The Layali El Sharq Ensemble

Classical Egyptian Music For Raqs Sharqi (Layali El Sharq Music ZIZ1001, 2001)

The Layali El Sharq Baladi Band

Egyptian Baladi Live (Layali El Sharq Music ZIZ1002, 2001)

The crystalline beauty of the performances on these two live collections aptly captures the classical, traditional and dance styles that have had limited exposure outside their native Egypt. Recorded in the late 80's and early 90's by musicians championed by UK dancer/producer Jennifer Carmen, both releases show the remarkable virtuosity of the players, though on somewhat different levels. The Layali Sharq Ensemble double disc set features longer, more orchestral string-sweetened pieces led by Abdel Aziz El Sayed playing the zither-like qanun, whereas the Layali El Sharq Baladi Band favors sparser tracks with nay flute, accordion and saxophone taking the lead. But much of the underlying fire of both stems from the percussion sections where doff, dohalla, req and tabla (the Egyptian, not the Indian kind) lock into shivering grooves that compliment the tasty tartness of the melodic instruments with crackling precision. Anyone with even a passing interest in the authentic music of the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular should regard these as essential purchases. (I don't know if they can be found on store shelves in the U.S., so for information on availability check 

Tom Orr
World Music Portal

Oct 30, 2002

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Middle East  -  REVIEWS

The Layali El Sharq Ensemble
Classical Egyptian Music
Layali El Sharq Music
(F) ZIZI001 (two discs: 128 minutes)

The Layali El Sharq Ensemble
Egyptian Baladi
Layali El Sharq Music
(F) ZIZI002 (73 minutes)

Although not yet as popular as Salsa or African drumming, Raqs Sharqi (which means just 'Eastern Dancing' in Arabic) has been quietly establishing itself in community halls across the land.  This distinctive form of belly dancing can be seen in many parts of the Arab world but Egypt is one of its main centres and musicians who have honed their skills there have a reputation for dazzling virtuosity and ruthlessly efficient performances.

These two new live recordings represent major strands of Egyptian music.  The term 'classical' refers to the highly wrought music pioneered by legendary superstars (notably Umm Kalthum and her entourage) from the 1920s to '60s.  Even though these are live recordings, the producers have chosen to concentrate firmly on the music - there's practically no audible audience participation.  On both releases the individual performances are all you would expect from players of this class.  The double CD of classical music focuses on instrumental arrangements or songs by the Druze chansonnier, Farid el Atrache - who penned some achingly beautiful tunes during his long career.  Even though many of the same musicians play on both releases, everything becomes a lot fierier on the Baladi disc.  Here the hand drums (duff, doholla and tabla) lead the charge, inspiring brilliant improvisations from the sax, accordion and nai players.

The Layali El Sharq Ensemble's records would make a fine introduction to the genre.

Bill Badley,  Songlines

Autumn 2001

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A music review by Gill Warnell

The Layali El Sharq (Nights of the East) Ensemble were formed in 1985 to provide a programme of music for Egyptian dance for Suraya Hilal and Company under the musical direction of Abdel Aziz Sayed.  This double CD set features a selection of live recordings recorded between 1985 - 1990.

This CD owes much to the creative eye and judgement of Jennifer Carmen, who not only conceived of the idea of this CD project but put together arguably, the finest group of Arab musicians ever assembled in the UK.

From her experience of working as a dancer in Arab night clubs, she had the opportunity to watch and study the playing of all of the featured music maestros working.  She began a labour of love as she put together a band of virtuoso musicians transforming them from individual musicians into a musical ensemble.

This CD is digitally remastered from the original tapes while retaining all of the vitality of a live concert recording.  Significantly, this CD differs from many other contemporary Arabic music releases in that most of the featured instrumentation is traditional without the heavy electronic gadgetry and studio production techniques that have dominated, and in my opinion ruined, a lot of modern Arabic music.  It has been my experience of listening to many different arrangements of the Arab classics that many have not stood the test of time very well and have developed, through the passage to time, a sound that dates them to one specific era.  The arrangements on this CD have a wonderful dressed-up and elegant sound, making them eminently suitable for use in performing Arabic dance or even just for listening to.

