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

Inspiration: Elif’in Hecesi

I’m currently working on a series of posts talking about my process putting together a set for performance, beginning to end, but there are four parts (at the time of writing this) and I want to make sure it all keeps the right tone. I’ll have more meaty content again next week, no worries, and thought I would share another inspiration post in the meantime.

Elif'in Hecesi YouTube Channel logo

Today’s inspiration is a bit left field. Elif’in Hecesi is a YouTube channel. I discovered it thanks to a recommendation of a single track, then kept watching/listening to, and the more I watched, the more I loved. I would have materials for months if I was recommending each piece here, so I’ll just recommend the channel.

The concept is simple: one (or sometimes two) musicians, in a natural setting: forest, farm, or their own living rooms. One camera. Traditional instruments more often than not. Sometimes they improvise, sometimes they play their own compositions, sometimes they play music of their region. So far it seems that it’s all Turkish, mostly Anatolian music for what I can tell (I might be wrong). There’s a LOT of it, and all of it beautiful, and very different from what we tend to hear in the West… Stellamara comes close at times, but not *quite* to this level of beauty in simplicity. There’s something magical about listening to these people playing while life happens around them. Quite often the viewers have left lyric translations too.

It is worth listening to, if you feel you want to add to your Middle Eastern music appreciation past the staples. Just don’t expect catchy sing along hits. This is the kind of music you listen to when you want to soothe your soul or be reminded of the beauty of the world. I’ve left two examples below, but there’s a lot more!

Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy!

Music Editing

Quite often these days, when applying to perform at a festival, hafla or show, you will be given a set of guidelines, including music length. This is not planned to upset the dancers, but to give everybody a fair chance and to avoid hogging the stage.

The limits I’ve received most often have been between 3:30 and 4 minutes. Does this mean that we can only pick songs or musical pieces that are shorter than that? Easy answer would be yes, but true answer is… not necessarily.

Enter music editing software. Audacity is a brilliant little program, free, which comes for Windows, OSX and Linux operative systems, so as long as you are using a desktop or laptop, you can use it. It’s available for download here: A lot of people think that editing a song means just chopping off a beginning or an end, but this doesn’t have to be the only thing you do, and for dancing, this can be counterproductive, as it can leave you with a dull repetitive chorus, or remove a punchy end or a juicy beginning. Judicious editing allows you to create a new version of the track, keeping the bits you want, maintaining or even improving the original dynamics, and reassembling them, like a puzzle. Or adding pieces from another song. It’s kind of addictive and opens up a *lot* of possibilities.

So, how do you use it? First things first: you are going to get better results if your original sound file(s) are encoded directly from the source (CD, vynil or original recording) as a looseless WAV. “Looseless” means there was no compression of the sound file aimed at reducing file size; this is usually not that noticeable, but when you are manipulating the files it produces lesser quality results in the end. So if you have a CD, re-encode the song as a WAV. If all you have is an mp3, try to obtain the highest quality possible from the original vendor or distributor (320 kbps if possible). Do not encode upwards, that is, don’t re-encode at 320kbps if you have it at 160kbps, and do not burn a cd and re-encode as a wav if all you have is an mp3. Basically, work from the highest quality file you’ve got.

First, import the track via File=> Import=> Audio. Your song will load, and you will see the first “track” as two fields of squiggly lines (see image below). These are the left and right channels of your track. The blue spiky fields represent the sound waves and dynamics, which translate to our ear into sound quality, volume and intensity of the music (more instruments, more things happening, etc). The top playback controls should be easy enough. I’d recommend you play the track once in full, paying attention how the tracker (vertical line) moves along the track and noticing how what you hear is displayed graphically. Note whether there are particular sections that you want to keep, and bits that you would like to removed, either because they are repetitive, or because they are not adding anything to the song. If you can, note down where they are, using the “audio position” value at the bottom of the screen.

Doing a basic Intro/Outro is the easiest way to get started, so let’s say we want to remove the first 20 seconds, and the last 10. First make sure there’s no playback going on, and none of the playback buttons are greyed out or in use; pause is still playback so you need to make sure to press STOP before attempting any editing. Use the selection tool (vertical line | in the top row, to the right of the red dot for RECORD) to select the first section we want gone. It will highlight; we can hear just that section using the playback controls. If it’s the selection you want removed, hit delete on your keyboard, making sure there’s a smidge of it left before the actual section of song you want to keep starts, unless there’s a very sharp cut (actual silence) in the track. Select this smidge now, and use Effect=> Fade In, to make this start less abrupt. Use the magnifying glasses tool to see the soundwaves in more detail.
Do the same with the ending you want removed, select, delete, and this time use Fade Out to end the track more gradually. Export using the File=> Export=> Export as MP3 to save this new version. Or export as WAV if you want to burn it to a CD.

