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Americanistan: A Look at a Middle Eastern Belly Dance Band, by Aaron Rosenberg
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Americanistan:

A look at a Middle Eastern

Belly Dance Band in Eugene

 

 Aaron Rosenberg

 

 

(Note: This paper was written over a three-month period in the Spring of 2005 as a project for an ethnomusicology course at the University of Oregon.)

 

            For a small city, Eugene's music scene is extremely eclectic. Besides a thriving jazz and rock culture, Eugene boasts a wide variety of ethnic musics. To name just a few, I have witnessed an East European folk ensemble playing at a pizza pub, a Zimbabwean marimba/mbira organization playing at outdoor benefit rummage sales, an Irish fiddle jam in an Italian cafe, and open mic bluegrassnights at a local brew pub.

     Americanistan is a band that plays Middle Eastern-inspired music, primarily to accompany belly dancers; that fits well into this diverse mix.  What most distinguishes Americanistan from other Eugene musicians is their powerful link to the separate cultural community of belly dancers.  While Americanistan does not play solely for belly dancers, they do primarily.  The bond is both symbiotic and synergistic, as I will elucidate. 

           

Americanistan and its Members

            Americanistan formed in Eugene around 1991.  Of its four members, three are American-born and one is a New Zealander. 

     Denise Gilbertson is the band’s director.  She also goes by Dunyah, a name she took from her belly dancing days.  Denise plays harmonium, frame drum, dumbek (Middle Eastern goblet shaped drum), Arabic tambourine and finger cymbals.  She is responsible for booking engagements and setting up dance collaborations.  Denise has composed several compositions for the band. Denise is a self-employed child-care provider. 

Denise’s husband, Wayne Gilbertson, is sometimes referred to as Omar, a name he took from his father.  Wayne plays Egyptian dumbek, frame drums, ney flute (oblique rim-blown Arab flute), mizwij (double clarinet), handmade bagpipes, cumbus saz (dulcimer banjo), baglama saz (Turkish long-necked lute), arghul (double clarinet), sruti box (bellow-pumped drone instrument), zurna (conical wooden shawm), tone drum, didgeridoo and berambau (musical bow).  He also sings and chants.  Wayne is the workhorse, the one who transports much of the equipment to and from performances.  He works as an independent contractor driving a taxi.

Janet Naylor, also a former belly dancer, is Americanistan’s kanun player.  A kanun is a 76-string Arab zither, played with picks on the index fingers.  Janet also plays percussion and occasionally the lever harp with Americanistan.  Outside of Americanistan, she is a member of the ensemble The Celtic Tradition, and is also a solo Celtic harpist of high repute.  One of Janet’s talents is transcribing music from recordings for Americanistan.  She works for a university English department.

John Marzicola plays flute and percussion for the band.  He also joins local musicians at Eugene’s Saturday Market, playing flute and drum.  He works a union job as an electrician.  John composes for the band, provides some musical transcription and helps Wayne with the transportation of equipment. 

 

Americanistan’s Music

            During interviews, each member of Americanistan emphasized to me that they play Middle Eastern-inspired music.  The suffix “-istan”, included in the name of several Middle Eastern countries, means “country”.  Americanistan is so called because they are honest about being Americans who are inspired by Middle Eastern cultures’ musics.  Between performances, Denise Gilbertson announced to a Café Paradiso audience:

We honor the origins of the music and dance that we adore, but we also realize that we are American people doing it with our point of view and our own stylization.

 

When interviewed, she qualified:

Well, we’re not totally ya-ya [I take “ya-ya” to mean rank amateur].  We’ve gone to Middle Eastern dance camp twice to study with musicians from Turkey, musicians from the Arab world, Egypt, and you know, we try to stay within the traditions, especially the rhythms.  And we have some of the instruments.

 

Naylor points out:

Middle Eastern-inspired, as opposed to saying we’re doing accurately Middle Eastern music, is because not all the instruments are authentic.  We do our best, but we aren’t from the culture.

 

and

None of us want to be full-time scholars…To learn a two to three hour repertoire as played by masters over there would take years.  Because of our Western preconceptions, it lets us off the hook if we’re not quite in the exact style.  We’re hybrids.

 

            At a single Café Paradiso show, Americanistan may perform various pieces with roots in Turkey, Greece and Egypt.  The particular style of music they play depends on who is dancing and to what music they typically dance, or it may relate to a guest instrumental performer, done in their honor before they are on stage and also to accompany them.  When saz player Daniel Eshoo and his wife, dancer Nataysa Katsikaris, were guest performers, Denise Gilbertson announced:

We wanted to warm up with a little bit of Turkish-Greek, music from that part of the world, because that’s where our featured performer is from.  That’s where her ancestors are from.  She’s an American, but a Greek-American.  So we’ll be bringing her out later to do more with that part of the world.  Right now, we’re switching over to Egypt.

 

            My personal sense that comes from listening to Americanistan is that they have immersed themselves in the music they adore.   I enjoy the music, as it creates for me a feeling of warmth and energy, and watching the belly dancers while listening to Americanistan sparks a sense of the aforementioned synergy; a different culture (not just the music) is being performed for my pleasure.  The music enhances the dance, and the dance the music.  It may not be “authentic” in a pure Middle Eastern sense, but this is not a problem because Americanistan does not purport to be authentic, only in love with the music. 

As one very famous belly dancer named Delilah puts it,

They are Americans touched deeply with the Middle and Near Eastern folk music elements and atmosphere.  Many folks are these days.  [These] are all instruments being used in all sorts of fusion crossover music world wide because of its earthy, visceral, old world soul quality.  Americans are always, well, say it gingerly, American.  There is a trade mark ethnically born folks will have that make the music seem like a different animal altogether.  That does not diminish the American interest or contribution, it’s just different…I love the earthy visceral quality.  It brings neighbors together.  It’s important.

           

When I asked about responses from Middle Easterners, Naylor informed me that Americanistan received a kind letter from a Lebanese man commenting that Americanistan was playing from the heart and not the head, feeling rather than thinking.  In a sense, this is the ultimate compliment. Read more.

 

Americanistan: A Look at a Middle Eastern Belly Dance Band, pg. 2 

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