Dance the Dabke!

By Miri -

It is always a challenge to write about music or sound in general. Are there words at all to describe what you perceive through your ears, what vibrates through your body and frequently triggers strong emotional responses?
In failing to truly put into words what we hear when talking about a sound event
the least we can do is to provide you with the historical and cultural context of this same event, yet eventually you have to open your ears and listen for yourself, which is why this post features a whole lot of links for you to listen and to experience what words can only attempt to describe.

In a recent post we mentioned the Lebanese ambition to monopolise hummus, claiming it was a genuinely Lebanese creation. In a similar fashion some Lebanese apparently try appropriate the folk dance Dabke for themselves, alleging it had its unique origin in a Lebanese village.

Traditional Lebanese Dabke

According to one folk tradition the dance originated in the old days when the roofs of houses in the villages were made out of tree branches and topped with mud. During seasonal changes, especially before winter, the mud would crack and start to leak. In order to fix her/his roof, it is being told that a house owner would call upon her/his neighbours for help, a notion which became known as Al-Awneh, meaning "help". Together the neighbours would gather up on the roof, join hands, form a line and start stomping their feet while walking on the roof in order to adjust the mud. Al-Awneh soon developed into a practice of its own, known as Daloonah, a form of improvised singing and dancing, both of which include elements of storytelling. Later on the singing and dancing came to be accompanied by musical instruments, such as the darbuka, a goblet drum also known as tabla, the ney flute, or the mijwiz double flute. Today Dabke music is commonly fused with electronic instruments as well.

Contemporary version of a classic Dabke song "Ala Daloonah" by Tony Kiwan
No matter its true origin, as a matter of fact we find variations of Dabke, both the dance, as well as its music throughout the whole Middle East and even beyond, including places like Bosnia. If you have travelled to the Middle East, whether it's Palestine or Iraq, you have surely come across a few variations of the music, or have seen Dabke being performed in an event. Although being labelled folklore or cultural heritage, Dabke should not be seen as some sort of ancient rite to be studied by anthropologists, to the contrary, it's a vibrant, very much alive and constantly evolving practice, and its popularity cross-cuts class, religion, and gender.  

With time Dabke developed manifold different local styles featuring variations regarding pace and rhythm, instruments, steps, choreography, themes of the dance and lyrics and much more. Until today Dabke is typically danced during celebratory occasions, such as weddings. Professional Dabke dance groups with more sophisticated choreographies often perform in traditional costumes in festivals and during national holidays. Some choreographers and dance ensembles, such as the UK based Palestinian Al Zaytouna group fuse Dabke with Western contemporary dance and other media. 

Dance performance by the Palestinian group El-Funoun

As already said, the lyrics of the songs vary considerably, featuring themes, such as love, rural life, but also frequently politics.
During the Syrian uprising the dabke song "Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar" - "Come on Bashar, it's time to leave", attributed to Ibrahim Qashoush, became the anthem of the opposition to the Bashar regime. The author Qashoush was found dead in July 2011, his throat cut and his vocal cords ripped out. While his song still reverberates through the Syrian cities and towns, Qashoush came to be known as the "nightingale of the revolution".

In the Palestinian context Dabke in itself, no matter what the lyrics, took on a strong political meaning. As an essential part of the Palestinian heritage, Dabke became an assertion of Palestinian culture and identity and a sign of the people's resilience to firmly stick to both these notions, as well as to their land. It is thus not rare to see lines of Dabke dancers in political protests, be it in Palestine itself or abroad in solidarity events.

Boys from a West Bank village dance Dabke in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest

Personally I find it surprising that, unlike other "exotic" dance music, such as Samba or Cumbia, Dabke has not conquered the Western dance floors yet, but it surely is on its way. Thanks to the record label Sublime Frequencies, Syrian born Dabke singer Omar Souleyman has become something like an underground star in the West and has been extensively touring Europe since. His collaboration with well known artist Björk has further greatly aided the process of pushing Dabke beyond the borders of the Levant and into Western clubs.

Björk - Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Yalla, your turn now!


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