(MA) Yalla!

by Amina Delal*

Be forewarned - there is raving ahead. For that’s what becomes of me when I go to see one of Aurel’s showcases. My pulse races and I get all excited like a little kid, shout, shimmy, and generally behave like a lunatic. And believe me, through these jaded eyes, that does not come easy. But I only speak the completely biased truth: Aurel totally slays these shows that only she can present. This time was no exception.

On Saturday, May 19, 2018, once again, she graced the stage of the Paris Cabaret in Stoughton with an outstanding program designed to share the love of music and dance among cultures. With the continued success of her three Opa shows, she’s wended her caravan from Greece to Lebanon.

To a cozily packed house of about half and half ME dance aficionados and enthusiastic Paris Cabaret regulars, it mattered not. She had them all shouting “Yalla!”. Well, except one guy who continued to shout “Opa”, but that was cool because, in this instance, it was pretty much the same thing: unbridled enthusiasm from a crowd accustomed to just sitting and watching. Everyone felt the welcome that transcends language and different customs of celebration.  

  Aurel, star performer, producer, and hostess.

Aurel, star performer, producer, and hostess.

This she accomplished without compromising anything about what is authentic in Middle-Eastern dance. The band was both old country and old school, as was the music -  a mix of Lebanese and Egyptian classics. Delightful for the purist while opening many ears to something new. Nothing was sung in English, save "Happy Birthday", and I saw no one any less engrossed, despite an unfamiliar language. As always, she explained everything so no one was left out. She sang and danced her ass off, exhibiting genuine excellence in contemporary Middle Eastern dance as you’d expect to see in Lebanon or Egypt. No dumbing down, no comedy moves, no sultan act, no nouveau props, or anything anachronistic. Everything was presented perfectly and exemplified the ongoing exchange of East and West that continues to evolve the art. Never mind Aurel as the consummate entertainer and also so much a part of our own regional belly dance tradition since the early 1950s.

The program opened with a stirring Egyptian procession of percussion as you’d see at a wedding, led by an elegant Mohammed Majeour with his tabul booming, followed by the Alwan dancers on percussion in attendance to her badd self cleverly wrapped all in gold for a shining shamadan. It set a wonderful tone, although perhaps some newcomers were wondering why she was dancing with a lit candelabra on her head. They were transfixed none the less. So graceful, so welcoming.

Then, with a little troupe assistance, she cleverly transformed, before our very eyes, into a raqs sharqi costume aflame, made from shade-shifting metallic fabric. It’s gold, it’s orange, it’s red; the color varying with her every move, with so many jewels it was blinding. But that was just the beginning, as each costume was more interesting and distinctive than the last. 

Red flames shifted to twinkling glimmers when she donned a sparkling blue lace caftan for her version of Warda Al Jazairia’s iconic "Batwanes Beek", the same song she sang with the orchestra in Cairo at Randa Kamal’s gala where she brought the house down. 

Next it was dabke time as the Alwan dance troupe performed a room-rousing, perfectly darling choreography of Shadia’s. Yalla indeed. The song was perennial favorite dabke "A La Daluna". And yes, of course, the chartreuse green and gold costumes were Madame Shadia creations as well. The audience loved it and got a real taste of why this dance gets people so excited. 

  An audience members tries his hand at the cane.

An audience members tries his hand at the cane.

More folklore (not fakelore) followed. Here comes Aurel, the perfect bin’t al balady with her stick in a vintage, gaily-striped sparkling balady dress that is Madame Shadia’s very own. (I remember it well.) The band played "Tatil Shibbek", another golden hit perfectly chosen. Here she told us how the stick or cane appeared as part of the belly dance show in homage to the traditional mens’ stick dance. Then she managed to “inspire” several gents from the audience to dance it with her. I think they shocked themselves by liking it. 

Before departing for another costume change, she introduced George Malouf for a solo in the spotlight. George is a regional singer and yet he is famous in Lebanon, for his song "Lisany Bastanakob" that received ongoing radio play there for three years. He sang it for us and it was charming.

By the time he was finished, Aurel returned in an asymmetrical plum and silver ensemble, each side truly two different yet coordinating, half simple and linear the other swinging with rhinestones and beads. Its elegance befit the scene as George sang and she danced to the first part of "Inta Omri" especially arranged for raqs sharqi to include several of its other beautiful melodies. Her dancing was sublime; the emotion in his singing had audience members in tears. 

