For academic lectures please refer to my publications.





1) The 20 important Egyptian dance rhythms and how to dance to them (in cooperation with a dancer): Learn the basic dumm, takk and sakka sound by clapping them and playing the various patterns outlined below, and then dance to them.


1a) Learn the difference between four important and seemingly similar rhythms: fallahi, masmudi saghir, ma’sum and sa’idi. These are your most used rhythms and it is crucial for a dancer to distinguish between them.

1b) Learn the difference between ayyub and malfuf, these are important for entrance and exit, but also important as rhythms in the middle of a piece.

1c) Learn the four zar rhythms: slow ayyub, sudani, abul-ghet (12 beats) and the generic zar.

1d) Learn the classical and sufi rhythms: sama’i, darig, wahda kabira, chifte telli, a’raj, waltz.

1e) Learn the folk rhythms: iskandarani, sa’idi, zaffa, masmudi kabir, aqsaq, settat ashar.


2) Sound and patterns of finger cymbals: 6 basic sounds (2 dumms, 3 takks, 1 sakka) and 3 patterns that follow the traditions of Egyptian bellydance stars (Badia Masabni, Samia Gamal, Taheyya Carioca). Learn the basic sounds first, then play them to the accompaniment of a drum or tambourine, then play them to an instrumental piece. When played well with the orchestra, the cymbals added a beautiful layer of heterophony to the sound. And please play the drum pattern very sparingly or not at all, it is not your job to play the drum pattern, but it is your job to play the three above-mentioned patterns in rhythm to beautify the music.


3) The 8 most important maqams (melodic modes): Learn to recognize these modes by associating them to particular pieces (for instance, the zaffa, Etmakhtari Ya Helwa” is in bayati mode). Maqams do not have particular characters, that is, one is happy and one is sad. This is incorrect, and it is a common mistake musicians and dancers make; rather it is how the maqam is used (melodic movements, cadences, subsections and sections) and the meaning of the accompanying lyrics that give the characters and emotions.


4) Musical forms and impact on choreography (in cooperation with a dancer): Learn to analyze your piece, figure out the various sections, their rhythms and their maqams and changes in maqams (modulations),


5) Tarab and music, and how to dance to taqsim tarab style, and how to dance to old bellydances with tarab elements (in cooperation with a dancer). Learn how to recognize a taqsim as a love poem with happy as well as sad moments, and be guided with particular short melodies that convey deep emotions of love and longing and heartbreak. Learn to finish your movement precisely at the end of the cadence, that is, the end of a taqsim, or section of it.


6) Intensive teaching of darabukka or tambourines techniques and patterns for dancers (this can be done 4 days for 2 hours to exhaust the 20 rhythms mentioned above).


7) Many performances on qanun with pieces and taqsims






(For the Arabic edition, see below)

 Dancers please note in this passage the importance of creativity, grace (keep in mind and remember Samia Gamal), coquetry, patience and hard work (Middle Eastern dances are very difficult to master), good sense of rhythm and setting of feet to rhythms. Please note the he/she in my translation as there were male as well as female dancers at the court (see below translated anecdotes V: 352-353 and XXII: 213-214 from al-Isfahani's Book of Songs).   

This is the earliest and most articulate passage on dance in the medieval Middles East. It tells us about the rhythmic modes used in dancing, and they were the same ones used in vocal and instrumental music of the period, just as is the case today in the Arab world. The passage also informs us about planned choreography versus improvisations, crucial importance of a good sense of rhythm, description of body and costumes, importance of a dancer having a good character, talent, subtleties of motions, large repertoire of types of dances, the long road needed to be a good dancer (hence clearly pointing to the fact that it was a sophisticated art), beauty seen in symmetry of feet motions, and dancing on or off the beat, a kind of dance syncopation. The oration was done by a singer who was also knowledgeable, as clearly apparent in the text, in both dance and music, and being a boom-companion (nadim) meant he was also a renaissance man. See below for the all rounded education of a nadim and his role in the court.

The passage is short, extremely rich and quite difficult to comprehend for the modern Arab reader. It requires knowledge of Arabic medieval musicology; of ancient Greek rhythmic theory and aesthetics which influenced Arabic writings immensely; socio-cultural history of the broader Middle East, and that includes knowledge of both Arabic and Persian; and medieval Arabic narratives.

