Mawwals are real money makers. Especially the ones that are spoken more than sung. They have a story-telling feel that can transfix an entire audience, and they are always about issues everyone can relate to. Misery, pain, betrayal, heartache... Just the other night, my singer sang something to the effect of: "Your best friend is your money. If you don't have it, people step all over you. But when you have it, everyone greets you with hugs and kisses.' It was much longer than that, and it sounds better in Arabic. But the diction and passion with which he delivered this mawwal made everyone stop what they were doing. Even I had forgotten myself. For the two minutes that this lasted, people were nodding in agreement. Some had smirks of admiration for my singer's ingenuity; nearly all threw money on him when he finished. I remember being amazed not only by his skill, but by the power he held over us. It was as though he transformed the sala into a kindergarten classroom during story telling, or better yet, into a church, with an enthusiastic congregation lapping up the preacher's every word.
|The writing on the top picture says 'fil dar,' which translates as 'in the house [of Islam].The writing on the bottom says 'fil bar,' in the bar. :D|
Contrary to my singer, my presence on the stage is purely ornamental. I'm neither the focal point nor the star of my own show. I didn't know it would be like this when I first started. I'm OK with this though. It's a nice change of pace from my usual work on the boat and at weddings, in which I am the star, the producer, and the band leader. In this show, he takes over these roles. He is the one who chooses the songs, and decides when to start and finish them... though he doesn't give the band advanced notice. He waits until he's on stage. Then he asks the keyboard players for a generic set of notes (maqam), and his preferred pitch, so that he can slip into a mawwal. Right before he finishes the mawwal, he cues the drummer to start playing his desired rhythm. Rarely does he sing a song in its entirety. The idea is to keep things rolling so that the patrons keep throwing money.
Usually, this works fine. But it can lead to conflict if the rest of the musicians feel they've been left in the dark. Or if the singer sings a song the band doesn't know. This is totally preventable by holding regular rehearsals, by the way, except that we don't. It's very difficult to get a large group of musicians together during off hours, as most of them work from midnight until 9 am, and then sleep all day. Plus, no one is really that invested. It's because cabaret gigs are in the garbage pile of work a performer can procure. The pay is bad, the customers are plastered, and the atmosphere is borderline dangerous. Needless to say, there's no place for art.
Indeed, the biggest mistake I made when I first started this job was actually caring. I gave it my all, as I always do. I did a few rehearsals with the band and actually danced, only to have the management tell me I had to tone it down. Like, a lot. They preferred that I only dance my entrance piece (which, by the way, was to be chopped in half), and to spend the rest of the hour prancing around the stage playing with my hair and joking with customers. It would help if I could chew gum. Basically, they wanted a bimbo. Which left me wondering, why did they hire me for this gig?
I suppose it's because I'm American. Foreign dancers add an extra layer of 'prestige' to an establishment; Americans moreso. Or at least that's how it's perceived. For my part, I don't like the idea of others flashing around my Americanness as if it were a new Benz. It makes me self conscious, especially when my singer shouts that I'm Egypt's American belly dance star to a room full of people from countries the US has fucked. Not that they mind-- the alcohol washes away any tensions that might otherwise arise from my presence. But still...
I'm the dancer who is anal about her work. There have been times when I'd literally change musicians as frequently as I change my underwear. When I found ones that fit right, I'd rehearse the complacency out of them. So you can imagine the opposition I put up to the management's directives to tone it down. I felt like I was doing a disservice to the art form. And I felt like I had just jumped into the deep end of a very cold pool. But as the days went by, the water that once felt shockingly cold suddenly felt warm and comfortable. This both pleasantly surprised me and scared me. One the one hand, I was glad that I was able to adapt to my new performance settings-- if anything, I'd develop my entertainment skills. But on the other hand, if I could get used to this and even enjoy it, what else could I get used to under the right circumstances?
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