buis (covered robes) and head scarves. I asked "Wapi hotel Kikoni?". (Where is the Kikoni Hotel?)

They had no idea but we walked together in a big group asking people until they got me safely to the doorstep. One of the women, named Bikombo spoke English. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to become friends. I called her a few hours later to let her know that I had gotten tickets for her to see my show and they would be waiting at the Old Fort. She came with one of her sisters. The next day we got together for sodas. I told her I was teaching bellydance classes on the roof of Emerson Spice. Usually no one can get into Emerson Spice, but groups of tourists always stop outside to ogle at the magnificent building. Suddenly, lots of well to do white folks were showing up for my classes. I told them that classes are free but whoever has money to donate to the local drug program "Drug Free Zanzibar" could drop whatever they wanted to donate into a basket. A nice chunk of money was collected the first few days, but soon my class consisted of Bikombo, three of her sisters, a friend, and my friend Sarah, an Israily woman who has lived in Zanzibar for several years. I was requested to teach a men's bellydance class, which ended up with two steady students. One was Sarah's son, Bar and the other was an African dance teacher named Mohammed. These two guys picked up very quickly and took the class extremely seriously. I taught them three months worth of finger cymbal patterns in one session. Every afternoon, my students and I relished our time on the roof top of Emerson Spice. Although we were exercising, this was the only time of day that wasn't excruciatingly hot as there was a breeze and a beautiful view over the rooftops of the old city. One day it rained hard as the sun shone. Every day we would have to turn off the music during the call to prayer, although we could still do stretching exercises, you cannot play music other than the call to prayer during the five daily prayer times when the muezzins call from mosques all over town.

Drug Free Zanzibar Fundraiser:

My friend Suleiman was once a heroin addict in Zanzibar. There are currently approximately 4000 heroin addicts in Zanzibar. Since Suleiman went through rehab in Kenya four years ago, he has decided to help the people of his own country. He makes his living working with an American NGO, teaching intravenous drug users how to avoid getting HIV, as well as several other initiatives. In his spare time, he created his own volunteer projects, teaching classes about recovery and relapse prevention as well as setting up and conducting 12 step meetings. He set up an NGO called Drug Free Zanzibar, which he is the chairman of, and a "sober house" that is like a live in rehab center on a very grass roots level. He planned to set up a second sober house, and his friend Farid wanted to help. "Let's do a fundraiser!" he exclaimed. With the help of a local events organizer/ shop keeper named Maryam, some sponsorship from other business to hire a DJ, set up decorations and make posters and T shirts, plus Sarah on the computer and me in charge of entertainment, the fundraiser moved into action. An unfortunate clash of dates occurred as it was February 27th, the same night as the famous monthly "Full Moon Party" that takes place in a village north of town where most people who can afford to go to a party go. We wondered if anyone would show up! I prepared the men to do a dance combining Arabic, Salsa, and African dance. A trio of guys called "Baba Tatu," who mix Zanzibari and Cuban music came to play. Sarah and the Swahili Sisters did a veil dance that we practiced hard for, and the sisters created a play to illustrate the importance of helping drug addicts. Sarah has studied theater and gave them coaching. I agreed to dance a couple of solos, and the rest of the night would be modern Arabic music.

The Africa House Hotel, which has elaborate Arabian and Swahili decor overlooking the sea at sunset slowly filled up. Former addicts sporting Drug Free Zanzibar T shirts welcomed people at the door as the Baba Tatu trio played in the entrance. Tiny cups of Arabic coffee and a local sweet called "haloua" were served. Slowly, people from all walks of life filtered in. From high ranking government officials to Indian shop keepers, local women, and  a few hands full of tourists. The event was a resounding success! People loved the show. Suleiman and one of the other former addicts gave a speech, as well as the head of the government's Department of Drugs. The party lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Many of the dances and clubs in Zanzibar tend to fill up with guys on the prowl looking for female tourists. The dance floors are often filled exclusively with men. The Drug Free Zanzibar fundraiser was different. it was local-women friendly. Groups of women in sequined gowns and caftans danced together. Groups of men danced as well and occasionally someone exuberant got on the stage to do an impromptu solo. This party was fun, informative, and inspiring, but most of all, enough money was raised to open the second sober house!

The Tausi Women's Band:

"Tausi" means "peacock." many years ago, there were female taarab orchestras in Zanzibar. Instruments were played by men while women sang.These women's clubs became extinct. In 2009, Maryam Hamdan, who plays the qanun and has a powerful position in the government, and her husband, a well known singer and band leader named Mohammed Ilyas started Tausi, the first ever all female taarab band, where the women play and sing. They train nearly every day, learning to play all the traditional instruments. For the last nine days of my stay in Zanzibar I spend every morning teaching belly dance to the women of Tausi. Maryam said "We used to have belly dancing in Zanzibar." She showed me some steps she had learned as a little girl. When I taught them about the popular Arabic song from the 1940's called "Aziza," Maryam said "we're going to learn to play that song and dance to it too. It was one if the top hits in Zanzibar in the early 1950's." I taught almost all of my eight week course in eight days and they promised to practice until I returned in July. They were enthusiastic about learning to belly dance as part of their programs. While many of the women came in black bui buis, removing them to show jeans and big T shirts, some showed up for class in beautiful caftans with scarves tied at the hips. I explained that they already have the costume for dancing and should always try to dress feminine when they practice. 

Objective #2- Filming Traditional Zanzibari Dances

The name of this film will be "Zanzibar Ngoma." This means "Drums of Zanzibar", but the word ngoma can also refer to dancing. Some of the practices I have begun to film are not dances at all. They range from spiritual practices to folk and wedding dances. 