“The next morning, the Caliph al-Mu’tamid invited the guests of the previous night. When they sat according to their ranks, he said to one of his singers who was also a boon-companion (nadim): ‘Describe the dance for me, its types, the praiseworthy qualities of the dancer, and tell me about his/her character and nature.’

The boon-companion / singer who was asked said:

‘O Commander of the Faithful, the people of various regions and various countries differ in their dances, such as the people of Khurasan and others. And the rhythmic modes used in dancing are eight: the light, hazaj, ramal, light ramal, second light heavy and second heavy, the first light heavy and the first heavy. See below for syllabic transcriptions.

The Dancer needs certain qualities in his/her natural dispositions, in his/her physical constitution, character, and in his/her performance.

1- Natural Dispositions: What he/she needs is grace and charm, good innate sense of rhythm, and the one who seeks to be a dancer, to joyfully seek planning and creativity in his/her dance (clearly here, planning and creativity are tantamount to well-thought out choreography as well as creative changes when performing).

2-Physical Disposition, Constitution, Character, Mastery of Dance Techniques, and Dress: What he/she needs is a long neck and long side burns, coquetry and flirtation, good nature, ability to sway the sides of the body (the sides of the body include not only the hips but also the head, neck, armpit, shoulder, hips, legs and feet), narrowness of waist, sprightliness and agility, good body proportions, floating belts (similar to modern day hip scarves), circular shape of bottom of dress (while turning), good breath control and rest, patience in enduring the long practicing process to reach one’s goal, (this shows clearly that the dance in that era was a sophisticated art), graciousness of feet, suppleness of fingers and mastery of the suppleness in the movements of the fingers, mastery and creativity in performing the  various types of dances such as the camel (ibil) and hobby-horse (kurra/kurraj) dances, suppleness of joints, speed of motion during turns, suppleness of sides of the body.

3-Performance: What he/she needs is much creativity in the performance of various types of dances, and thorough knowledge and mastery of its techniques. Turning around well while feet are in control during the rotation, right and left feet motion must be similar. The setting of the feet on the ground and the raising of the feet off the ground are done in two ways: one follows the rhythmic mode and the other one lags behind it. What is better and more perfect is the one which follows the rhythmic mode because it relates to love and beauty equally; as for the one that lags behind, what is better and more perfect, is that in which the foot leaves the ground with the rhythmic mode but touches the ground lagging behind it. (See below for an explanation of this passage).

ARABIC EDITION: al-Mas’udi, Muruj al-Dhahab, ed. C. Pellat, Beirut 1965.


The nadim or boon-companion, was highly educated individual, well-versed in music, dance, literature, poetry, prosody, grammar, history, narration of anecdotes, Qur’an, Hadith, jurisprudence, astrology, medicine, the art of cooking, preparation of beverages, horse-breeding, backgammon, chess, buffoonery, magic. The Egyptian scholar Ibn al-Tahhan (d. after 1057) adds the knowledge of jewelry, swords, furnitures, and the sciences (Hawi al-Funun, fol. 70b). The nadim befriended the ruler and held a permanent position at his court, educating and entertaining him. In addition, the nadim had to be endowed with the qualities of a zarif, that is, a gentleman of good behavior who avoided joking and loose talk, a gentleman of virtue and refined and elegant manners. The zarif gave special attention to his clothes, which had to be clean and in good taste. He followed strict and genteel table manners, that is, took small mouthfuls, conversed and laughed only a little, chewed slowly, did not lick his fingers, and avoided eating food which gave bad odor to the breath. (For more details see Anwar Chejne, “The Boon-Companions in Early Abbasid Times, JAOS, 85 (1965), 327-335; George Sawa, Music Performace Practice in the Early Abbasid Era, p. 119). Ibn Tahhan adds to these qualities: nice smelling, no extravagant behavior, not drinking too much, keeping the secrets, only talking to answer a question when asked by a nobleman (Hawi al-Funun, fol. 70a-b). Singers with good character and knowledge added much to the refinement at the court. Those who behaved badly were kicked out.


To decode these rhythms one needs expertise in medieval Arabic music theory (the works of al-Farabi [d. 950]), Greek music theory and philosophy (Aristoxenus, Aristotle, Aristides Quintilianus).

