Is it Baladi or is it “…… Baladi”?
That is the Question.
Mohamed Shahin Hanna St. John
This article is to address a massive confusion that is taking place these days about what is or what is not Baladi.
The Arabic word Balad means “village”, “country” or “land”. Baladi (adding the “i” at the end) is the adjective form, meaning "village-like", “provincial”, "local" or "rural", comparable to English "folk" (with a working-class connotation). This word can refer to an Egyptian musical and dance style. However, in Arabic, the word Baladi does not only apply to music and dance but can also apply to many other things that are considered native, rural, rustic or traditional, for example, Baladi bread, Baladi people, Baladi area, Baladi music or Baladi food of Egypt.
(Please note that adding “i” at the end of an Arabic word can also create singular possession). So if you hear the word “baladi” sung in a song, they could be saying “my country”, “my land”, “my village” “or “this Baladi girl”. But in the case of the arts, we are using the adjective and genre form of the word Baladi, meaning “village-style”.
Baladi music is an urban style, which developed from traditional Egyptian musical styles in the early 20th century, as large numbers of people migrated to Cairo from rural areas. The sounds of the accordion and saxophone are the identifying marks of baladi music and dance style.
Baladi can take the form of traditional songs as well, often with a verse-chorus structure - some popular examples such as ‘Taht il Shibbak’ as a baladi song and ‘Awadi’, ‘Tit’, ‘Ament be-ellah’ and ‘Hassan Ya Khoulli’ as an accordion improvisation. Baladi is a structured form of musical improvisation, usually using a dialogue between a Tabla player and an Accordionist or Saxophonist. Baladi improvisations usually begins with an Accordion solo (Taqsim). Following this, there is usually a call-and-response between the Accordion and the Tabla, flowing into a slow rhythmic section. Further call-and-response sections and quicker rhythmic sections may follow. The music usually accelerates over time. The final section is normally quick tempo, and staccato accents on the off-beat, and it can end with a short drum solo.
Baladi is an urban social form of Egyptian dance. It is more stationary than Classical oriental or oriental routine, with little use of the arms. The energy and the focus are on the hip movements, with no extreme back bends nor acrobatic movements. Baladi dance has a 'heavy' feeling; with the dancer appearing relaxed and strongly connected to the ground, and very earthy. The feeling is more focused internally, rather than the external focus as of Oriental Routine.
Costuming for performances of this Baladi style is a long dress covering the midriff (Galabia), which may be plain and traditional, or heavily embellished. You should not dance Baladi in a two-piece Oriental costume, unless in passing, during an Oriental routine where the dominating music is Oriental and not Baladi. Traditionally, a Baladi dress would resembles a theatrical version of traditional Egyptian clothing, with a hip scarf and a headband.
I hope this clarifies somewhat what is Baladi especially when it comes to the dance and music.
Baladi is just Baladi, there is no such thing as Baladi fusion, Modern Baladi, pop Baladi or Baladi nostalgia. As an analogy; a sonata is a musical piece that follows a very specific structure, without that structure it is not a sonata. If you write a concerto and call it sonata nostalgia that doesn’t make it a sonata. It is misleading and providing the wrong information about a very specific definition. Let a sonata be a sonata and a concerto be a concerto. Keep your creation and give it an original name. This is important especially for musicians these days. It is extremely crucial to preserve the structure of original musical piece once a specific name for it is used that is connected to a culture, otherwise, use a completely new and “creative” name.
This holds true for dance styles such as in Tango, Flamenco or Debkeh. Imagine this, I take a song like Por Una Cabeza
I add some Mizmar intro to it, I break it down Rababa layer it all with Tabla and create a new dance form called “Egyptango”. It doesn’t sit well does it?
One may argue, what’s the issue, isn’t art a freedom of expression? Isn’t art a way to express oneself? Yes it is; Go ahead and explore, try new things but don’t teach it as an art form with an authentic name that belongs to a specific culture. Create another definition for it or another name and no one will ever object.
For as long as I have been teaching and performing around the world, I’ve been seeing a mutation of the dance, subtle changes and re-naming, re-packaging and re-branding, everyone wants to be the “original” and the “first”, to make an idea their own, while the intention maybe coming out of “creativity” one must be very careful when you distort information about a culture. This is where the sin is committed in the name of creativity.
Distorting and manipulating a culture to suit one’s own needs should never be ok, the beauty about our differences is that our differences creates this amazing beautiful tableau of colors that makes us all wonder about one another as a culture.
Baladi is a wonderful style of Egyptian dance that can inspire people to love that earthy and local side of Egyptian culture.