Why bellydancers, anyway? (part 3) “confessions of a bellydance musician”

This one is four years coming.  I can’t even remember if I ever posted the “part 3” or not, but was considering blogging about some things relating to being a being a dancers’ musician and thought I’d look up the blogs I’d done regarding this.  I still can’t believe I’d blogged those over four years ago, but there it is and here is part 3!  For those interested, here are part 1 and part 2.

As I recently gave another intervew to Julia Zay that is a part of a series of pieces talkin about contemporary bellydance musicians, some of the things we discussed have been on my mind lately especially regarding actual collaboration between dancers and musicians (in contrast to havin dancers dance to can music) and especially regarding copyright and licensing of music for perormances or media that will be sold (show DVDs, for example).

But a few amendments to the dance exposure I mentioned in the previous (part 2) installment of this blog series, since it has been some four years since that post.

  • I’ve since been dancing intermittently with the Louisville Ethnic Dancers when I’m actually in town and not gigging.  This has given me some valuable insight into dance from a dancers side, especially regarding how to have the right musical accents and style for particular dances.  I’d mentioned in a previous post the idea of having a “musical accent” and how that can get in the way of understanding how the music works with the dance,  This is where much of that experience is coming from.  As I also joined a Balkan band (primarily as a drummer with some singing), Kermes, in Bloomington Indiana I’ve gotten the chance to play tons of the Balkan, Eastern European and Western Asian tunes and styles that I learned how to dance to with the LED.  Also, one of the members of the group, Gergana, is from Bulgaria and is one of the folk dance teachers in Bloomington.
  • As I’ve also blogged about occasionally here, I’ve started up more intimate projects with individual dancers.  The first attempt, which hasn’t really gotten off the ground, was Natyasastra which was to focus on Indian Music and Dance (especially Bollywood).  Circumstances have prevented this particular project from doing live perfomances though that may still change in the near future.  Another project, Raks Makam, has actualy done some unofficial performances.  There’s been a line-up change as Taletha, who moved to Colorado, is no longer active dancing in my area.  She remains in an ‘artistic director’ type of position with the project while one of her dance students, Jessica Hamilton, takes up the reins of the dance.  This project focuses mainly on Central Asian dance and music.  The latest duo project, Secondhand, is probably the most active.  We call ourselves a “Experimental Vintage Goth” Bellydance and Music duo, and I’ve had great fun working with Celeste on trying new things.
  • Along with joining the Balkan band last year, I’ve been playing regularly with a Klezmer group, the River City Klezmer Band, and have gotten some great experience playing traditional Klezmer and Eastern European Jewish dance music.  Also, since 2008, I’ve been playing with Ahel El Nagam, a Classical Arabic Group based in Louisville.  We play much more traditional Middle Eastern music than what you might hear from me in, say, il Troubadore.  Lately I’ve been drumming for the group as we’ve also had a number of line-up changes, but it is really wonderful getting the chance to work on some of the classica bellydance tunes in a more traditional setting than I have in the past.

So, as you can see, I’ve expanded my collaborative projects to go well outside of working with just bellydancers and in a sense have come full circle at being a much more versatile musician for them.

At the same time, now that I’ve been actively working with other types of dancers, I get a different feel for dance culture and how dancers view music.  Working more intimately with dancers and in other bands have given me a different viewpoint on how dancers conceive of music as well as how different kinds of musicians view the music they are making for dancers. Continue reading “Why bellydancers, anyway? (part 3) “confessions of a bellydance musician””

Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area

Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra of San José, California performing at California Theater in 2006

The San Francisco Bay Area is a Metropolitan region encompassing San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose as well as a number of surrounding cities and ‘burbs.  With a population approaching 8 million, it is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese Americans in the US at a little over half a million according to the 2010 census.

What I’ve discovered is that the Bay Area is also home to probably the greatest concentration of Chinese Orchestras in the US.  As I’ve been compiling a database of ethnic orchestras in North America (though concentrating, in particular, on the United States) I’ve since discovered just a little over two dozen ensembles in the Bay Area alone.  It seems that California in general has the highest concentration of Chinese Orchestras of all the States (cf. the geographic region between Chicago and Detroit which seems to have the highest concentration of Arabic and Middle Eastern ensembles and Orchestras in the US).

What’s particularly striking about the Bay Area’s ensembles is the number of Youth Orchestras, and, in a particular case, a k-5th grade Chinese Orchestra.  The other striking thing about these (and other ethnic ensembles throughout the US) is the number (roughly half) that have formed since the internet revolution (early to mid 90s), and the number that have formed within the past ten years or so (nearly a third of the total number).

I’ve yet to do a rigorous statistical analysis of the numbers as I’m still just compiling the database and doing the tedious task of getting numbers (year formed, number of musicians in the ensembles, etc.) so the preceeding paragraph is just a very rough sketch, but if the trends I had been seeing in the Middle Eastern ensembles is any indication of what’s happening with the Chinese ensembles, there is definitely growth in the number of groups formed and the rate is accelerating somewhat.