(The light and the hazaj are rhythms in 6/8 or 3/4 and have survived to modern times in the rhythms know as Iskandarani (dumm takk takk takk takk takk) and darij (dumm rest takk takk takk rest) or (dumm takk takk dumm takk rest), and even the Western waltz (dumm rest takk rest takk rest); Links:

https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/gdsawa3     http://www.georgedimitrisawa.com/music/

The light ramal is a rhythm in 3/4 and survives in the opening of the Dakhlet el-Awalem dance (dumm rest dumm rest takk rest), a type of waltz slower than the one above); Links:

 https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/gdsawa   http://www.georgedimitrisawa.com/music/

The ramal is a rhythm in 3/2 (medium, short, long = dumm + 3 rests, takk rest, dumm + 5 rests);

The first light heavy is a rhythm in 4/4 (dumm rest dumm rest takk +3 rests);

The first heavy a slower version that the first light heavy;

The second light heavy is a rhythm in 5/4 (short long long = dumm rest takk +3 rest takk +3 rests) and a variation of it  in faster tempo (dumm + rest takk + rest + takk) is known today as a’raj turki and used in the last section of the Dance of Sayyed Mohammad); Links: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/gdsawa2 http://www.georgedimitrisawa.com/music/

The second heavy is a rhythm in 5/2 is a slower version of the second light heavy).


We have no description so far about the camel dance. However, the word zafn, which means dance with or without sound, and the derivatives of zafn, may shed light on this dance.

Zafn means playing, dancing, pushing strongly, striking or kicking with the legs. It is also defined as a type of motion with sound. And the derivative zafuun is a female camel which pushes her milker with her hind leg. And zaafina is the lame female camelwhich appears to dance in her gait. And zayzafuun is a swift, light and active female camel or the sound of a bow when set in motion. From all the above meanings it seems that zafn is a fast dance that produces sound and involves strong leg motions. Or it could be a dance involving limping, and not unlike the character of modern dances that use the 5/8 (known as a’raj turki, lit., Turkish limping rhythmic mode), and 9/8 (known as a’raj, lit., limping rhythmic mode). Of all the rhythmic modes used in the medieval era, the 5/4 second light heavy may be the one used in the camel dance: it is moderately light and has the limping character found in modern day 5/8.


The kurraj is a horse-colt, mock colt, or hobby-horse with which one plays. It is Arabized from the Persian kurra which means colt.

In the passage below, before the definition of kurraj, Ibn Khaldun (Al-Muqaddima, p. 388) briefly mentions costumes and stick dances. The latter may be similar to the Upper Egyptian tahtib, a singlestick fencing.

“[In Baghdad, during the time of Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, Ibrahim al-Mawsili, his son Ishaq and grandson Hammad, much effort was spent in entertainment and fun at the court]. The instruments and accessories of dance were taken up, namely, with regards to costumes, sticks, and sung poetry [to dance to], and this dance became a type of art in its own right. 

Other instruments were taken up, and were known as kurraj. They consist of wooden horse statues braided beautifully and attached to the edge of the tunics worn by women imitating the riding of a horse, attacking each other, retreating, and fencing one another. This is among other games performed at banquets, weddings, days of feasts, and gathering for pass-time and entertainment. It was very popular in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq from where it spread to other places.”

Very likely then, the kurraj is a figure of a horse attached to a performer’s waist in a pantomime akin to the morris dance.


“The Caliph Muhammad al-Amin set himself into the hobbyhorse (kurraj) (the text wrongly has kirh but the same passage in al-Tabari has the correct word kurraj), and the place was full of female servants singing to the accompaniment of drums and oboes and Muhammad between them urging his hobbyhorse in the race . . . Muhammad was wandering about in his hobbyhorse not getting bored or tired, getting close to us in his wandering and moving away from us, and the slave girls passing between us and him until the morning.”


In essence, the setting of the foot on the ground that follows the rhythmic mode is the one that sets the foot on the first beat and other strong beats within the rhythmic mode. The one that lags is the one that raises the foot on the first beat and other strong beats within the rhythmic mode. To illustrate this concept one can think of the modern maqsum rhythm: dumm takk rest takk dumm rest takk rest: "setting the foot on the ground" means doing it on the dumm, and "raising the foot off the ground" means raising it on the dumm and setting it down on the takk. The "setting the foot on the ground" is a kind of dance syncopation.

“The concept of setting and raising of feet off the ground” was most likely inspired by the Greek terms “thesis and arsis” found in Elementa Rhythmica of Aristoxenus (b. before the middle of 4th century BC).

The focus on beauty in dance and music is likely inspired by the Enneads of Plotinus (204-270).


Translated by George Dimitri Sawa


Al-Farabi’s Classification of Musical Instruments: A Hierarchical, Aesthetic, Culture Specific and Philosophical System
(from his Grand Book of Music, pp. 77-80 of the Cairo 1967 edition)

Of interest to dancers: the concept of zafn (dancing with no sound), and the concept that a dancer's body is a musical instrument!

The system starts from the lowest to the highest:

Instruments used in war to frighten the enemy. These instruments are very loud and unbearable to the human ear, e.g. bells used by the ancient Egyptian kings, instruments used by the Byzantine kings, or shouters used by the Persian kings.

Zafn, which consists of moving the shoulders, eyebrows, head and similar organs. These are only movements and they generate no sound.

Clapping, dancing, playing the tambourines and the hour-glass shaped doubled headed drum, and the cymbals.  All these are of a similar class and they are superior to the zafn by the fact that they produce a sound at the end of the movement. However, they do not produce musical notes.

The ‘ud (lute), tunbur (long-necked lute), mi‘zafa (lyre), rabab (spike fiddle) and mizmar (oboe) are superior to the above ones because they produce musical notes.

Nothing is more perfect than the voice because it contains all the qualities of the above instruments, and, probably in the mind of al-Farabi, because it uses words that have meanings and express emotions.

Al-Farabi then divides category 4 into instruments that imitates the voice best, that is, those having a sustained sound similar to the voice and almost affect the listener the same way, such as the rabab and the mizmar, then the ud, and then the mi‘zafa and instruments similar to it.

(Summarized and translated by George Dimitri Sawa)


Bellydance Blossom Festival: Arabesque Academy

Toronto: April 1-3, 2016

Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre

Two types of medieval dances

George Sawa


Anecdote XXII: 213-214 from al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs

Dastband and Ila'

Mu˙ammad [ibn Mazyad] told me: Hammad [ibn Ishaq al-Mawsili] told me: [The singer and tunbur player] Ahmad ibn Sadaqa told me:

"I came to al-Ma'mun on Palm Sunday, and before him, were twenty Greek belted (muzannarat) female foreign [Christian] slave girls (wasa'if). They embellished themselves with Greek silk brocade (dibaj) and hung around their neck golden crosses, and [were holding] in their hands palm leaves (khus) and olives. Al-Ma'mun said to me: 'Woe unto you, O Ahmad! I have composed a poem about them, so set it to music and sing it for me.' He then recited his poem: Ziba' kal-Dananir. I memorized the poem, and sang it for him as he kept drinking, while the slave girls before him danced types of dances from the dastband to the ila' (see below for definitions)  until he got drunk. He then ordered that I be given one thousand dinars and ordered three thousand dinars to be scattered (strewn) over the slave girls. I received my one thousand dinars and the three thousand dinars were scattered (strewn) over the girls and I snatched some of the money with them."

The dastband is a Persian word made up of dast meaning hand, and band holding. Al-Firuzabadi defined it his al-Muhit dictionary as a game played by the Magians where they turn around holding hands as they dance (article da'kasa).

The  ila' is an obscure word and in footnote 3, p. 214, it suggests a camel dance (ibil instead of ila'). The above passage on dance in al-Mas'udi seems to confirm this, as he mentions the ibil (camel) dance. Another possibility is that ila' is related to ayyil, or iyyal, or uyyal and it means a mountain goat, stag, deer, bull, and thus a dance depicting the motions of one of these animals.

 George Sawa


Anecdote V: 352-353 from al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs

This is an intriguing anecdote where the perfection of musical arts (singing, lute performance, composition, poetry, history, theory) includes dancing.

“[Ishaq al-Mawsili accompanied Mukhariq singing on a lute in which the strings were switched so as to show his virtuosity, a real tour de force as all the strings took new positions]. He played it, and there were no problems with the new strings positions, or the rhythm, or anything else. The Caliph al-Wathiq marveled immensely at his skills. Ishaq then got up, [left the lute] and danced impromptu as a result of the tarab (raqasa taraban) [emanating from his virtuosic performance and Mukhariq magnificent voice]. By God, he was better at dancing than Kubaysh and Abd al-Salam who were among the best male dancers (arqas al-nas). Al-Wathiq said: ‘Nobody reached the perfection of his craft the way Ishaq did.’”


(translations in progress)


Dictionaries Definitions:

Lively emotion or excitement or unsteadiness of the heart or the mind by reason of joy or grief; setting of joy; departure of grief or sorrow; desire, or yearning or longing of the soul.


Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs, Baghdad, 10th century):

Caused by speech, poetry or singing. (495 entries)


Definition of Ibn Khurdadhba (d. 911, Baghdad)

The Caliph al-Mu’tamid asked Ibn Khurdadhba about the types of tarab. He replied: “There are three types O Prince of Believers:

1)    A tarab which moves and transports because of a generosity (munificence) which raises the spirit and nature when listening to music;

2)    A tarab which is sadness and grief especially if the poetry describes the bygone youth, or longing to one’s country, or lamentation for a departed beloved;

3)    A tarab which is caused by the purity of the soul, gracefulness of the sense especially when listening to well crafted poetry and perfection of musical composition. The one who does not know it or understand it would not be delighted by it, you would see him preoccupied away from it and so he is like a solid rock or bolder or a hard inanimate object ...

And a number of philosophers and many wise men from Ancient Greece said that the one afflicted by a disease in his sense of smell would hate perfumes, and the one with crude hearing would hate listening to singing, would ignore it and would find faults with it and find it blameworthy ... tarab is the returning of the soul to its natural state at once.


Definition of Ibn al-Tahhan (d. after 1057 CE, Cairo):

Tarab is what arouses people as a result of joy or sadness and is not confined to singing alone or instrumental music. People get aroused as a result of poetry, speech, mention of good deeds, beautiful places, every clear and pure sight, nice garden. Tarab can also occur out of fear, mention of death, disaster, death notice, separation, generous gift and meeting of the beloved.


George Dimitri Sawa



Because of strong interest from the dancers to understand tarab, I have previously posted translations of the essence of tarab on FB. If you missed them I can repost them for you. This is series ONE of FOUR on tarab.

Tarab is simply is defined as an acute emotion of joy or grief, it is caused, among other things, by beautiful poetry or strongly emotive music. As a result of tarab, we get physical reactions such as the audience moving their feet, shoulders, clapping, dancing, slapping their face or even tearing their garment, raising chairs in the air, throwing their tarbush in the air. Emotional reactions include, crying and sobbing intensely, or laughing. Imaginational reactions include feeling the room or earth is shaking, one’s bones resounding, loss of gravity and flying. The list is much bigger but this is a short summary of reactions. (For more info consult my “Music Performance Practice the Early Abbasid Era).

Music that causes such reaction is mainly found in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries repertoire. After roughly 1960, music may have sections of tarab, but such sections get ruined by inappropriate inorganic juxtaposition of cheap types of Western pop music. For tarab music, listen to Sabah Fakhri (the Ottoman repertoire), Wadi el-Safi, Farid el-Atrash, early Abdel Wahab and most of Umm Kulthum songs up to the early 60’s, priceless folk songs and mawwaal of Fatma Sarhan, etc. For instrumental tarab music listen to early bellydance music as well as sufi music, taqsims, peshrevs and sama’is. (My 2 CDs“The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, vols 1 and 2 contain 20 such pieces. See: http://www.georgedimitrisawa.com/buy_music.html)

In this post I supply two links to tarab music on the qanun: one is a solo qanun taqsim at a private party: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q6Bqi1eT8w&list=PLOjcMj1oeD4QKV-AemnWmU_iRWyacZDVW;

and one measured piece, Hasan Ya Kholi e-Genena: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cnd9SuR7Ou8&list=PLOjcMj1oeD4QKV-AemnWmU_iRWyacZDVW;

The next three series will be on tarab and the dancer.



This post will deal with two very old dances in Arabic/Ottoman tarab musical style and the famous song Lamma Bada Yatathanna. These are not only exquisite classics of dance music but also beautiful tarab music. See how two dancers choreographed them and portrayed the tarab inherent in the music.


Dakhlet el-Awalem (Entrance of the Dancers, also referred to, as the Learned Ladies). The composer is unknown and the piece is one of the most sophisticated dance mainly in Huzam Mode and starts with a waltz, then a masmudi kabir (8/4), masmudi saghir (4/4), then ayyub (2/4) then chifte telli with qanun taqsim, then masmudi saghir and then close with ayyub. The dance is also known as Raqset Badia Masabni; Taheyya Carioca danced to it on many occasions. The recording is from "The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, vol. 1, track 7" and is performed on an antique qanun without levers (orabs). In this video Iana Komarnytska choreographed it and danced to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGMqwrxJik0#t=14 And here is another choreography by Bruna Milani:



Raqset el-Hawanem (Dance of the Noble Ladies). The composer is unknown, and the dance is probably 150 years old. As the previous one, it is also in Huzam mode but has less rhythmic variety (this may have been the style and it makes it harder to dance to in our modern era): masmudi saghir (4/4), wahda wnoss with measured improvisations. The recording is from "The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, vol. 1, track 2" and is performed on an antique qanun without levers (orabs). In this video Nisaa did an admirable job reconstructing the dance and the costume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaWu-_J3lu0 And here is another choreography by Carol Louro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8qVImIL4G4


Lamma Bada Yatathanna (When my Beloved Appeared Walking with a Swinging Gate): The composer is Selim el-Masri and it is in nahawand (minor) mode and sama’i rhythm (10/8). It is preceded by a dulab (prelude) and a short taqsim. The recording is from "The Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun, vol. 2, track 5" and is performed on an antique qanun without levers (orabs). In this video Iana portrayed beautifully the emotions stemming from the tarab of the music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuzomoGfNy8 And here is another choreogrphay by Nesrine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4lSInI4WDM

For more info check my website: http://www.georgedimitrisawa.com/



In the first post I discussed briefly the essence of tarab and showed two videos of tarab music: one involved a taqsim, and one, a pre-composed piece. In the second post I showed the tarab emanating from two old exquisite and classic bellydance pieces and a classical song, and how 2 dancers interpreted the music filled with tarab. In this post I will show 5 videos of dancers dancing to taqsims in the old tarab style. My advice: lose yourself to the music, let go and let the music tell you what to do, and definitely do not have any prior movement in mind; a good idea which Yasmina Ramzy uses, is to dance with your eyes closed. Try it, you will like it (as the old cliché goes). And now, about the concept of letting go, I would like to quote my devoted student Mimi Ghazaal who, in her comments about my first post, mentioned her experience teaching students to dance to tarab, it is a lovely and very articulate statement, thank you Mimi: “Wonderfully put, George. I taught a class about the tarab effect on dancers last year in which the students had to train in methods designed to help them learn to 'let go' while dancing and surrender themselves to both music and moment. The experience was very organic. Wonderful to see them actually experiencing moments of tarab in class and on stage. I owe the huge success of that class in very large part to you, My Teacher. Thank you for the lessons and this wealth of information.”



http://youtu.be/KPwDEd6Xaws (Zahira dancing to taqsim in maqam hijazkar, etc.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6WZsKvfqn8&list=PLOjcMj1oeD4QuUFyeKkLdP352_nBdg3o1&index=3 (Zahira dancing to taqsim in maqam bayati)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0xh6oYO7eI#t=68 (Iana Komarnytska dancing to taqsim in maqam nahawand, etc.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKZf38vI2MY (Kaleena Lawless dancing to taqsim in maqam zangeran, etc.)



In the first post I discussed briefly the essence of tarab and showed two videos of tarab music: one involved a taqsim, and one, a pre-composed piece. In the second post I showed the tarab emanating from two old exquisite and classic bellydance pieces and a classical song, and how 2 dancers interpreted the music filled with tarab. In the third post I showed 4 videos of dancers dancing to taqsims in the old tarab style. In this fourth and last one I will show a video that encompasses the last three: dancing to tarab emanating from taqsims and from pre-composed pieces. This video contains two taqsims in different maqams, a pre-composed piece “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” which is a sad as well as flirtatious love song, and a joyful Mohammad Ali dance. Remember that tarab is an acute emotion of both joy and grief, and both are featured here. Also featured here is the Egyptian dancer Nada el-Masriya, see how she translates these emotions with her dance, and notice also our facial expression resulting from tarab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI_jrLdDyqg And thank you all for your kind comments.


The Zar Ritual in Egypt

(This article appeared in Sahda, January 2015)


George Sawa


The Zar, or more correctly Zaar, is an exclusively female therapeutic ritual involving spiritually healing poetry, music, songs and dance. I myself have not witnessed this ritual live as men are not allowed to partake in it. All the information provided below comes from my dear friend the late Ebrahim Eleish (d. 1993) who related to me the minute details of this ritual; he was allowed in because he was a child at the time accompanying his mother who needed the help of this ritual.


In Egyptian folkloric medicine, it is believed that a female is physically or mentally ill because she was cursed by an evil eye. The curse is transformed into a jinn (or genii) that inhabits the patient’s mind. To be cured from the curse, the female goes to a sheikha, that is, a female doctor (definitely not a sheikh, or male doctor). The sheikha will prescribe a charm that she would write herself, its contents are religious and aim at pushing away the curse. The patient will place the charm under her pillow for at least three months. If after this period there is no improvement, then the sheikha will inform the patient that the curse is extremely severe and only a zar can cure the ills and remove the jinn from her mind.


The preparations for the zar are extensive and very costly. The cost factor is often seen as a punishment for the male in the family (father or brother or husband) for a number of reasons: females are mistreated by their male counterpart; females are locked in their houses and not allowed to go out (in the old days); most jinns are males; the male members are not only excluded from the ritual but bear its huge cost.


Before the zar can take place, the female patient is asked to go to the market every day, hence freed from home captivity, and look for a particular bird that is hard to find and thus enabling the patient to go out a number of days till she finds the bird. For example, it can be a duck with only one white feather on its left wing. On the day of the ritual the bird is slaughtered and its blood is smeared on the patient’s gown. The music ensemble consists of female drummers playing doholla (a big darabukka with donkey skin), a darabukka, and assortment of tambourines, two tanburs (lyres performing rhythms mainly), a songstress or more, and only one male playing the flute. Since the flute is construed as a phallic symbol, it is therefore deemed inappropriate to be performed by a woman (for descriptions and photographs see pp. 18-22 of my book “Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers”). The patient, her family, and all the distant relatives and neighbours are invited and fed for three days and three nights at huge expenses of course.


There are at least twenty jinns in Cairo alone and each has its own rhythm. Unfortunately Arab drummers in North America and Europe know of only one rhythm which they call the zar, it is the Ayyub rhythm, and more correctly Ayyub el-Masri, meaning Job the Egyptian. The musicians start by diagnosing the disease, that is, the correct jinn. They proceed from one rhythm to another and play each one for ten minutes. If the patient is unmoved, then it is not the right jinn. They then proceed to the next one, and so on, until the patient is moved and dances first slowly and then in a fast and frenetic pace. There is no choreography of course, and each patient dances to her own jinn rhythm culminating in the well know turning of the head violently. This is the dangerous phase of the zar because the patient can bang her head on the wall out of sheer stress or alternatively faint and hurt her head on the ground. This is where the female audience jumps in and prevents any kind of body harm. When the patient faints the sheikha comes in and squeeze the head of the patient and the jinn exists in a deep male voice, identifying himself, and asking the audience to be nice to the patient and take care of her. At this point the patient is cured.


Personally I believe this ritual has a beautiful social dimension with the support and affection given to the patient from the female audience, it is more productive than modern Western psychoanalysis with its sterile couch.


In my book “Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers” I notated and recorded four zar rhythms (see pp. 5-6, 9, 19):

1) Ayyub el-Masri (2/4: dumm rest rest takk dumm rest sakka rest);

2) Sudani (3/4: dumm rest sakka takk sakka takk);

3) Abu el-Gheit (12/4: dumm dumm takk takka dumm dumm takk takka dumm dumm takk rest);

4) A rhythm known generically as zar (4/4: dumm dumm takk sakka dumm takk sakka rest).


For a wonderful CD consult: Zar: Trance Music for Women. Awlad Abou al-Gheit, 2005. Record Label: Sands of Time Music. One CD, 11 tracks, 55:41. It is produced by Yasmine Henkeish and available at www.cdbaby.com/cd/awladaboualgheit.



(This article appeared in Sahda Journal, March 2015)


George Sawa



In medieval times, the Arabic word iqa‘ meant rhythmic mode (drum pattern), rhythm, meter (number and size of beats) as well as dynamics (loud and soft), timbre (sound quality) and tempo. Today, the meaning of iqa‘ is restricted to drum patterns of dumm, takk, sakka, ta and ka (the latter two are half of takk). A dumm (CD1: #1 of my “Egyptian Music Appreciation and Practice for Bellydancers”) is a resounding bass sound obtained by striking the drum or tambourine near the center of the skin, by striking the finger cymbals together and releasing them immediately to let them ring, or by hand-clapping; it is represented by a note with a stem up.  A takk (CD1: #2) is a crisp treble sound obtained by striking the drum or tambourine on the rim, by striking the finger cymbals together and not releasing them, or by gently touching the palm of one hand with the knuckles of the other hand. It is represented by a note with a stem down. A sakka (CD1: #3) is a sharp sound obtained by slapping the drum or tambourine with a cupped hand, by striking them with outstretched fingers that strike the skin very quickly one after another, or by sliding one cymbal against the other. For all three sounds see my Youtube video instruction: http://www.youtube.com/user/DrGeorgeSawa


The dumm and takk sounds are onomatopoeic and well chosen by our ancestor drummers to represent the sound. When we look at the word dumm, we see two important things: the u sound is a bass sound; the doubled m represents a prolonged sound. In short, the dumm is a bass as well as prolonged sound. When we look at the word takk, we see two important things: the a sound is a treble sound; the doubled k, which is impossible to prolong, represents a short cut-off sound. In short, the takk is a treble as well as brief sound. In Egypt, the drum is called darabukkah, a rather distant onomatopoeic sound representing fast percussions. In other parts of the Arab world it is more conveniently called the dumbak, that is, an instrument able to produce a dum and a bak, that is, dumm and takk.

Medieval Arabic rhythmic theory was richer in its descriptive language. There were four sounds and were all related to Arabic grammar and phonology.

1) One sounded like the postposition of the indefinite noun (Arabic tanween): “un, an, in” representing a loud resounding sound like our modern dumm.

2) One sounded like the short vowel sound as in the postposition of the definite noun (Arabic haraka): “u, a, i” representing a briefer sound like our modern day takk.

3) One was called “the desire to pronounce a vowel sound but not fully accomplishing that desire (rawm al-haraka), and refers to a sound softer than the vowel sound in number 2 above.

4) An even softer sound than the previous one and called “scent of a vowel” (ishmaam al-haraka).




“The things from which a melody is realized are of two types: a type through which its necessary [most basic] existence is realized and a type through which its better, more excellent existence is attained.”

… Every melody consists of two types of notes. The first type is equivalent to the warp and woof in a cloth, the mud bricks and wood in buildings. The second type is equivalent to the carving, engraving, facilities and exteriors in buildings, and the dyes, smoothing [ironing?], ornaments and fringes in the cloth. This is apparent in the melodies to every person who listens attentively to them, and very apparent to those who practice music. The notes which are equivalent to the warp and woof in a cloth we shall term basis and fundamentals of melodies while the second type we shall term tazyidat (additions, embellishments) to the melodies. Then we find melodies whose additions are pleasant and they make the melodies gain more beauty, [and melodies whose] additions are not beautiful, thus detrimental to and spoil the melody to the hearing sense. Therefore, some additions are natural and [bring] perfection to the sound and some are not.

(translated by George Dimitri Sawa in Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era. 132-320 AH/750-932 AD, p. 72. Quoted here with the permission of the publisher: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, Lions Bay, BC, medievalmusic@shaw.ca)



“The good and sound among singers is the one who ornaments the melodies, fills [the musical notes with proper and sufficient] breath, scans the poetic measures, clearly articulates the words [of the sung poem], …, takes care of the grammatical inflections, holds long notes and cuts off short notes according to their proper time values, performs [the songs correctly according to their various] genres of iqa‘s (rhythmic modes), grasps the places of the intervals and follows them on his accompanying instrument.”

(translated by George Dimitri Sawa in Music Performance Practice in the Early Abbasid Era. 132-320 AH/750-932 AD, p. 172. Quoted here with the permission of the publisher: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, Lions Bay, BC, medievalmusic@shaw.ca)



“Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili (d. 850) said: ‘The position of the iqa (rhythmic mode) with respect to singing is similar to the position of prosody (arud) with respect to poetry.’ … And Ishaq said: ‘The iqa‘ is the measure; the meaning of correctly keeping/tapping the rhythm is to measure; [the meaning of] not correctly keeping/tapping the rhythm is to get off the measure, and getting off the measure [occurs] either [because of] slowness or fastness in the measure.’” 

(translated by George Dimitri Sawa in Rhythmic Theories and Practices in Arabic Writings to 339AH/950AD. Annotated Translations and Commentaries, pp. 55-56. Quoted here with the permission of the publisher: The Institute of Mediaeval Music, Lions Bay, BC, medievalmusic@shaw.ca)