Audacity after importing a track

This is all well and good, but what happens when you want more complex editing, and what do I mean by that? Example: this (plus a couple of seconds that are missing from the video) is a Type O Negative track that I danced at Belle, Book & Candle show with Princess Farhana in 2018 The original track is 7:15 and you can listen to it here ; the single edit for the radio is 4:51. My editing took the song down to 3:39, and instead of chopping off the atmospheric intro or the mournful outro, I worked removing second verses, phrases and reducing length of solos to achieve the length I needed. Comparing both tracks you can see that they keep similar dynamics, and all the sections from the original song are there; mine is just condensed. I basically cherrypicked what I considered the best moments of the song, and distilled them into a new version.

So, how can you achieve a similar effect and keep it ? Like before, listen to the track, notice bits you want to keep and bits that can go. Find the first obvious place to make a cut, but instead of just deleting, cut from the place you want the cut, to the END of the song, create a new track (Tracks=> Add New=> Stereo) and paste the second part of the song in this new stereo track. You can use the “mute” and “solo” buttons on each track to listen to each part on their own, and since you wanted to remove a bit, you now have basically the scenario above of editing begining and/or ending. Therefore, the same procedure applies: select the bit you want gone, delete, fade in or out. Use the Time Shift Tool (the double ended arrow <-> ) to move the new section to the right (later) or left (earlier) so it starts as the previous section ends; the fades in and out of each section should make them blend. Lather, rinse, repeat.

To avoid lag, I recommend working with no more than 4 stereo tracks at a time, but this might not be enough for complex edits. If you’ve got a beginning worked out and your computer is slow updating the viewport, export this beginning by muting the non-edited section, then using File=> Export=> Export as WAV. This will create a new file with everything into a single stereo track. Save this doc. Select the unedited section and copy, then close this document. Open a new document, import the track you created in the previous step, then create a new stereo track and copy the unedited section you copied from the previous doc; continue editing the last sections in the new doc.

It will take some trial and error to find the best places for these edits, but some care will get you the best results.

  • always match the actual tempo; for instance, don’t end one section on the 4 and start the next one on the 2 or it will feel jagged; if there is a slight difference -can happen in field recordings and ethnic music- use the Effect => Change Tempo tool to see if you can make the transition better.
  • keep to the song’s basic structure as much as possible, so if your verses are 4 lines each, 8×4 counts, your editing doesn’t turn them into 3 lines, or 5x 4 counts.
  • when working with instrumental sections that need removing, try to match the beginning and end chords or notes if possible, or to make the cut where the first is moving onto the second naturally anyway; it helps if you sing this note and maintain it as you listen to the next section. This will make the transition seamless
  • don’t be afraid to overlap sections from different places if they match, to get a bigger sound, or a stronger dynamic (see the graphic below)
  • use the selection tool to listen to the joints in sections, but don’t be afraid to step back regularly to listen to all you’ve got so far, to make sure that it’s got the overall dynamics that you want.
More complex editing, using 3 overlapping stereo tracks

Most important, to me, try to keep the song’s flow; I know it’s quite common these days to have 4 bars of this song and 8 bars of another and 16 bars of something yet again different, and to my ear, quite often this feels disjointed. But this is your story to tell, just make sure that the editing doesn’t overshadow or distracts from your dancing.

And that should be it. The process is laborious but not too difficult once you figure out how to do it; it does require attention to detail, but it will help you break free of pre-recorded music constraints.

What about you? Do you feel like learning to edit your tracks, or would you rather work with tracks the way they were intended originally, regardless of length?

Doing your first choreography

Sneaked among the latest post was a tiny bit of momentous news: I’ve finally gone and done my first choreography. Which wouldn’t strictly be true, as I wasn’t working on one but two, but right now I’m focusing on the one that is actually finished.
I know that for some people that have done theirs for ages, it’s not a big deal. For others, it’s anathema: they see belly dance as a dance form which should be free, improvised on the spot, according to the feel of the moment, and the music, so a pre-established choreography is not something desireable.

Me? I’m middle-ground. I’ve danced a few choreographies by several “famous” (or equivalent in the belly dancing world) people, some by Khaled, a handful of Kazafy’s. I’ve also done some by a troupe mate. I’ve enjoyed some, some I didn’t, and this had nothing to do with who created them. I think choreographies have their place, particularly when you’re in a troupe and not following an established improvisational style like ATS. As does improvisation: we tend to add a “free form” piece at the end of our Egyptian-style performances where we can dance with the public, if we are in a suitable environment, but the choreographies allow you to have something more established when planning.

Since we started taking ATS classes, my friend L and I had the request a few times to “prepare something tribal” . Of course the whole concept of improvisation can be difficult to explain to people not familiar with the format, and a choreography would both cover this and any spot of nerves that might raise. I’d also wanted to choreograph something for the Sunday group, as we don’t really seem to have any dances “of our own”, relying instead of older dances done by the Advanced group. So the “brilliant” concept (and notice the quotes; I am not taking this seriously, as I suspect it will create a load of headaches down the line) came about of putting something together to dance with L., and then show it to the Sunday Group, and if they liked it, see if we could teach it to them. Two birds, one stone and all of that.

