Amy Smith I fell in love with the music as soon as I started taking belly dance classes in the early 90s. I live in northeastern corner of Massachusetts, so I was soon made aware of the “Nightclub Era” of Boston belly dance and music. This time spanned the 1950s - 80s. Many of my teachers either performed during that time or had been students of dancers from that time.
The Boston area was and is fortunate in having Armenian, Greek, Syrian/Lebanese, and Turkish musicians who worked in the clubs the and who still perform for us now. Many made vinyl recordings that capture the rich musical experience of those times. Many dancers of the era rehearsed and danced to the music on these albums.
If you are interested in the American Cabaret style (aka “vintage” cabaret) of those times, I have curated a list of ten albums that I think are important for this style. Fortunately, you do not need a record player to hear this music! Practically all of it is available on Spotify and Apple Music, and I understand that you can find many of these artists on Anghami now.
Some things to note:
There is no electronic instrumentation on these albums. Just real ones.
Many of the songs will have faster tempos than you are used to. It was the style of the times, and the slow “gooey” dance moves were reserved for the chiftetelli portion of the routine.
You may hear a song that you know by one name listed under a different one.
Most of these albums feature routines - both short and long - for practice, for shows, and for bellygrams (if those are still a thing). The shorter routines were usually used for belly grams or other shows not done in a restaurant or club.
With the exception of the routines, most of these songs are fairly short - less than 4 minutes.
Take time to read the liner notes! They are a wealth of information about the music, the musicians, and the times. The song listings will often indicate which country the song is from, as well as the rhythms used in each song. Sometimes they even talk about the belly dancer on the cover.
Happy listening and dancing!
Amy Smith has been belly dancing for over 30 years. She is the original founder and publisher of the newsletter Belly Dance New England. Amy is researching and documenting Boston’s belly dance history, and has a website - Flaming Cheese - to share her research. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Seventh Veil, Artie Barsamian
Bandleader Artie Barsamian was known as the “King of Armenian Swing” and fronted an orchestra that played both swing and belly dance music. Artie played the clarinet and was known for his musical virtuosity.
The cover is an iconic one. The dancer Fairouz, featured on the cover, is Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem, Massachusetts.
There are no routines on this LP, just lively fun tunes. “Oriental Jump” is a 9/8.
My favorite cut: “Sweet Girl”
Armenian Fun Time, Mike Sarkissian
The LP cover is decidely goofy, but don’t let that dissuade you from this album. Brothers Mike and Buddy Sarkissian were among the top musicians of their time, and Mike Sarkissian was a featured bandleader in many early nightclubs.
Again, no routines on this LP. There’s a fairly orchestrated 9/8. My favorite cut is “Arapina”- the most danceable version of this popular Greek song that I have encountered. Mike recorded a couple of versions of this, and the one on this LP is the best.
Belly Dance! Spectacular Rhytms from the Middle East, Ziad Rahbani
Side one of the the original LP had no song delinations! It was one long cut. Side 2 didn’t have this problem. This LP was actually recorded in Beirut. Setrak Sarkissian played percussion. It’s an interesting mix. Most songs are pop-py belly dance music, but there’s a great folkloric song (Khatwet and a kickass taxim balady
George Abdo and the Flames of Araby
The “King of Belly Dance Music” gets two favorite slots here. He deserves. The featured bandleader at the famous Averof in Cambridge, MA, for many years, his orchestrations of Arabic music made it more accessible to Western ears, and many dancers of the time cut their dance teeth to his albums.
Belly Dancing with George Abdo features a 14-minute classic 5-part routine, complete with a 9/8 ending. “Lila, My Love” is a rhumba that was popular for veilwork.
The Joy of Belly Dancing has an 11-minute routine, “Raks Mustapha”, which has a fairly lengthy (5-minute!) chiftetelli portion that highlights each instrument. This is useful if you were doing balancing prop work, as it gives you some time to handle the prop with the drama it deserves. There isn’t a veil piece - just a short oud taxim between the opening and the chifte.
This album features Abdo’s version of the Greek classic “Miserlou”.
Mystical Veil, Mal Barsamian
This was one of the first CDs I bought when I first started taking classes. Mal Barsamian is a fantastic musician who plays a variety of instruments, including clarinet and oud. Belly dance legend Phaedra of Boston plays the zills on this album; however, the dancer on the cover is not her, but a model.
The first cut is a 13-minute routine. My personal favorite song is “Phaedra’s Veil”, which is actually a chifte, as opposed to a rhumba or bolero. This CD was hard to find for a while. It’s available on Amazon, but I would encourage you to purchase at the Folk Arts Center (FAC) online shop. The FAC is based in Concord, MA and carries music by many local musicians (the CD is actually cheaper there).
Beautiful Belly, Udi Joseph Kouyoumjian Orchestra
If you are fortunate to find the LP online or in a record store, you may find that it comes with an instructional belly dance booklet. But the star power of the musicians on this album alone is enough to add it to your collection. Fred Elias, Joe Kouyoumjian, Arthur Chingris, and the Kokoras Brothers are some of great names on this LP.
This LP features two routines: a 6-minute one -fast, slow (with bolero rhythm), pickup, ending with a Turkish song; and a long 16-minute one that ends with a 9/8.
Artistic Moods for Dance, Fred Elias Ensemble with John Tatassopoulos
Fred Elias was a classicly trained violinist who was a master of both Western and Middle-Eastern music. He is featured on dozens of LPs of the era, playing with a variety of musicians. His “Artistic Moods” series of albums always had two fairly lengthy routines - one on each side - of original music composed expressly for dance. The one pictured here is the first of the series.
Port Said: Music of the Middle East, Mohammed El-Bakkar
This LP was the first introduction to belly dance for many people. Despite the cringeworthy cover, the music is fun and danceable. The belly dancer on the cover is Turkish dancer Najla Ates, who performed in road show of the musical “Fanny”. Mohammed el Bakkar was a Lebanese singer and oud player who made several albums of Middle-Eastern music. “Banat Iskandaria” and “Ah la Zain” are my favorites on this album.
Ode to an Oud, John Berberian
John Berberian is a master oud player. This LP has a crisp acoustic sound, featuring a mix of belly dance classics and Armenian songs. There’s a nice mid-tempo version of “Azziza”, but my favorite is the “Rast Taxim”, where you can experience John’s oud virtuosity.