Spirits lifted with the next sequence, a special feature. Before showtime, professional dancers in the audience were invited to submit their names to a jug for a chance to dance with the band. The winner was Rosheemah (she was so surprised) who performed "Habina, Habina" in a fabulous liquid red-and-silver gown with matching hip scarf, everything dripping in like-colored spangles. She was fierce and flirtatious and a perfect example of how this dance is for women of every size, shape, and age. I’m always pleased to see a womanly woman raq the house. She, too, had them cheering.  

  Rosheema, winner of the performance raffle, wows the audience

Rosheema, winner of the performance raffle, wows the audience

So how do you top that? Well, you’ve got to make some noise and she certainly did. Queen Bee Aurel shows up extra loud in screaming yellow with a silver-and-black net glistening jeweled overskirt, her every breath a light show. (And if that doesn’t satisfy your bead lust, nothing will. Both Liberace and Madame Abla were smiling.) A triumphantly-sung "Habibi Ya Einee (Ya einee ya Leilee)" was followed by an exciting three-drummer solo (pant, pant) that had the place in an uproar. Not just the B.D. audience either, it was everyone. 

Enter the Alwan dancers in shades of purple and red twirling light-up mandeel, only increasing the carrying-on for a tumultuous finale to much acclaim. 

But that’s not all folks, as the band played on because, by then, the audience was raring to go. Everyone wanted a chance to shake it to so raqqing a band like you seldom hear any more even in Middle-Eastern clubs as live ensembles grow ever smaller, often without a drummer. No scrimping here though, with an ass-kicking 5-piece band, three of them percussionists, ‘cause there’s nothing like hearing live musicians. 

  George Malouf joins the Alwan Dancers in a lively debke.

George Malouf joins the Alwan Dancers in a lively debke.

Father and son George and John Malouf brought us beautiful classic melodies on oud and keyboards. It seemed the audience was all ears. I really don’t think it even registered as “foreign” to them. 

Lead instruments not withstanding, it was the breath and energy of the three drummers, all of them total cats, who made the entire place giddy as some of us just couldn’t sit still. Myself, I stood in the back and shook most of the performance. 

Showman of showmen, Mohammed Mejaour displayed his incredible versatility with ethereal nye taksims, crisp riq and tabul (the big drum) leading the procession, shimmying half the solo with Aurel, playfully dancing to his own drummer while beckoning us with irresistible rhythms that had both he and Aurel in a tizzy of hizzy (me too). 

Another honor was the appearance of the one and only Tony Chamoun, taking a brief respite from his daddy-gig, chasing small beautiful children. How we’ve missed his power, drive, and sweetness. (He’s so dear.) All smiles, he had a blast and, I think, was genuinely surprised how so mixed an audience could so thoroughly enjoy the scene. 

Don’t think a trap drum kit belongs in a Lebanese band? Well then you need to hear Bill D’Agostino who was anything but out of place. His ability to rise to the occasion only enhanced the sound and energy proving he can play in any genre. I loved how he blended and think the rest of the band did too. They were all very into it.

I remember my very frustrated high school band director who continually reminded us how the word “band” means to bind together (especially when didn’t). Directed by Aurel’s vision, the whole ensemble banded to create a very special “you had to be there” kind of evening because there is nothing like seeing it live. 

  Shadia leads the debke line through the audience.

Shadia leads the debke line through the audience.

I hope this will be the first of many occasions we’ll be shouting Yalla for Aurel, the troupe and this band. There is so much great music in this genre and you don’t have be Lebanese to catch the joie de vivre. With Aurel as the perfect ambassador, she is bettering international relations. Because sharing this musical joy transcends cultures in a way that cannot be misunderstood. 

Like the music, I would heartily recommend this show to anyone. Aurel is a remarkable entertainer who’s every effort continually exceeds itself. Each show is a labor of tremendous study, care, and love. It is a special evening well worth the cost of the ticket. The venue is a perfect size, welcoming, intimate, and warm. You will experience the color, zest, and life that only live music and dance make happen in that moment. 

The next Yalla show is planned for this November; go! You will have a memorable evening. Be there and be part of the precious and beautiful camaraderie that rises above language, because it doesn’t matter if you shout Yalla or Opa, it’s all good!