So, when my Choreography Bunnies started bouncing around too much, I finally took some time and tried to come up with something. And it was surprisingly easy once I figured things out. So here are my suggestions, in no particular order:

  • decide what is the intended audience for your piece; will this be a street performance, a carnival, a theatre, a hafla? general public or bellydancers? where will you perform? Different venues and circumstances might make you think twice on what you’re doing (i.e. sword in a street performance with people walking around you invites disaster)
  • pick a piece of music that *really* makes you want to dance; bonus point if it’s not something that has been done to death, or that people might relate to (i.e. that obscure mizmar piece would be great for an appreciative belly dancer audience, but the nasal slightly discordant tones might feel too alien for the general public)
  • familiarise yourself with the music, to the point that you can repeat it beat for beat in your sleep; learn the phrases, accents, peaks, or tension within it; this will make it easier for you to practice and think of combos or steps to use.
  • if there are lyrics, become familiar with them, and their meaning, as it can help suggest to you gestures, expressions or actions
  • put it on a few times, have a few free-flowing dances to it; take note of things that you like (and I mean it, TAKE NOTE, write it down, don’t rely on your memory), even if you are missing chunks in between these parts.
  • now that you’re starting to get a skeleton for your choreography, look at the music again: notice the structure, whether there are repeating parts that could benefit from similar steps, whether there is an increase in pacing, a stretch in the notes being played, a modulation of the tone, or anything similar, and think of how you can help express that with your movements
  • it’s not all about the hips: you don’t need to shake your hips constantly like an electrocuted frog in a lab; you have a wide variety of moves on your dance vocabulary that include the whole body, use them!
  • it’s not all about you: if you’re choreographing for a group, remember it’s not all about you being in front and having backing dancers; think of ways to arrange things so that everybody has a chance to shine, unless they want to remain hidden in the back
  • it’s not all about the base rhythm; these can be quite similar and even monotonous unless you’re working on a drum solo; try to capture the feel of the main “voice” on the piece, be it a human throat, instruments or yes, even percussion
  • everybody doing the same in their little dancer’s box is ok, but a bit boring: travelling steps help a lot, and using the stage to move about or change places make the choreography more dynamic and visually interesting.
  • it’s not all about the High Concept: having an idea, trying to tell a story, is all nice and good, but don’t let your dance be lost in your concept; sometimes people dance because they’re happy or sad, or energetic, or simply because they like the music; don’t let your High Concept get in the way of your dancing to the point that it overpowers it; sometimes music is also made just for enjoyment!
  • don’t try to cram everything in once piece: don’t make your choreography a catalogue of moves, and try to give it some unity instead; repeat combos on similar sections, for instance, or do moves that are related instead of going for something completely different with every bar!
  • build up: you don’t want your audience to be bombarded with everything from the get go, or so overwhelmed with cool moves that everything blurs… showcase interesting moves among simpler ones,  and build up your moves as the music builds up
  • if you’re choreographing for a specific group, take into account their strengths and weaknesses; some of your troupe mates might be better at some moves, and some might be unable to do others, so think of ways around this
  • conversely, be mindful of your limitations and those dancing with you: impressive moves are impressive, but basic moves are beautiful too when done with proper technique; choose moves that are suitable to your level and that of those around you
  • don’t give up, or expect the whole routine to be ready in a matter of hours; these things often need quite a bit of time to come together, and sometimes what works inside your head might prove to be  just awkward to execute, so be ready to make changes
  • finally, when you start practicing, make sure you are aware of what parts of the body will take more of a pounding or require extra flexibility, so warm up those accordingly

In my case, I started with a song I really liked, and which hubby helpfully said “that would be nice with some dancing”, and went on from there. I keyed on certain parts of the song (slow intro, chorus) thinking of what could fit them, then took it one verse at a time, and once I had a first half I liked, tried to use it as the starting platform for the remaining half. I’m still doing touch-ups here and there, but overall structure is in place, and hopefully by the time the first performance rolls in, it’ll be ready for unveiling.

Inspiration: The Hidden Sister

I was shown this video ages ago. It’s a little short with a hint of the metaphysical (there’s a very clear attempt at presenting the 5 elements doctrine popular in some branches of Paganism), but it is very creatively set up and filmed, the costuming and make-up are GORGEOUS, and even better, has Sera Solstice dancing as the “Spirit” element. It was my first view of her, and I liked her so much that it prompted me to found out more, look for performances and DVDs. And I am so glad I did!

You can watch the video below, but truly, I suggest you head over to youTube and watch it in HD.

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