Crafting a Set 2: My Music Selection Process

Kanum player, public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia
An Arab Kanum performer *

Last time we talked about the general considerations for crafting a set for performance. This week I want to discuss my process for selecting music.

For me, it’s not as easy as picking up a song I like and boogieing to it. Different audiences have different expectations, and what I might enjoy dancing to might not be what gels better with them. We have far more leeway for indulging ourselves at an event for other dancers, but if we’ve been asked to dance at a restaurant, or and event for the general public, we need to think of the audience.

In my experience, general audiences will probably prefer music that is closer to pop and easier to listen to and assimilate. Drum solos are also popular. Leave the seven-minute slow mizmar pieces for a hafla or a show for other dancers, where they will be more appreciated. I enjoy dancing slow, and I do prefer starting slow so I can take those first few seconds to settle any possible stage nerves. But after a few flops, I also realised that the general public does not seem to “get” into slow, meditative movement as much as they do with more lively pieces. So I try to find music where there is a change of pace sprinkled along, adding interest, or that increases in speed or somehow intensity, so I can both have the slow moves I love and the excitement the general public enjoys.

This means I try to use music that has some level of complexity and dynamics, instead of a repetition of the same 32-count phrase in different instruments that has become so popular with Western musicians trying to imitate Middle Eastern music. I’ve noticed that people start zoning out and just loose interest very quickly when these pieces are played, so I try to avoid them.

Also, be wary of the lyrics, and if you do not speak the language, search online. Try to find a native speaker if you are not sure about the tone; double entendres might not be obvious on translation, and they happen often, particularly with Sha’abi, Reggaeton and Cumbia. If you are dancing to a piece in English, make sure the lyrics are appropriate to whatever event you are dancing at… I had been invited to a show, didn’t read the fine print, sent my music, and then as the show started and I listened to the intro talk about the fundraiser, I realised my choice was completely inappropriate due to the lyrics. It sunk like a lead balloon, of course. If you can’t find a translation, or even the general gist, you could try emailing the band. There’s no guarantee you’ll hear back, but I’ve done it a couple of times for Balkan bands singing in Rom dialects, and they were very helpful and appreciative that I was making sure I would not be offending my public or their culture by dancing to something inappropriate.

All fine and good, but what about specific pieces I enjoy? I will list some of them below, and you can find them in a handy YouTube list (link opens in a new tab/window, all tracks were uploaded by the respective music owners so the streaming supports the musicians!). They are just a few suggestions of tracks that are easy to find and relatively popular to get you started. This is not a comprehensive list, there’s a world of music out there for you to explore.

  • Farasha, by Helm: there are changes from slow to fast, but the song is fairly structured and easy to follow once you figure out the pattern
  • Derwood Green has to be my favourite Phil Thornton/Hossam Ramzy track; there are SO MANY textures overlaid in this piece!
  • Luxor Baladna, by Upper Egyptian Ensemble: contrary to popular belief, this piece wasn’t originally folkloric; it came from a movie, and was danced on screen by no other than Mahmoud Reda. It was also a rather pop piece. The Upper Egyptian Ensemble’s version is much more earthy, and goes better with the overall feel of the singing
  • Baburi by Yuval Ron: starts slow, picks up, goes slow again and increases intensity until the climax of the piece pretty much bursts through in the high notes of the flute. Brilliant track for a long-ish set that has it all
  • Bounce, by Solace: very hard hitting, upbeat track, never fails to make people clap and engage
  • Bulgarian Chicks by Balkan Beat Box: a fun track with a steady repeated pattern by some winds in the background, but varying gliding, melodic, and rhythm patterns over it, and a sultry horn solo in the middle that’s anything but boring!
  • God is God: totally different type of track, electronic but with a great Middle Eastern vibe in the vocals and a lot of texture and changes in the music despite the repetitive background; I’ve edited this track and danced FCBD®Style with a friend as part our very first Gothla set a few years ago. It’s super-energetic, the audience loved it, and if you are dancing a non-folkloric style, edited down you can get a *lot* of bang for your buck.

Of course, if you have the luxury of a longer set, you can instead do different pieces with different paces instead of cramming it all into 4 minutes. But in that case I would aim to start high, and end with a bang (fast) and leave the expressive, regal or soulful slow for the middle of the set. Always, keep the thematic unity as much as possible: if you are doing ME ethnic music, don’t throw in an electronic western piece into it, as the change will be jarring. If you really have to for whatever reason, see if there is any way of splitting your set, and take it out on its own, or maybe build up the switch.

You can also edit your songs to make them shorter but keeping dynamics, particularly for pop songs. This again, prevents the music from becoming repetitive. For instance, if the song has two verses, two choruses, and one instrumental part that repeats the verse melody, then a final chorus, you could edit it to have one verse, one chorus, instrumental verse, chorus, end. And if you need help editing your music, you can refer to my post about it.

How do you know if your music needs editing? If you find that you are tuning it off after a few moments, if the piece sounds the same all the way along and there’s hardly any noticeable changes in dynamics, if you start it randomly at different points and can’t tell where you are in the song just by listening, chances are the music needs some trimming, or even reconsidering. Remember, what’s wonderfully atmospheric to have in the background at home as you relax might not work at all in a threatre or a village green. This doesn’t mean that you should only dance to pop music. But leave the repetitive beats and phrases for the classroom. Performances are your time to shine, so don’t sabotage your efforts by drowning your audience in the same 4 bars repeated for 4 minutes.

Once your music is picked, make sure you follow organiser’s guidelines, but even if you send it as an mp3, it’s good practice to have it with you in an mp3 player, USB stick or CD -or even better, all- *just in case*; you never know when the system will go haywire, or even when you’ll be asked to do a last minute extra performance. Beware proprietary connections (Apple’s lighting connector, I’m looking at you!). I learnt this lesson the hard way, when I had to dance to a full theatre with the sound coming off my phone’s tiny speakers, because the connector failed. I went back home and ordered an mp3 player with a mini jack that I loaded with my performance tracks, and carry with me ever since.

What are your favourite tracks to dance to and why? Leave a comment below!

* Kanun, and mode of playing it, Palestine, picture p. 577 in W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, under Public Domain

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