This CD set has a total playing time of over two hours and the featured tracks represent some of the most well loved and popular pieces of music from Egypt.  Indeed, in the Arab world these pieces of music are seen as being timeless classics whose appeal never diminishes.  Unique in its representation, of course there are other recorded versions available of these songs, but none recorded live specifically for a programme of Egyptian dance.

More than just a CD set these recordings exist as a historical document and testament to the fine, high quality music that was being played nightly, for singers and dancers alike, in many of the great Arab nightclubs that London played host to during its 'golden age' of the 1970s and 1980s.  It was during that era that London became a creative epicentre for Arabic music and dance, where all of the featured musicians graced nightclubs and concert halls with their playing.  They play together on this CD as an ensemble and we witness them playing at the very peak of their respective careers.  The music featured is representative of the kind that would be equally at home in a concert hall or in the nightclub of a five-star hotel in the Middle East.  The CD demonstrates their ability to play as a collective and poetic whole or as accomplished soloists during the various taqsims featured here.

Of the 14 tracks for me among the highlights of this CD set are a glorious version of 'Nahr El Khalid', literally 'The eternal river' with its obvious reference to the river Nile.  Composed by the great Egyptian composer and musical innovator, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, this classic piece is regarded as having been one of the composer's greatest 'romantic' works.  It enjoyed enormous popularity after its premiere in Egypt during the 1940s and went on to be loved and acclaimed in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

There is also a version of Riad al Sunbati's 'Rubayat El Khayam'.  This song was written for the Egyptian Diva, Um Kulthum, in 1949 and marks one of the many high spots of a creative and extraordinary partnership between the composer and the artist that spawned a third of Um Kulthum's enormous and legendary repertoire.

'Variations on songs' is a medley of five of the most famous and acclaimed songs of Farid El Atrache.  I heard a medley of all but one of these songs quite recently given the pumped-up Beirut nightclub treatment, during a showcase for up and coming young Lebanese dance stars of LBC, the Lebanese TV channel.  Far from being outdated or just sentimental this music brings the classic sound of an older era into the modern age.  I marvelled as I watched a young star performing modern Arabic dance to the accompaniment of sounds from a bygone era, and reflected upon the worlds of the dancer and pioneer of Arabic Dance in the West, Jamila Salimpour that indeed 'Tradition is not static'.

I would have liked to have seen a CD booklet with more information about the music in it.  For many listeners his may well be their first contact with these pieces of music and I feel that some explanation is needed about their history and background, beyond the basic information given here.

I have found myself being transported and my spirits have been lifted, as I have listened to this beautiful music, to the hushed reverence of an audience in a packed concert hall.  I have been entertained and educated by this and I believe that it will prove to be a very worthwhile investment for any dancer, or lover of Arabic music, who is searching for a very versatile collection of classic Arabic music.

These recordings are the outcome o many years of work both for the featured artists and the creative director.  Finally, years later, it is my privilege to be involved in this project, even in a tiny way, as I sit and write about it and remember why it is that I love Arabic music and dance.

For more information contact:
Layali El Sharq Music, UK
19 Cranley Gardens
N10 3AA


Nabil Azzam, Ph.D.

Mohammed Abdel Wahab in modern Egyptian music.  Dissertation, University of California, L.A. 1990.

Virginia Danielson

The Voice of Egypt: Um Kulthum, Arabic song and Egyptian society in the twentieth century.  University of Chicago Press 1997.

Jamila Salimpour

Speech presented by Jamila Salimpour at the International Conference on Middle Eastern dance.  Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA. May 16-18 1997.


Abdel Aziz El Sayed and Bashir Abdel Aal

The Layali El Sharq Ensemble

Issam El Matrawi and Sherif Zaki

Suraya Hilal dancing at Anugraha with the Layali El Sharq Ensemble


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