Listening to The Art of Belly Dancing, I feel like I should be in some pungent Turkish bar, the kind of place that somehow manages to stay dark even when the sun is at it’s highest, the mingled smells of sweat, strong coffee, and filterless cigarette smoke hanging at about chest height in the completely still air. Oh man, I think I just gave myself a flashback to 1987 when I was 15 and just at the start of a six-week trip to France. When it became clear that the chaperones couldn’t care in the slightest if we smoked, a few of us headed to the bar car on the train and nervously asked the young guy working there if he had any smokes for sale. Mais oui. Awesome! Marlboro Reds, please. Non. Oh, OK. Camels then. Non. Umm… Gitanes. Gitanes? He reached behind him and turned back around with a blue pack of cigs in what seemed to us an oddly fancy package that was wider and flatter than what we were used to. I feel like the dancer on the front was embossed in gold. Can that be right? Oui, Gitanes. So Gitanes it was. And when we opened them it was immediately, “What the…. where are the filters???” This, friends, is how I was introduced to filterless cigarettes, a habit that lasted only as long as we still that pack of Gitanes and couldn’t find a better cigarette anywhere else (so a few weeks).
ANYWAY… back to that bar. Damn it’s hot! How can it be so damn hot wen I’m sitting in the shade? It shouldn’t be possible. It’s the kind of place that Bogey, or James Bond, or Dr. Indiana Jones should walk into, causing every to look up from their newspapers (without moving their heads) to case the new guy. Or maybe Matthew McConaughey’s character in Sahara, who seems like he’d be the most fun to have a drink with. But what’s that sound faintly off in the distance? It sounds like… it is… it’s “Raks Musri”, the clicking of the castanets providing a beat above the percussion. The pace speeds and slows, alternating between ecstasy and simmering desire. Songs with vocals like “Meenie Yaba” remind me if the Persian-infused beats of Syrian artist Omar Souleman; these are the prototypes, the early models that created the base framework that would come to define passionate popular music. “Ranks Pharonic” is another classic, feeling more like something that would welcome in spring than leave you feeling lonely while sitting in that Turkish bar in the middle of the day smoking your Gitanes.
But hang on friends. This isn’t a record intended to titillate or set a romantic mood. Au contraire, mon frère. This is educational. You can see it right there on the front jacket: “Dance Instructions Enclosed”. And in fact they are, glossy inner sheet that provides photos and descriptions of eight belly dancing poses (and also a post-paid postcard you can send to Monitor Records to learn more about what they have for sale; remember kids, no internet in 1973…). So you can’t try to hide this behind the counter at the store – it’s instructional, dammit!
Certainly this falls into the category I often see at record stores and shows known as Exotica. Take Persian music and combine with the seeming campiness of the idea of a belly dancing tutorial (though I suspect that no camp nor snark was originally intended) and you can takel a record you might not have been able to get a quarter for maybe ten years ago and charge $5 or $`10 for it, probably because someone will buy it as a joke. But to be clear, this album is completely earnest. It’s most definitely not a joke. The performers are legit and so is the sound quality. So don’t be afraid to pick up a copy and give it a serious listen.