     I began filming a group of young boys who practice "Maulidi Ya Homu," a form of devotional singing and movement to drums that helps keep boys off the street and teaches them skills. It was amazing, as they do most of the movements sitting on their knees, chanting and sometimes shaking their heads and shoulders and sometimes making a growling sound. I spent three evenings filming and gathered information via interviews and written materials. 

     A woman named Asha, who leads the government folkloric company agreed to take me out to several villages and arrange for them to do their traditional dances for me. One was a group called "Makonde," whose heritage is from Mozambique. The group of elderly women did a war dance with wooden guns, and another with dried leaves to educate the youth about avoiding HIV. They showed how they fix the drums by melting pieces of bicycle tires over a fire and sticking the deer skin onto the wooden base. The women had geometrical tatoos on their faces, made from cutting the skin and rubbing in charcoal. 

     Next, we visited a village called Bumbwini, where herbs were being added to a wooden vessel of water. Packets filled with sayings from the Qu'ran were tied around a stick for luck and protection. A group of men sat on the ground shaking cow horns with bells as young boys of the village started running in circles. After a few minutes, the young boys left and women wearing bright "kangas" (traditional clothes with Swahili sayings written on the bottom) ran in circles instead. Suddenly, some of the men and later some women fell into trance. They writhed on the ground and fled like wild animals, so fast that no one could have crawled that fast unless possessed. 

It was unbelievable. They hardly looked human anymore. This went on for quite awhile. Sometimes Asha would come behind me and guide me to avoid the people who were practically flying close to the ground. At last, they all descended on me. I was scared but she told me not to worry. "They are friendly spirits." I shook hands with them, they retreated and came out of the trances with shuffling foot movements.

     Another trance like dance in another village appeared to be staged, but the men were good actors. They played rhythms with two sticks. One was dressed as a shaman in red and white while others drummed and crawled on the ground. In that village some people had light green eyes. I asked if they were mixed with Portuguese as the Portuguese had brought green eyes to parts of Indonesia and India. The local leader said. "No. We are pure Bantu. Our green eyes come from God."

      We stopped in a village called "Bambi to see a dance called "Benibati." Men dressed in old military clothes from generations gone by. Their clothes were worn according to their rank in the dance and music group. Women wore early 1960's style dresses in military colors. Many wore old fashioned sunglasses ranging from 30's to 70's. I asked the meaning of that and was told "During colonial times, the British wore sunglasses and we considered that to be a part of being well dressed." The leader would step, shaking a cow's tail while members came out to dance and show their skills. The last man did an interesting series of summersaults, landing flat on his back each time. 

      Asha then had the government dance troupe perform for my camera. They did four dances ranging from a harvest dance from the island of Pemba to "Kidumbak", a sensuous and popular dance consisting of elaborate hip circles and shimmies.

      I plan to resume filming, with at least twelve more dances to go, in July, but will start editing this month and have a few pieces to show by April.

Objective #3- Researching about Zanzibari Taarab music and writing about it.

The proposed name of this book is "Qanun". The qanun is a 78 stringed harp like instrument that lays flat across the player's lap. Taarab is the Zanzibari version of Arabic "Tarab", meaning to be enchanted by song. A man named Muhammed Ibrahim went to Egypt in the 1870's to learn to play qanun. The sultan so appreciated his playing of Arabic music that he commissioned him to teach different Arabic instruments to ten musicians. After 1-1/2 years, they were ready and played at the sultan's palace every evening after dinner. As time went by, the concept of social clubs that played and taught taarab took hold. In 1905, Ikhwan Safaa, meaning brothers who love one another was formed and in future years more clubs were started. Ikhwan Safaa is one of the two major taarab clubs that remain. I have started to interview the club's teacher, Mawalem Idi Farhan. He is in his 80's and says that keeping busy teaching art and music, as well as walking everywhere he goes instead of riding in a car keeps him healthy. We had two meetings in which he told me about the history and shared his collection of reading materials. These are so precious that they can not be taken out of the club house, so in July I will be spending hours every week reading thick manuscripts and making notes. For now, This book will be narrated by the voice of the qanun with quotes from her friend, a 12 string instrument called the oud. Thus, I am reading as many books as possible about Egyptian tarab music in order to find a way to give a personality and a voice to these instruments. They will tell the stories of the band and all the changes it has gone through through out history. 


I can say that these 25 days in Zanzibar were blessed and I achieved my goals. In July I will be back to continue teaching dance to all three groups, researching for the book, and filming dances. I plan to attend the "Mwaka Kogwa"  festival in the village of Makanduchi. This is where they celebrate new years in July. They say it comes from Persian Zorastrianism, which is an ancient fire worshipping religion that still exists in parts of India. Now, they don't know much about the Zorastrian heritage, but say it definitely came from the "Shirazis" (Persians) who came to Zanzibar long ago. It is a festival for cleansing and letting go. Elders do divinations for the upcoming year in a hut, then there is a fake fight and the hut is burned down. Ikhwan Safaa plan to celebrate their 105th anniversary in July and Tausi plans to introduce bellydance performance into their show. It will be a busy time, and I sincerely hope the month of July will be as productive as this past month was for me. 

Stay tuned for the next installment of "Raqs Africa" later this summer.

If you would like to help support this project, please go to my website and purchase a copy of the DVD "Citizen of the World", $30. All the proceeds go toward helping with the expenses to do this work.  Also, I am accepting donations of the following second hand instruments to bring on the next trip; Finger cymbals (lots of sets), 2 violins, 2 accordions, 1 trumpet, strings for the following instruments; violin, cello, double bass, and oud.