Shake that belly

George Abdo and His Flames Of Araby Orchestra
Belly Dance!
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my life as an international man of leisure, it’s that if you’re going to belly dance, be careful to choose the right music. George Abdo and his orchestra bring it on their “best of” disc, Belly Dance! The first thing I noted was the exclamation point. You don’t just belly dance. You … Belly Dance!

Abdo, known in many circles as the king of belly dance music, and his orchestra combine Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Armenian, Greek and Turkish musical traditions. The 15 selections, culled from five Abdo albums, are based on the repertoire, instrumentation, and performance styles of the Middle East. They are also said to incorporate influences from American pop and jazz. Those are hard to hear. You really have to listen close to hear those elements of American pop and jazz, and when you do they don’t really sound like American pop and jazz, but that’s fine.

These songs are fun, and while initially not as easy to shake it to as some American pop, you can’t help but feel the funk bubbling up from “Ta Mavra Matia Sou (Your Black Eyes)” and the frenzied lust from “Imm Al-Manadili (The Charm of Your Scarf).” The perky rhythms are created by the violin, oboe, ud, qanun, darbukka, bouzouki, guitar, piano, bass and drums.

Abdo’s voice is ever-present, sultry and captivating. Just when you’re sure you’ve heard enough of it for the day, he stops to make room for an instrumental interlude and a bouzouki solo or two.

Like all Smithsonian releases and reissues, the copious liner notes tell a detailed, interesting story about the music. According to the notes by Anne K. Rasmussen, music such as Abdo and the Flames’ is just one component of an evening in a Middle Eastern supper club known for its food, drink, smoke, conversation, live music, and belly dancers who circulated among the customers “soliciting their participation in a multi-sensory experience of escapism.” Such wonderful places to enjoy dinner!