Granted, there might be some bias in the number of groups as obviously those groups that are no longer active are less likely to show up in simple internet searches.  For all we know there could have been many more Chinese Orchestras in the years or decades before the internet.  Indeed, there seemed to be a high number of Chinese Opera troupes operating in the states during the last half of the 19th century to first half of the 20th century (see Rodecape, 1944 and Mina Yang, 2001).  The situation was similar in New York Chinatown during the period of the National Origins Act when there were up to five separate Chinese Opera Houses in operation (Rao, 2000; 2002).

On the other hand, there is also the fact that many cultural institutions with ethnic minority groups will stay well below the radar of the majority population (cf. MacLachlan, 2008 for a discussion of ‘underground’ intra-congregational music dissemination, performance, and support) for reasons that are systemic as well as cultural (Rao, 2000). Continue reading “Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area”

Kayhan Kalhor and the Persian kamancheh at Tully Scope

Kayhan Kalhor playing the Persian kamancheh

Yeah, I know–technically it’s Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor at Tully Scope, but even the Lincoln Center website lists Kayhan Kalhor first.  But after a slightly negative review of Brooklyn Rider at the Washington Post, maybe it’s better this way as Evan Tucker only had great things to say about Kalhor:

Brooklyn Rider also performed four pieces that its violinist Colin Jacobsen wrote or arranged to include the legendary Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor. After mere seconds from Kalhor’s kamancheh – an Iranian viol- one realized what Brooklyn Rider lacks. The moment Kalhor’s bow crossed the strings, the synagogue was transformed from a trendy venue into a musical shrine. Whenever Kalhor was spotlighted, Jacobsen’s music changed from ethno-kitsch to profound rumination.

Midway through the concert, Kalhor gave as extraordinary an improvisation as any music lover could wish to hear. All it took was one instrument, one man, and one melody extracted from one chord to uncover thousands of possibilities constructed from simple means.

A musician this brilliant should not have to play second fiddle – or, in this case, second kamancheh. Asking Kayhan Kalhor to play with Brooklyn Rider is like asking W.C. Handy to play with Blues Traveler. Both Brooklyn Rider and Blues Traveler are enjoyable groups that popularize great musical traditions. One immediately hears how distant their music is from greatness, however, when confronted with the real thing.

Continue reading “Kayhan Kalhor and the Persian kamancheh at Tully Scope”

Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950

In Chapter 5, “Excellence and its Identification,” of Charles Murray’s book (Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950) the author writes in the section titled The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental:

To accept the position I just laid out requires one to adopt considerable humility about the arts in which one is not an expert.  While I am free to not enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, it is silly for me to try to argue that Richard Wagner does not deserve his standing as one of the greatest composers.  That’s a matter of judgment and I’m not competent to judge (Mark Twain said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” which seems about right to me).  Surrendering that independent judgment is irksome, and gets more so as one’s knowledge approaches the fringes of expertise.  I know more about literature than I know about music, and I nonetheless do not enjoy the later novels of Henry James that are most highly regarded by the experts.  But my wife is an expert on Henry James and over the years I have had to accept that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

In dealing with such situations, Hume’s distinction between sentiment and judgment is invaluable.  One is not required to surrender one’s opinions, but merely to acknowledge their nature.  I am not able to argue that the later Henry James does not write well; all I can do is assert that his later style is not to my taste–an assertion that is true and valid within its limits.  The cliché “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is in this sense a precise and admirable preface to whatever comment comes next.

Setting aside some of the issues regarding excellence and music I mentioned in a previous post, I was struck by how much Murray’s sentiment [sic] regarding only being able to assert an opinion about our relationship to works of art was something I talked about in my undergraduate thesis.  Namely that most of the things we say about anything has to do with our relationship to that thing rather than about any Kantian Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”).  His relationship to how Hume deals with that issue is probably a bit clearer than Hume himself ever was. Continue reading “Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)”

"…inspired by the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton"

Middle Eastern Oud
I came across this passage:

According to Farabi, the oud was invented by Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam. The legend tells that the grieving Lamech hung the body of his dead son from a tree. The first oud was inspired by the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton.


That’s just kinda interesting, if gruesome, imagery. Another quote:

Tradition holds that the origin of the oud isn’t so tranquil, though. The Bible attributes the birth of music to Yuval, son of Lamech (the great, great, great grandson of Adam), but Arab legend tells a slightly different story, in which Lamech accidentally kills his other son Tuval-Cain (after accidentally killing the original Cain) and hangs his body to dry in a tree, with the skeleton serving as a model for the first instrument. We don’t want to know how they think the tuba was invented.


With that, I leave you this beautifully poignant article, A Fabled Iraqi Instrument Thrives in Exile, from the New York Times and this wonderful video of Rahim Alhaj and Souhail Kaspar recording “Rast” for Mr. Alhaj’s album, “When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq,” for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2006.

For those of you reading this at my facebook page, the permalink which has the embedded video is: