In its mid-20th century heyday, the Bollywood film industry filled screens across India with dazzling depictions of joyful singing and dancing. Lesser known to Westerners was that Arab filmmakers were also descending on Cairo to do the same for the Middle Eastern market.
What became known as the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema produced a treasure-trove of music, performed by some of the most famous singers and musicians of the time.
On Friday, Sept. 16, violinist, vocalist and composer Sami Abu Shumays hopes to introduce those classics and also lesser-known tunes to a new audience, when he brings his Arabic music ensemble Zikrayat to Chapin Hall on the Williams College campus. The four musicians in the group will be joined by belly dancer Sherine.
“After a few years studying in the Middle East, I started Zikrayat to have an ensemble to play Arabic music in New York,” said Shumays by phone from New York City, where he has been deputy director of Flushing Town Hall, a multi-disciplinary global arts center in Queens, for the past decade. He has also co-authored with Johnny Farraj the instructive book “Inside Arabic Music.”
All Arabic musicians play music from the Golden Age in the U.S., Shumays said, but the connection with films is under-explored. “There are classics in the Arabic music and belly dance repertory that everyone knows, but a lot has been forgotten. We try to find rarer repertory from the mid 1950s movie musicals made in Cairo. That’s where the name of the ensemble came from, ‘Zikrayat,’ which means ‘memories.'”
“We also want to bring together belly dance and music in the way they were in those films,” he added. “In the early 2000s, there seems to have evolved a cultural and social separation between classical Arabic and belly dance music. It wasn’t that way in the 1950s, especially in Egypt.”
Cairo was the equivalent of Hollywood and New York City combined, he noted. “It was the media center of the Arab world, everyone who wanted to sing, dance, compose and perform moved there to have a career.” Those days were more liberal, he observed; it grew more conservative a few decades later.
At Williams, the ensemble will consist of three main melodic instruments — Oud lute, Qanun lap zither, and violin — plus percussion.
“We like to show a variety of tastes or styles,” Shumays said. “We’ll perform rare instrumentals from films, classics, and some more contemporary, also a genre called Shaabi, which means ‘of the people’ and is more ‘pop’ with a folkloric feel. It’s going to be a mix of music and dance, vocal and instrumental.”
Belly dance evolved in Egypt from indigenous dances, Shumays said. Sherine, who is Iraqi-Yemeni-Jewish, will dance twice during the program, performing a classic cabaret set and a folkloric dance from Upper Egypt. “She really has a deep connection to music,” he added.
The ensemble has performed for 17 years, mostly in the New York Tri-State area, attracting Arabs nostalgic for this older repertory and Americans who are curious.
Egyptian cinema remains a major industry, Shumays said. There is still music, and sometimes one or two song or dance numbers; but the way it was in the 1950s, with 15 musical numbers in one film like Bollywood and American movies, is long gone.
For those interested in exploring deeper, there are plenty of film clips with those song and dance numbers on YouTube, he said.
A Palestinian-American, Shumays grew up in the United States studying Western music. He became interested in Arabic music in his last year in college. During a graduate program, he said, “I realized that to deepen my knowledge I needed to live in the Middle East and immerse myself.”
A travel grant allowed him to study for a year with a teacher in Cairo, and also travel to Aleppo in Syria, both major centers of Arabic music. It was his first visit to the Middle East, arriving in fall 2001.
Returning to the U.S., some New York clubs had closed, but new communities of Arabic music were emerging in New York and across the country. “Within the last decade there’s been an uptick of interest, with different performers leading new ensembles and new vocalists coming out,” Shumays said. “Young Arabs, especially in New York City, are starting to feel this cultural connection.”
Rami El-AAsser, percussionist with Zikrayat for 15 years, is quite at home at Williams. In 2017, after two decades in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Palestinian-American musician and educator moved to northern Berkshire County, making it his base for touring. He performs with several bands, and helped start international group Alsarah and the Nubatones in 2008.
When live performances were cancelled in 2020, El-AAsser drew upon other talents, and became a cook at the college’s Driscoll dining hall — a skill he learned from his grandmother and honed in graduate school. He finds the Williams community very receptive to global cuisine. “I’ve given them some Egyptian and Moroccan recipes,” he said.
He also created a new Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Williams, which he co-directs with Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies Nicholas Mangialardi. It consists of students and also community members, he reports, some of whom participate in renowned Silk Road Project musician Simon Shaheen’s summer Arabic Music Retreats at nearby Mount Holyoke College.
Both El-AAsser and Shumays grew up in Pennsylvania as first generation Arab-Americans.
“My dad’s from Egypt, my mom’s from Montreal,” El-AAsser said. “I grew up with a drum in my hand. I was studying Western music, playing piano and percussion, listening to Umm Kulthum, and we would [visit] Egypt. In college, I realized there’s a whole musical system here, and that I loved the percussion in that music. I was able to fuse Western music with [Middle Eastern] forms.”
When it comes to music, El-AAsser said, nothing is fixed. “Cultural forms are always being worked on; and as artists, we’re the ones making those choices. We find things that suit our needs, and incorporate them.”
“We play traditional music, but artists are not traditional, we take and use whatever comes to us that works,” he said. When playing with an ensemble like Zikrayat, however, “I try to keep [within] formal expectations of sounds and technique.”
Sherine Khatoun has danced with Zikrayat since 2008. Formerly of New York City, she now is based in Northampton. She’s amazing, El-AAsser said.
“Belly dancing is very popular in Egypt,” he said. “It’s a way people relate to their bodies in that part of the world, the way people move. Belly dancing today is an art form, like any other, stylized, a performing art versus what people [might] do at a wedding. A lot of professionals are foreign, but there’s a lot of native dancers, as well.”
Professor of Music Anthony Sheppard invited Zikrayat to Williams to complement his course “Musics in the 20th Century,” which focuses on cross-cultural influence, exoticism and globalization in music, from the late 19th century to the present.
“We start the semester focusing on historical connections in music between Western Europe and the Middle East,” Sheppard said in a recent email. “I am thrilled to have Zikrayat perform at Williams, as I know my students will benefit from the experience along with the larger community.”
The program is presented as part of Williams’ annual Ernest Brown World Music Concert Series, established in 2012 in memory of the beloved professor and ethnomusicologist who championed the music of Africa and founded the college’s Zambezi Marimba ensemble, using instruments he hand crafted.
“We’re very excited to bring this to the community; there’s not a lot of this music around,” El-AAsser said. “Even if there isn’t a lot of diversity here, people will come out if you build something.”
If You Go:
What: Williams College Music Department presents "Zikrayat Arab Music Ensemble with dancer Sherine"
Where: Chapin Hall, Williams College, 54 Chapin Hall Drive, Williamstown
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16
Tickets: Free, no reservations needed
COVID-19 Precautions: Masks and vaccination proof required.
Information: music.williams.edu, 413-597-2127