ad 4

Gilded Serpent presents...
The Zar

Trance Music for Women
produced by Yasmin of

CD Review by Amina Goodyear

It is January 1990 and I am in Egypt attending a Zar. It is in a little apartment in old Cairo. The room is very small and the walls are lined with people.women leaning against the wall sitting cross-legged on the floor. Above the women the blue walls are smeared with bloody handprints and there are pictures on the wall that are hidden by fabric. A woman comes with a tray of incense and covers my head and the incense with a cloth. It is intense and I feel as though I am going to choke in the fumes. I am then offered tea and a chance to give a donation.  In the middle of the room are men chanting and playing drums, dufs and cymbals and circling around a woman who is standing and swaying from side to side. The repetitious sounds aid in giving not only this woman, but also each individual person in the room a personal space to think, to remember, and, if so desired, to release.

I am uncomfortable, an outsider, being in such a private ceremony.

This Zar had been going on for some time, at least a whole day, and I had just come. I am witnessing a woman dancing and making herself vulnerable and open to her personal spirit. She has a scarf covering her head and is completely oblivious to the presence of her friends who are supporting her and to us, strangers, who have come to view this very personal ritual. Feeling intrusive of being in this private ceremony, I try not to stare and so, let my mind wander and I travel to another world helped by the chanting and the drumming.

 It is Saturday, not quite summer of 1957 and I told my parents that I was going the library to study. Instead I left my San Francisco neighborhood and took a dance class paid for with my allowance. I had found a dance style and a teacher who called to all the inhibitions and suppressed energies in my body. I followed my teacher, Zack Thompson (who had danced with dancer/anthropologist, Katherine Dunham), from storefront to storefront on Divisadero Street and finally to Jimbo's Bop City in the Western Addition. Always accompanied by a minimum of 4 or 5 drummers, we danced.Afro Cuban, Afro Hatian or just plain "Afro. We danced to many rhythms, but mostly we danced for Damballah, the benevolent serpent of the sky. I learned to arch, to contract, to writhe and to undulate. It was the beginning of learning to dance for the gods, learning to call the spirits and learning to soothe the soul.

Now it's winter 1958 and I have rheumatic fever with a heart murmur and the doctor had prescribed at least 6 months' complete bed rest, which also included home schooling and monthly shots in the butt. This kind of cramped the lifestyle of a dance-crazy teenager. But my music called to me. I played my LP's "Voodoo Suite" by Perez Prado and "Drums on Fire" with "Caravan" by Art Blakey. Alone in the house after my parents were at work, my brother and sisters at school and my grandmother at church, I played my records as loud as I could and was transported to another land. I communed with other beings as I was called out of bed and I moved, swayed, danced and left my worries behind. 

Murmurs of the heart. this music saved my life or at least my sanity.

The chanting and drumming has stopped momentarily and I am brought back to the present.  No longer a sick teenager in a past world I am once again in the present 1990 and in Cairo. I am in a room filled with women and the music is saving their sanity. I still feel slightly ill at ease being here, but also privileged that they have allowed me to be audience to their very personal private world.

The woman who had been swaying and rhythmically twisting her torso to and fro while standing in one spot with a veil over her head has now danced it off and is jumping up and down and throwing her arms overhead with abandon. I noticed that the chanting has become more frenetic and that the rhythm has changed. The woman is no longer alone. There are some women standing near her. One, the mistress of the house, and a couple of the woman's friends seem to be protectively hovering around her. A short while later, again the rhythm and chanting change as if calling yet another demon or spirit and, what seemed to be on cue, the woman throws herself to the ground and is flailing and tossing her head, hair and arms. Shortly after that, abruptly, she stops. Prone on the floor. Spent! And the chanting and drumming simultaneously stop.

Fifteen plus years later the cd The Zar - Trance Music for Women is released. It is produced by Yasmin, arranged and recorded by Sayed Henkesh and performed by Awlad Abou al-Gheit at Magic Sound Studio in Cairo. 

It is a wonderful and educational CD and should be in the CD collection of anyone interested in and curious about the Middle Eastern culture.

