Ya Salaam: the New Amer-Abic Sound of the Middle East

Eddie "The Sheik" Kochak Ya Salaam: the New Amer-Abic Sound of the Middle East LP (Mace, 196?)

During the 1950s, a belly dancing craze swept America. As with exotica, the belly dance craze came from a post-World War II middle class eagerness to shed their "innocence," and experience a little bit more of the world. And as exotica was often a way for the frigid to funnel their pent up sexuality, so was the belly dance craze. It might be a bit hard to fathom today, when so many Arabs in the media are portrayed as a terrorists or fat oil barons, but back in the 1940s & 50s, Arab men were considered suave to the point of sexy, with Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks part of the Mediterranean breed of love machines. With sex on the mind, wives took belly dance classes not to experience a new culture, but to titillate their mate and many a household owned a copy of Sonny Lester's How to Belly Dance for Your Husband.

Ahhh but belly dancing isn't simply some branch of exotica or a kitschy path to the bedroom. Belly dancing is a collection of native dances from the Middle East. Bdancednace is known as debkee with styles as diverse as the countries they originate from. To dance these dances, one needs music. We call that music belly dance music. To the rest of the world, it is Middle Eastern music and as with Middle Eastern dance, each region's music has its own sound. That is, each region had its own sound until it came to America. With the belly dance craze came the belly dance record. Some of these are rubbish, Hollywood orchestras approximating Middle Eastern music (see Sonny Lester's aforementioned volume). Other belly dance records are imports that reflect the musical style of the country of their origin. But my favorite belly dance records are those that come from Arab-Americans.

Just as drum and vocal patterns in jazz, the blues, and Black spirituals come from the mixing of different African tmusicmusics, Arab-American belly dance music is a blend of different Arab styles. The king of Arab-American belly dance music is undoubtedly Eddie "The Sheik" Kochak. Born and still living in Brooklyn, Kochak began hicareer carreer as a drummer, taking lessons from big band percussionist Henry Adler. Kochak played in clubs, for troops in WWII and eventually with fellow Arab-Americans. Taking on the dirbakee (an Arabic tom), Kochak teamed Baghdadh Bagdad-born, multi-instrumentalist Hakki Obadia and Lebanese-American, Fred Elias, an ace violinist born in New Hampshire. Together these three led a recording ensemble that turned out many excellent records of Arab-American Middle Eastern music. While nearly every record these guys made is great, Ya Salaam is unique.

What makes it different from the rest is that two songs on Ya Salaam take Middle Eastern music one more step into America.meldg melded different Middle Eastern sounds into one, Kochak and crew mate Middle Eastern music with rock and roll. Kochak calls Sahara Sue and The Belly Dancer "specialty songs" but they are more than that: They are damn good garage rockers. Sahara Sue starts off with your basic garage punk 4-chord progression, however your normal rock and roll band is not playing it. Drums and guitar are helped out by oud, violin, accordion and dribakee. The Middle Eastern instruments are not there just for effect. They are strong in the mix. The Belly Dancer is takes a bit less of a rock approach. That is, the rock 4/4 beat is substituted by a Middle Eastern rhythm. The vocal phrasing is still garage punk and there is still a verse-chorus-verse structure. The over all effect is that weird space between garage and psych. In both Sahara Sue and The Belly Dancer, the solos are taken by oud and violin, the result being a bit like sitar solos in late 60s psych songs with one big difference: Sitar solos in psych songs are usually done by some hippie who just picked the damn instrument up, The El-Mecca Ensemble know their shit. The solos are as good as they are in the group's Middle Eastern number.

There is a magic in songs like Sahara Sue and The Belly Dancer. While some folks would write them off as kitsch, I think that they represent the best things about America, that old cliche of the melting pot. These songs treat rock and roll (and America) as a template, something that can be built on. They speak to an inclusive society, not the society of tribal war that some would have us become.

niiiiiiiiiiiice. i live for this sort of thing.
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