The very name Zar has always sparked the interest of those involved in Middle Eastern dance - especially women who enjoy dancing and just "letting go." This CD entitled  The Zar - Trance Music for Women will naturally attract women interested in "trancing out," but I would like to make a few comments on this.

As Nadia Hamdi once told me "Once a spirit is called, it must be appeased. Then it will always be there." And it will have to be periodically dealt with.

In the past ethnomusicologists recorded folk music in the field and often the music was crudely recorded - started and stopped - in the middle of whatever rituals they were recording in order to capture the authentic.  This is quite unlike The Zar cd, which was recorded at Magic Studios in Cairo under pristine conditions. Not being recorded "in the field" means that this collection of Zar songs is a re-creation of the Zar rituals. These are samples of the different songs used to call out to the spirits. Being samples, the selections are generally much shorter than what is used in reality. As samples recorded in a music studio means that the quality is very high. Also being samples means they are samples. And I believe not to be used in a Zar.

In order to "trance-out" in a Zar, one must be willing to release or to let go. I don't know how one can release or let go on command, or in the amount of time given in this particular cd. I do not believe that this cd was recorded for this purpose in mind. I believe that the cd was meant as an informative and educational tool to appease the thirsty mind.

The Zar cd comes with an accompanying 32-page booklet that should be read from cover to cover. It is indeed a rare treat to have a cd producer take the time and trouble to give the listener such detailed information including translations of the songs sung in the cd. This is done by a person who really cares and wants to share her knowledge.

There are 11 tracks in the cd.
1. Abou Gandara (Spirit from the Mountain Spirit tribe)  
2. Saly ala Mohammad (Bless the Prophet)  
3. Arab al-Hinadwa (Arab spirit from the Indian Spirit tribe) 
4. About al-Gheit (Sheikh from Qalyubia Spirit tribe) 
5. Al Pashawar (The Pashas) 
6. Arab al-Arab ya Zein (Spirit from the Arab spirit tribeSaint Sayed al-Badawi)  

7. Ya Benat al-Handasa (Female engineers - Spirit named Rouqash)  

8. Fi- Shamayil (Up North - spirit from the north)  
9. Saleela (Spirit named Bath Flower)  
10. Yousef Madala (Spirit named Yousef Madala) 
11. Ruma Nagdy (A spirit soldier) 

Each track is unique and as you can see, calls to different spirits. You may find that only one track or spirit calls to you. That may be the spirit within you.

I would like to quote Yasmin from her very lovely booklet:

"Once the patient holds a private ceremony and her invading zar spirit(s) has been identified, the woman becomes a member of the zar cult. Afterwards she is expected to remain in contact with her spirit masters (asyad) on a regular basis. In Egypt the major zar musical groups hold weekly meetings called hadra where initiates come to commune with their possessors or just to dance away stress and problem."

In conclusion, this cd is a "must have" in every serious Middle Eastern dance devotees collection as an educational and inspirational tool. Enjoy this cd with respect. Yasmin should be congratulated for her honest endeavor.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
12-13-05The Zar by Yasmin

We do know that today thousands of women in Africa and the Middle East use this music to cure all kinds of illnesses. They literally dance until they drop.

2-18-07 Its Not Your Grandmamma's Zar By Roxxanne Shelaby
Luckily at some point we hear the distinct rhythm for a Zar and follow the drumming right to the front door of an apartment house.

7-16-07 Fifi Reloaded! Review of Fifi Abdo Workshop and Show by Catherine Barros photos by Monica Bereni
Sponsored by Little Egypt Holiday Inn Select, Dallas, Texas May 18-20, 2007

7-11-07 Dahlena, The Classic Style Prevails,Workshop review by Rebecca Firestone
Raqia does everything from the knees, and Dahlena said not to do that! What's a girl to do?

6-27-07 Outi's CD, "Al Amoura" Review by Catherine Barros
I think that there is something for everyone on this CD as it contains some very useable pieces of music for performing.

ad 4 Fahtiem


 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines